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Tycoon Running a Quarter of China’s Copper Trade Is on the Ropes

(Bloomberg) — From a start guarding trains full of metal from thieves on freezing winter nights, He Jinbi built a copper trading house so powerful that it handles one of every four tons imported into China.

A born trader with an infectious sense of humor, the 57-year-old grew Maike Metals International Ltd. through the rough-and-tumble rush for commodities in the early 2000s, to become a key conduit between China’s industrial heartlands and global merchants like Glencore Plc.

Now Maike is suffering a liquidity crisis, and He’s empire is under threat. The ripple effects could be felt across the world: the company handles a million tons a year — a quarter of China’s refined copper imports — making it the largest player in the most important global trade route for the metal, and a major trader on the London Metal Exchange.

With his wide network of contacts giving enviable insight into China’s factories and building sites, He has been a poster child for China’s commodity-fueled boom over two decades — making a fortune from its ravenous demand for raw materials and then plunging it into the red-hot property market.

But this year, Beijing’s restrictive Covid Zero policies have hit both the property market and the copper price hard. After months of rumors, He admitted publicly last month that Maike had asked for help to resolve liquidity issues.

He said the problems are temporary and affected only a small part of his business, but his trading counterparties and creditors are being cautious. Some Chinese domestic traders have suspended new deals, while one of the company’s longest-standing lenders, ICBC Standard Bank Plc, was concerned enough that it moved some copper out of China that had been backing its lending to Maike.

Even if it can secure support from the government and state banks, industry executives say Maike may struggle to maintain its dominant role in the Chinese copper market.

Much as He’s rise was a microcosm of China’s economic boom, his current woes may mark a turning point for commodity markets: the end of an era in which Chinese demand could only go up.

“In some ways Maike’s story is the story of modern China,” said David Lilley, who started dealing with Maike in the 1990s, first as a trader at MG Plc and later as co-founder of trading house and hedge fund Red Kite. “He has skillfully ridden the dynamics of the Chinese economy, but no one was prepared for the Covid lockdowns.”

This account of He’s rise to the pinnacle of China’s commodities industry is based on interviews with business associates, rivals and bankers, many of whom asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.

A spokesperson for Maike declined to comment on this story, but said in response to earlier questions from Bloomberg on Sept. 7: “Our company has been deeply involved in the development of the commodity industry for nearly 30 years. It had maintained a steady development as witnessed by everyone. It will soon resume normal operations and continue to contribute to the development of the industry and the local economy.”

Copper Boom

Born in 1964 in the Chinese province of Shaanxi, He’s first encounter with copper came when he got a job procuring industrial materials for a local firm. As a young man, he was paid to guard cargoes of copper in trains crisscrossing China — which could be a cold job on freezing winter nights.

In 1993, He and several friends established Maike in the western city of Xi’an, known as the capital of China’s first emperor and the location of the iconic Terracotta Army statues. The group took out a loan of 50,000 yuan (about $7,200) to buy and sell mechanical and electrical products. But He’s early encounter with copper had made an impact, and they quickly moved their focus to scrap metal, copper wire and refined copper.

With a personable nature, a broad grin and a light-hearted sense of humor, He was a natural commodity trader whose charisma would help him build a wide network of friends and business contacts.

As China’s economy liberalized, He used his connections to make Maike a middleman between big international traders and China’s burgeoning throng of copper consumers.

In the space of 15 years, China would go from consuming a tenth of the world’s copper supply to 50%, triggering a supercycle of skyrocketing prices for the metal which is used in electrical wires in everything from power cables to air-conditioning units.

Commodities Casino

This was a wild era when, for many, China’s commodity markets were little more than a casino. Groups of traders would team up to bet together, launching ambushes against their opponents on the other side of the market. The bravest players would be nicknamed after the martial art masters of popular novels.

While many traders came and went in these go-go years, He persisted.

“We did a huge amount of business together over twenty years,” said Lilley. “There were times when the Chinese metals trade was a real wild west and he stood out for his honorableness. He would always make good on his word.”

He also had another characteristic essential for a successful commodity trader: an appetite for risk.

His big break came in the early days of the supercycle. In May 2005, China’s metals industry gathered in Shanghai for the Shanghai Futures Exchange’s annual conference. Copper prices had risen sharply, and most of the producers, fabricators and traders in the audience thought they would soon fall. Even China’s mighty State Reserve Bureau had made bearish bets.

