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Another Asian Financial Bust?

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Globalism changed the economic order of things.

Most relate globalism to free trade. However, the greater effects of globalism can come via the opening of capital flows among countries — both when capital surges in and when it surges out. This is now the case for a large number of developing countries.

You might ask why countries would be inclined to block foreign capital inflows given that they finance investment, pump up financial prices, and generate wealth. That was understood by most, except for a few socialist countries not wanting to be tainted by capitalism despite its benefits.

However, the bigger pre-globalism propensity was to restrain capital outflows. And ironically, without the ability to exit, few foreign investors were willing to enter with their capital in the first place. Globalism changed that by causing countries to relax constraints on capital outflows. Predictably, foreign investors themselves relaxed and enjoyed the greater returns available in faster growing, smaller economies.

So the elimination of capital outflow barriers increased the tendency of foreign investors to partake in offshore speculation, with the biggest beneficiaries being the developing countries.

Foreign capital freed these countries from dependence on local savings and local banks to finance investment. And when foreign capital flowed in, it financed investment in plant and equipment for manufacturing that was leveraging low-cost labor, especially China. Foreign capital also financed office developments, infrastructure, and residential condos making the skylines of places like Panama City look like this.

Foreign capital provides jobs and income, but it becomes problematic because it is seldom applied at a steady and measured pace in proportion to the opportunities. During the Great Recession, the Fed’s QE provided investors with a large liquidity pool disproportionate to the onshore investment opportunities, so a good deal of that liquidity gushed into off-shore investment.

And much of that went to the commodity and energy industries, which, at the time, were supply-constrained and expensive. These include Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa, Chile, and Peru among others, as well as some developed country plays in Australia, West Texas, and Canada.

In investment booms fed by outside (and not very discerning) capital, animal spirit-driven developers keep on borrowing and building to be absorbed by the market before their competitors, and the unrestrained booms that follow result in over-building, excess production, inventory build-ups and, in turn, soft prices, debt defaults, eventual bankruptcies, and penny stocks.

That much is true for any domestic boom and bust, but now there is a foreign twist when the projects are debt-financed from offshore sources that typically require repayment in US dollars.

Hence, foreign-financed investment has a built-in currency crisis in the making when settlement takes place because it drives the price of the US dollar upward and the local currency downward. Predictably, it comes at a time when the boom is over-built, leaving investors scrambling to generate revenue, and commodities continue to be sold at very low prices in order to cover the rising cost of dollar-debt repayment.

There is a rush to extinguish dollar debt before a property is lost to foreclosure, which, in turn, leads to major multiple market reactions – all downward. The selling of commodities at ultra-low prices creates an adverse currency movement for the affected country. For example, see the correlation (below) of the declining price of copper relative to Peru’s Sol and Iron Ore relative to the Australian Dollar.

This strong currency decline then causes unrelated companies, individuals, and even governments to sell most anything denominated in local currency and use the proceeds to purchase US dollar-denominated assets. The debt repayment wave deteriorates into a generalized capital flight and a currency collapse for the involved country.

Basically, the bright shining buildings shown above are still standing and shining, but in the economic and financial dimensions, all prices are falling down.

This is the basic scenario that followed the early days of globalism in which there was an over-build of manufacturing capability in the cheap labor countries of Asia in the 1990s. The consequence was a bust phase known as the Asian financial crisis that unfolded in 1997. The return of capital to the lender that spilled over to most emerging nations was therefore known as the “Asian contagion.”

What occurred were falling prices of everything: over-built goods, currencies, physical capital assets, as well as the financial claims to these assets.

This scenario is being repeated today in the great commodity boom of the last few years. Not only are the commodity prices falling but so, too, are the foreign currencies and foreign and domestic stocks and bonds that have financed the commodity boom. This also affects those financial entities that hold claims to commodity-related securities in their portfolios.

As a result, oil, coal, copper, and iron ore all are selling in the area of 70% less than when the facilities were built only two years ago. The price bust, the currency bust, the financial price bust, and the capital goods bust are in a grand, coordinated bust.

