What Chinese Money Buys: Gold Goes Green

U.S. banks are going bad as quickly as a bunch of over-ripe peaches in the summer heat. On the heels of the Colonial Bank failure comes another sizable bank failure.

Guaranty Bank in Texas became the 81st U.S. bank to fail this year. It was the 11th largest bank failure in U.S. history. This kind of thing is becoming so regular it is hardly news when it happens.

But what’s interesting to point out about this one is that the FDIC sold Guaranty to Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria of Spain. This is the first time regulators have sold a failed bank to a foreign lender. Such a turn of events would have been unthinkable only a decade ago.

So the world turns. When it comes to the question of who has the money, it’s often a non-U.S. buyer these days.

Speaking of foreign buyers, there is probably no group of buyers more watched and coveted than Chinese consumers. Recently, the Financial Times had a piece that highlights things the Chinese like to buy.

This is important because the Chinese are becoming increasingly affluent in large numbers. Total consumer spending was $1.7 trillion in 2007, compared to $12 trillion in the U.S. But that number is growing rapidly. The FT focused on the new rich. China now boasts more millionaires than the U.K. The rapid growth of this group has companies all over the world spending more money and time figuring out ways to get in their pockets.

So what do the affluent Chinese like? Outside of ordinary things like flashy cars and booze and quirky things like ivory and dried seahorses, one thing was mentioned in the FT piece that caught my eye: The Chinese love gold.

“China loves gold in all its forms,” the FT reports, “as a reserve currency, jewelry, an investment.” I’ve mentioned in the past about how the Chinese central bank doubled its holdings of gold this year, but it’s more widespread than that.

The rising middle class in China also buys a lot of gold. Since 2007, Chinese consumers have been the second largest purchasers of gold jewelry in the world, behind only India. The FT points out those gold sales were up 28% year over year in May. Total gold demand for the year was up 21%, to 400 million tonnes. There are not too many sales of any kind going up that much in this financial crisis, but there it is.

The financial crisis and weak stock market have helped gold as people look for a place to park some money. I think gold will remain a good place to be for some time yet. And gold stocks have the stars lined up for them. Many are reporting falling cash costs, yet the price of gold is staying up here in the $900s — and is likely headed much higher. That means gold stocks are reporting good increases in cash flow, among the few sectors to do so.

The Growth Is Overseas

As to the larger picture, I think trends in overseas markets should continue to be a focus, and I will keep on an eye on them. The U.S consumer is pretty well tapped out, finally. The growth is overseas.

Over the weekend, Barron’s featured a worthwhile interview with Chris Wood, the Hong Kong-based strategist for CLSA’s Asia-Pacific group. He’s been on top of some of the bigger-picture developments in Asia for years — sniffing out trouble in Thailand before the Asian crisis in 1997, for instance, and, more recently, giving early warning calls on the global troubles that would emerge after the U.S. mortgage market imploded.

What’s Wood’s take today? “The financial crisis in the Western world will lead to a long period of anemic growth,” he says. “From a global investor’s standpoint, Asia and the emerging markets stand out as a place to invest.”

When you look at some of the data rolling in, it is hard not to see it. For instance, earlier this year, oil consumption in the developing countries passed the top 30 (OECD) countries for the first time. There are now more cars sold on a monthly basis in the top 16 emerging markets than there are in the U.S., Japan and the EU combined.

More opportunities will emerge, as many of these markets are only in the early innings of the most commodity-intensive part of their development. As a result, we’ll see a lot more power plants, water treatment plants and the like built over time. Then there are the agricultural needs, not only to support population growth, but to support the boost in biofuels.

Biofuel Boom

Steven Johnston at AgCapita, a firm dedicated to investing in agriculture, put together a worthwhile newsletter. In the latest update, the group shows how biofuel production is on the rise:

This trend will surely continue, as most of the oil-producing countries have in place biofuel targets whereby they mandate that a certain amount of fuel must be biofuel. AgCapita’s own research indicated that the biofuel targets in the U.S., the EU, Canada, Japan, Brazil, India and China alone could require the use of over 400 million acres of arable land, or over 10% of the world’s total. This is in direct competition with food production and should have a significant effect on crop prices.

What a lot of people overlook is just how fertilizer-, water- and energy-intensive these biofuels are. So agriculture remains another attractive market to invest in right now in what otherwise looks like a time of tepid growth. That means opportunities in fertilizer stocks, grain handlers, farm equipment and farmland.

Have a good week, and I’ll write you again soon.

Chris Mayer

September 2, 2009