They were shocked to hear Barclays analyst Ingrid Sternby predict that copper would hit new highs as Chinese demand exceeded supply. But she was soon proved right, as prices more than doubled in the next 12 months. The SRB’s losses became a national scandal, and most Chinese traders missed the opportunity to cash in on the gains.

He was not among them. Paying close attention to demand from his network of Chinese consumers, he had built up a bullish position and profited handsomely from the global price surge.

It was a pattern he would successfully repeat many times over the years. His preferred strategy involved selling options — on the downside, at the price his Chinese customers were likely to see as a buying opportunity, and on the upside, at a price they were likely to consider too dear.

While he enjoyed some of the trappings of success, people who have known He for many years say he remained down-to-earth even as his net worth swelled to levels that probably made him, at his peak, a dollar billionaire.

In Shanghai, he would regularly have lunch at a restaurant serving cuisine from Xi’an, where he’d eat his favorite steamed cold noodles and fried leek dumplings for 50 yuan ($7).

Financial Flows

The evolution of He’s business mirrored the changes taking place in the Chinese business world. Although he had started simply as a distributor of physical copper, he soon pioneered the growing interconnections between the commodities business and financial markets in China.

As Maike grew to become the country’s top copper importer, He began to utilize the constant flow of metal to raise financing. He could ask for prepayments from his end customers, and also borrow against the increasingly large volumes of copper he was shipping and holding in warehouses. Over the years, the connection between copper and cash became well established, and the ebbs and flows of China’s credit cycle became a key driver of the global market.

He would use money raised from his copper business to speculate on the exchange or, increasingly, invest in China’s booming real estate sector. Starting in around 2011, He built hotels and business centers, and even his own warehouses in Shanghai’s bonded zone.

“In some ways Maike’s story is the story of modern China”

As the state became an ever more dominant force in China’s business world, He turned his focus to investing in his hometown, Xi’an, backing projects under Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

This year, however, He’s empire started to wobble.

The city of Xi’an faced a month-long lockdown in December and January, and further restrictions in April and July as Covid re-emerged, hurting He’s property investments. His hotels sat almost empty for months, and some commercial tenants simply stopped paying rent.

Maike was one of a number of companies that plunged their fortunes into the property market in the boom years, said Dong Hao, head of the Chaos Ternary Research Institute. “After the sharp turnaround in real estate last year, such companies have encountered various difficulties,” he said.

Nickel Squeeze

The Chinese economy’s wider malaise has also caused the copper price to slump, while at the same time Maike suffered the result of growing caution among banks toward the commodity sector in China. Trust in the industry was hurt by the historic nickel squeeze in March, as well as several scandals involving missing aluminum and copper ores.

In recent weeks, Maike began experiencing difficulties paying for its copper purchases, and several international companies — including BHP Group and Chile’s Codelco — paused sales to Maike and diverted cargoes.

The future is uncertain. He met a group of Chinese banks in late August at a crunch meeting organized by the local Shaanxi government. Maike later said that the banks had agreed to support it, including by offering extensions on existing loans.

But its trading activity has largely ground to a halt as other traders grow increasingly nervous about dealing with the company. And, in the wake of Maike’s troubles, some of the biggest banks in the sector are pulling back from financing metals in China more generally.

Within China, He’s woes elicit mixed emotions. Many mourn his situation as tragic for the Chinese commodities industry and emblematic of an economy increasingly dominated by state companies.

Others would be less sad to see the end of a business model that elevated copper to a financial asset and sometimes caused import margins to diverge from physical fundamentals.

“For many years, traders like Maike have been quite important in the importation of copper into China — they’ve bought very consistently to keep the flow of financing going,” said Simon Collins, the former head of metals trading at Trafigura Group and the CEO of digital trading platform TradeCloud. “With the property market like it is, I think the music could be stopping.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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Federal Reserve gets serious about ending the party in Q3, asset valuations fall

JimVallee

During the third quarter of 2022, the Federal Reserve jacked up its key policy rate by 150 points across two meetings, accounting for half of its rate hikes since it started tightening policy in March. That, and Fed officials’ insistence that they’ll keep rates higher for longer to beat down inflation, put a damper on asset prices.

