I had always thought that I would be able to tell the collapse in value of Saudi oil reserves by the number of private jets leaving Riyadh for Geneva and London. The big story for this week involves the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, assuring that my prediction would never come true. We also have a story about the soon-to-be outgoing governor of China’s central bank sounding a lot like Jim Chanos (a famous China bear) and of an Financial Times contributor who thinks China’s imminent collapse won’t be so bad after all. We round out the week with a story about apophenia which includes the most disturbing photo I’ve seen in some time.
Here is a curated list of important stories outside the main headlines that caught our attention this week.
What Saudi Arabia’s purge means for the Middle East (4-minute read; Washington Post). Over the weekend, Muhammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, shook the Middle East by purging and imprisoning powerful royal cousins (including one of the world’s richest men, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal – an interesting write-up is available from Bloomberg) and consolidating control of the Saudi National Guard under himself. The domestic purge was also accompanied by the cryptic resignation of a foreign head of state from Riyadh, and a missile attack on the Kingdom from neighboring Yemen. The speed at which the Crown Prince has moved to rewrite the story of the Kingdom has been breathtaking, and the potential for regional conflict has increased similarly rapidly. This article lays out an overview of what experts are saying about the young, brash prince. I hate to be a Cassandra about this, but these moves strike me as 1) worrisome and 2) indicative of a larger change coming. Oil has made the House of Saud fabulously wealthy, but if I am right that we are witnessing the twilight of oil, there are going to be some fierce fights to hold wealth and power among the thousands of princely families. We think the news coming out of Riyadh and Lebanon may signal that these fights are beginning.
China’s Central Bank Chief Warns of ‘Sudden, Contagious and Hazardous’ Financial Risks (3-minute read; Bloomberg). There have been a lot of China skeptics in the US hedge fund world, but one would not expect China’s central bank governor, Zhou Xiaochuan, to agree with them. It appears that he does. Zhou, who Bloomberg opines is likely to retire after 15 years in the job, recently published a book warning of zombie companies, overleverage, inefficient banks that are poorly regulated by global standards, and an economy that does not allocate productive resources effectively. Bloomberg posts a link to Zhou’s article on the Chinese central bank’s website, but I cannot get it to pull up. Hopefully, Zhou will not be writing his next book in the cell of a prison camp.
Does China’s new policy regime threaten the global upswing? (5-minute read; FT.com). It seems hard to believe now, but even as recently as January 2016, stock markets used to go down as well. The concern at the time was that stock market weakness in China had created destabilizing capital outflows that, combined with slowing Chinese demand for basic materials, would trigger a global recession. This commentator argues that China’s role in global growth is now relatively modest, so even a slow-down there – which the writer believes is likely now that the Party Congress is over and done with – will not precipitate wider economic problems. Europe is back on its feet again, as is the US, and both Brazil and Russia are pulling out of their respective steep declines.
A Sea of Data: Apophenia and Pattern (Mis-)Recognition (10-minute read. e-Flux.com). This is actually not directly investing-related, but discusses how military computers are trained to separate signal from noise when trying to spot terrorists or make sense of encrypted video files. It taught me a new word — Apophenia: The perception of patterns within random data. Apophenia is something that I talk about in the Framework 101 course on decision-making. In the investing world, apophenia is called by another name: Technical Analysis. In addition to being an interesting article that should make you think about how we decide which “bad guys” to send drones after, it contains the single most disturbing image I’ve seen in a while. The following is an image made by Google computers, whose programmers were teaching to dream — a process called “inceptionism.”