The bust phase includes China’s over-expanded manufacturing sector that gave rise to the commodity boom in the first place.

Meanwhile, the question becomes: Can the US economy continue to grow in the face of this?

There are adverse implications for US companies attempting to export goods (in the face of a relatively expensive dollar) to a developing world in recession. The foreign sales and earnings of these companies are being hurt, and that hurt is being registered in the US equity market. But meanwhile, American companies and consumers are benefiting from the cheaper import and energy cost savings. Indeed, the service sector is holding up the US economy.

When the dust settles, US companies will leverage the cheap prices of foreign-made goods and increase their profit margins. Indeed, Dell Computer back in the late 1990s became a break-out company that benefited enormously from the first Asian Contagion because it was outsourcing production to the countries whose currency was most affected.

Distressed prices of foreign currencies and assets will become a high return opportunity for the US dollar investor willing to patiently wait it out.

Subsequently, one must keep an eye on commodity inventories. When inventories start to work their way down, there is a bottoming-out of commodity prices, which, in this slow growth environment, could take some time. This will likely be measured in years, but no doubt its day will come.

The reversal of cheap currency in the EMs will set a bottom and bring capital back to those countries with a rush. At that time, all the prices that have fallen together will all rise in unison.

So it seems that two decades into globalism, we are finding that global capital flows — first gushing in and then gushing out of relatively smaller countries — add a new dimension of volatility to financial markets with a foreign currency twist. These are relatively long cycles, so investors must be patient. In the meantime, producers in developed countries will benefit from rising profit margins thanks to cheap foreign outsources.

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About the Author

This article was written by Lew Spellman of Texas Enterprise. Lew is a Professor, Department of Finance of the McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin. Texas Enterprise is an organisation created to share the business and public policy knowledge created at The University of Texas at Austin with Texas and with the world. see more.

Callum Connects

Benedict Heng, Founder of Mr. Farmer

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Benedict Heng is bringing back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your story?
I’m Ben from Mr. Farmer. Mr. Farmer is an online grocer dedicated to supplying the freshest produce to our customers. We believe in sustainable and ethical farming. Since a young age, I have always been an avid food lover (especially meats), developing a strong interest in all things delicious. That is why I ventured into the F&B industry, working as a junior cook for 3 years.

Midway through my career, I made a move to the finance industry to pursue monetary rewards. I dove into high-risk investments and I made lots of money from these investments. However, the good fortune did not last long and all these came crashing down when I suffered a tremendous loss. This coincided with the time that I had just started my own family and it was a huge blow to me both materially and mentally. It was this crash that made me realize that this life wasn’t for me. I went on a hiatus and eventually, it was only through the strong support from my family that I managed to tide over this tough episode.

I went back to help the family business and this was how Mr Farmer came about. My family has been in the food industry for many decades and one thing they noticed from years of experience is that sustainable farming practices are not as developed as in Europe. This is why through Mr Farmer, we hope that we can provide the best quality products to families out there who want the best ingredients for their loved ones.

What excites you most about your industry?
Delicious and wholesome food excites me. I believe food is a critical component of life and it brings people together. The opportunity to serve the community with fresh produce for a healthy life, that brings me joy.

I feel that there is still so much more we can do to improve the quality of food and bring it to the masses. One of the key components of ensuring greater quality of food is to support ethical and sustainable farming. Due to commercialization and urbanization, most farming practices these days are no longer the way they were in the old “kampong” times. Shortcuts are taken, standards are compromised, all in the name of profit. At Mr. Farmer, profit is important too but we want to focus on the concept of One Welfare – sustainable farming directly impacts our health. Our vision is to bring back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore. I call Singapore my home as it’s where my family and close friends are. I also travel frequently to Malaysia and APAC for work.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
It’s definitely Singapore. There is just so much this tiny city can offer! Singapore has been globally recognized for its top-notch business environment providing its residents with developed infrastructure, political stability and excellent connectivity. These factors have given us an outstanding support system for businesses to strive.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Surround yourself with people that inspire you, challenge you to rise higher, make you better and, keep them in your life.