Also not to be ignored, the Fed’s actions to shrink its balance ramped up during the quarter, reaching its full reduction rate in September. At its full pace, the central bank is letting $60B of Treasury securities and $35B of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities roll off its balance sheet, an action that reduces liquidity to the financial markets.

In response, investors realized during the quarter that the central bank is serious about removing the punch bowl to ratchet down the economy in an effort to reign in prices.

“Markets welcome the arrival of monetary injections from central banks very warmly; the departure of those injections and the reintroduction of liquidity withdrawals, however, are not warmly welcomed and are accompanied by volatility as market participants sweat while discovering true prices in less distorted markets,” said Interactive Brokers economist José Torres, in a note.

During that three-month period, the 10-year Treasury yield has increased by 93 basis points to 3.829% on the last session of the quarter. Last Wednesday it touched as high as 4.0%, its highest level since the global financial crisis of 2008. Remember, as bond yields rise, bond prices fall.

The bear rallies: Hopes earlier in the quarter that the bear market may have run its course were quashed, with the S&P 500 falling 6.3%, the Nasdaq composite slipping falling 5.0%, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average off 7.6%.

Bitcoin (BTC-USD), which has been generally tracking risk assets, only edged down ~0.2% for the quarter, and is still below the $20K mark at $19.4K, and less than a third of its $68.9K all-time high in November 2021. Ethereum (ETH-USD), which achieved its Merge event in mid-September, jumped 25% during Q3.

Commodities: The phenomenon of investors turning to gold during uncertain times didn’t hold in Q3. The continuous gold contract fell 7.7% during the quarter.

Copper contracts, which generally tracks investors’ expectations for the economy, also fell, dropping 7.9% during the quarter.

Crude oil, more tied to geopolitical events than the Fed’s policy, fell 25%, ending the quarter at ~$79.74 per barrel.

Real estate cooldown: After experiencing super-charged growth during the height of the pandemic, the real estate market cooled some in Q3 as tighter financial conditions pushed mortgage rates higher and forced some homebuyers to the sidelines. The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 6.70% for the week ended Sept. 29, up a full percentage point from 5.70% for the week ended June 30.

In August, the most recent data available, the median sale price of a new home fell to $436.8K from $439.4K in July. The median existing home sales price fell to $389.5K vs. $403.8K in July. The Real Estate Select Sector SPDR ETF (NYSEARCA:XLRE) sank 12% during the quarter.

But consumers are still spending as inflation rises, even on discretionary items. The Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR ETF (NYSEARCA:XLY) managed a 3.6% increase during Q3.

Technology stocks stayed weak during the quarter, as the Technology Select Sector SPDR ETF (NYSEARCA:XLK) slipped 6.6% during the quarter.

The mighty dollar: With the Fed’s aggressive rate hikes, the U.S. dollar surged as higher interest rates made investing in the U.S. more attractive. The U.S. Dollar Index climbed 6.7% to 112.17 during the quarter. While the strong dollar makes it less expensive for Americans to travel abroad, it makes U.S. export more expensive and increases the debt burden for emerging economies with U.S. dollar-denominated debt.

Looking ahead: Going into Q4, Interactive Brokers’ Torres expects inflation to stay hot, the U.S. labor market remains strong, and the Fed to hang tough. “This will cause economic conditions to continue slowing, bond yields to rise further, albeit they’re probably close to the top, and equities to reach new lows, although they’re probably close to the bottom,” he said.

Traders tilt toward the Fed raising its key rate by 125 basis points over the next two meetings, though many expect a 100 bp increase. CME FedWatch tool puts a 44.1% probability on the rate rising to 4.00%-4.25% and a 51.9% probability on a 4.25%-4.50%.

SA contributor John M. Mason says the Federal Reserve is doing what it promised to do, but be on the lookout for how long it stays on track.

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Toyota’s CEO cautions against electric vehicles hype, views them as just one option in his ‘department store’ of powertrains

Toyota Motor Corp. plans to keep gas-powered cars as a key part of its lineup, rejecting efforts by rivals to go fully electric amid concerns over how quickly consumers will embrace new technologies.

While the world’s largest automaker will introduce more electric vehicles in the coming years, it will also offer a range of other options, including gasoline-electric hybrids, hydrogen- and traditional fossil fuel-powered models, according to Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda, who met with reporters Thursday.

Battery-electric vehicles “are just going to take longer than the media would like us to believe,” Toyoda, grandson of the automaker’s founder, told dealers gathered in Las Vegas. He pledged to offer the “widest possible” array of powertrains to propel cars cleanly.

“That’s our strategy and we’re sticking to it,” he said.

Toyota’s stance reflects the numerous and sometimes conflicting considerations for automakers, which are seeking to boost sales, serve diverse customer bases and meet increasingly strict environmental standards in many countries. The decision contrasts with that of competitors such as General Motors Co., which has pledged to go all electric by 2035.

Environmentalists and shareholders have criticized Toyota for dragging its feet in embracing EVs, with Greenpeace putting the brand at the bottom of its ranking of global automakers’ decarbonization efforts. Critics have accused Toyota of clinging to its 25-year history with the gasoline-electric Prius hybrid, which once earned Toyota plaudits.

“The fact is: a hybrid today is not green technology,” Katherine Garcia, director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation For All campaign, wrote in a blog post last month. “The Prius hybrid runs on a pollution-emitting combustion engine found in any gas-powered car.”

Toyota’s electric vehicle pledge

The company last year pledged to spend 4 trillion yen, or $28 billion, to roll out 30 EVs by 2030. Still, that’s less than the $50 billion that Ford Motor Co. is spending to build EVs through 2026.

Despite the apparent disparity, Toyoda said his company already has been investing in battery-powered hybrids for more than two decades. He contends that makes Toyota the “top runner” in reducing carbon emissions from vehicles worldwide.

“Our investments may appear smaller than others’, but when you look at what Toyota has been doing over the last 20 years, the total amount might not necessarily be small,” Toyoda said.

The CEO said a lack of sufficient infrastructure will hold back EV adoption rates, which is a factor in its decision not to go all in on electricity.

“Toyota is a department store of all sorts of powertrains,” he said. “It’s not right for the department store to say, ‘This is the product you should buy.’”

Toyoda expressed skepticism that automakers will be able to achieve the California mandate that will effectively ban gasoline-fueled vehicles by 2035 and require a substantial portion of sales be EVs by 2030. New York said Thursday it would institute similar regulations.

“We have to look at the current price range and infrastructure availability and at what pace they’re going to be upgrading,” he said. “Realistically speaking, it seems rather difficult to achieve.”

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Tesla deliveries set a new record but missed forecasts in the third quarter

Tesla Inc. worldwide deliveries missed forecasts in the third quarter and the company warned of challenges in getting its cars to customers, suggesting that supply-chain snarls remain a blight.

It delivered a record 343,830 cars worldwide in the third quarter. Analysts had expected that nearly 358,000 vehicles would be shipped, based on the average of estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

“Historically, our delivery volumes have skewed towards the end of each quarter due to regional batch building of cars,” Austin, Texas-based Tesla said in a statement. “As our production volumes continue to grow, it is becoming increasingly challenging to secure vehicle transportation capacity and at a reasonable cost during these peak logistics weeks.”

Quarterly deliveries are among the most closely watched indicators for Tesla since they underpin the carmaker’s financial results. Though legacy automakers and new entrants alike are bringing more EVs to market, Tesla has led the charge for battery-powered cars since the first Model S sedans were delivered to customers a decade ago. 

Tesla had said that its delivery count is conservative and that final numbers could vary by 0.5% or more. The company produced 365,923 vehicles for the quarter. 

Tesla began shifting to a “more even regional mix” of vehicle production, leading to an increase of cars in transit during the end of the quarter. “These cars have been ordered and will be delivered to customers upon arrival at their destination,” the company said. 

The carmaker doesn’t break out sales by geography, but the U.S. and China are its largest markets and the overwhelming number of sales were of the Model 3 sedan and Y crossover. 

Tesla makes the Model S, X, 3 and Y models at its factory in Fremont, California. It makes the newer Model 3 and Y at the factory near Shanghai. Tesla recently began delivering Model Ys from its latest plants in Berlin and Austin. 

The delivery figures come on the heels of Tesla’s “AI Day” late Friday night, which was largely a recruiting event. Chief Executive Office Elon Musk showed off a prototype humanoid robot walking and waving its hand, seeking to demonstrate Tesla’s advances in artificial intelligence.

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