Who inspires you?
I draw inspiration from my uncle, who is the head of both the family and business. He takes care of our family matters at home and manages hundreds of employees at work. Handling both the family and business side of things can be tricky, but he has shown me that success can be sustainable and done with a conscience. His guiding philosophy of handling business and family is simply, to have a big heart.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Even just one day of separation from the day the meat is slaughtered, makes a world of difference to its flavour.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I have come to learn that awareness is the beginning of everything. If I had my time again, I would have probably spent more time figuring out who I truly am and with that self-awareness, begun to lead my life with more purpose and meaning.

How do you unwind?
I like to spend my free time sipping white coffee at my favourite coffee place. I enjoy taking in the surrounding sights and letting my mind wander freely. It allows me to unwind and gain clarity at the same time. It also helps me organize my thoughts to prepare for the week ahead.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
It would be Bangkok as the people there are genuinely friendly and hospitable. They say people are what defines the city and I couldn’t agree more with this. I also enjoy the ‘laid back’ vibe of Bangkok. Not to mention Bangkok has all the good food and awesome shopping choices too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Spin selling” by Neil Reckham. It’s an amazing book that teaches you a process designed to help you successfully sell your products and services to business buyers.

Shameless plug for your business:
We at Mr. Farmer have the best tasting meats in Singapore, do a blind test and you will know why it’s Michelin chefs’ preferred choice. Not only are we very confident about the taste, we are also proud to say that all our products are chemical, hormone and antibiotic free. We also focus a lot on supporting ethical and sustainable farming practices believing in the ‘One Welfare’ concept. Do check us out if you enjoy good quality food like us!

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Zac Chua, Founder & CEO of The Kettle Gourmet

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Zac Chua’s popcorn business validated itself straight away and fast tracked him to the startup world. Zac now employs 11 people and shifts 500 bags of popcorn daily.

What’s your story?
It’s a crazy one. It was an accidental startup. If you think about it, no university graduate would ever dream of becoming a popcorn seller. We crashed our first tech event to validate our idea and it took off from there. I bought a logo for $7 from a designers marketplace, printed some cheap name cards, and built a 1 page landing page. Sales started pouring in and eventually, we were serving B2B clients (corporate pantries) and we have never looked back. Today we move about 500 bags daily, we have 11 employees and we are growing. Talk about a validation that worked in our favour.

What excites you most about your industry?
It’s food! Everybody loves food! In Singapore the F&B scene is brutally competitive and it spurs me on to fight and compete for market share and to prove to myself that I can do it. It keeps me going and I won’t stop until we become the market leader.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Singapore, and have traveled to most of Southeast Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore! Even though Singapore has a high cost of living, the Government is actually very supportive of startups. They provide grants for us to tap into, and the technological infrastructure makes it possible for us to compete on a global scale. I believe if you can succeed in your business in Singapore, you can succeed in most of Southeast Asia.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
You only need to be right once, and the rest is history.

Who inspires you?
My father, who was a VC. In fact he was the one who gave me the best piece of advice which I shared above. Having one successful exit, he showed me that it’s okay to fail a million times – all it takes is just one time for you to win in business and in life.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The power of compounding.

  • Mary and John are the same age.
  • Mary saves $2k annually from the age of 19-25 – so she puts $14k into her portfolio
  • John saves $2k annually from the age of 26-65 – so he puts $80k into his portfolio, but 7 years after Mary.
  • If both are able to generate 10% per annum, who would have more at age 65?
  • John of course! But how much more?
  • Mary will have $944,641 whilst John will have $973,704
  • Think about it! Mary puts in only $14k but John delays for 7 years and puts in $80k.

CRAZY RIGHT!?!?

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing, my mistakes taught me how to become a better me. But if I really must choose, I’d say take more time to find the right business partner.

How do you unwind?
Poker, Mahjong and Dota 2.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Vietnam! Things are cheap, people are warm and friendly, and their coffee fills up my life. I would love to retire there if possible.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The richest man in Babylon

Shameless plug for your business:
We don’t need a plug. Just try our competitors and you’ll understand why!

How can people connect with you?
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chuazongyou
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/zacchua

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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