China Stock Tipping Point

We are perhaps witnessing the tipping point of massive disintermediation away from ownership in stocks of Chinese companies. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Tech Index was down 8% today and is down 26% YTD. China’s CSI 300 Index was down 3.5% today. I believe there are 3 reasons why we are seeing this sell-off in Chinese stocks, although all three really boil down to the fact that the Chinese are Communists. Let’s explore:

Hong Kong Hang Seng Index from

More Regulations

The main media narrative, as reflected in this Wall Street Journal article, is that today’s selloff is due to increased regulations on big high-tech companies recently issued by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP is growing wary of the increasing power of big high-tech companies in China, and so they are passing new laws to keep their power in check. As these companies have grown in status and have become more powerful, the CCP’s grip on its populace has become less powerful (sort of). New regulations as to how ride hailing company employees are to be treated (an issue also here in the US, by the way), as well as regulations on private tutoring companies have been unsettling, as was a short suspension of new users by WeChat.

No Audits

The new regulations by the CCP may be the narrative, but I believe there are deeper reasons why we are seeing this sell-off. One big reason is that, due to the backing of the CCP, Chinese “private” companies that are listed on American exchanges are not subject to the same audit standards as any other company that lists on American exchanges. DiDi Global, whose stock recently IPO’d here in the US, has gotten hammered because of the lack of audit standards. Referencing this article on, investors as well as US Government officials are ramping up demands that Chinese companies should be subject to the same audit standards as everyone else. Without a standard audit, how can an investor be sure that the financial results reported by Chinese companies are true? This is not a new issue, but investors now seem to be waking up to this issue even more, especially with the DiDi Global IPO and its negative performance since its IPO. By the way: US investment banks that have brought these Chinese companies to the US markets and have been paid handsomely for doing so have been complicit in this continued financial sham. I understand Caveat Emptor, but investment banks need to take a stronger stand on this issue.


The real tipping point issue I believe has been Coronavirus, and specifically China’s and the CCP’s uncertain role with its origin and spread, and their continued efforts to obfuscate. I believe Coronavirus is causing a macro change in the way China is viewed, from China: Good to China: Bad. As long as China continues to act like Communists with respect to the Coronavirus, I believe China’s reputation will continue to worsen, and investors will treat Chinese companies with an increased level of skepticism.


When asked how someone goes bankrupt, Ernest Hemingway famously said with his economy with words, “Two ways: gradually, then suddenly.” I think we may be at the point now when the sense of ethical bankruptcy of Chinese companies may be moving from gradual to sudden. Investors start to sell positions in Chinese companies, and very soon a trickle becomes a flood. There could be very significant ramifications to world financial markets if I am correct.

TIAA and Nuveen

There are so many options out there for investors and their accounts. How does one choose? An investor might choose where to open an account based on investment performance – this firm’s 5 year investment performance is the best of the lot, so I’ll open an account there. Other investors might open an account at a particular brokerage because they like the brokerage’s website. There might also be a recommendation from a friend or relative involved. All of these are valid ways to make that decision. However, should you take into consideration how a firm is organized, how it manages its profits and expenses, and how long it has represented a certain set of values within the investment world, you should consider opening an account with TIAA and/or with its subsidiary, Nuveen Funds.


Why do I suggest that? Because TIAA (which stands for the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America) has always been and still (kind of) is organized as a not-for-profit. Although it is technically not a not-for-profit today, TIAA does dividend all of its profits back to its account holders, in the mode of AAA and Costco. As its name suggests, TIAA was organized to help teachers and other public-sector workers with their finances, and though now anyone can open an account and/or buy an annuity or other insurance product from TIAA, its public sector accountholders remain at its core. Hand in hand with its not-for-profit mission is to keep expenses low. This goes for both its corporate expenses as well as for fees and expenses related to its investment products.

A major concern of retirees is having sufficient post-retirement income. Although I am not a proponent of annuities, they are good for those who risk averse and who want to be sure of their monthly income in retirement. To that end, TIAA has put an annuity calculator on the Home page of its website. Interest rates, and hence annuity returns, are low, but what’s unique about TIAA annuities is that they add TIAA corporate profits into the annuity payout, which means TIAA annuities can theoretically return a higher rate than comparable annuity products. If you are looking to purchase an annuity, I strongly consider looking at TIAA.


TIAA acquired Nuveen Funds during the 2008 Financial Crisis, and Nuveen is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of TIAA. Nuveen was formed as a municipal bond underwriter, but it is now a mutual and exchange-traded fund manager. Like its parent, Nuveen’s emphasis is on keeping expenses and accountholder fees low. Nuveen now emphasizes environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) investing, with several funds having that goal. Check out Nuveen’s website to see if they have a fund that fits your goals and needs. If you like the concept of TIAA but aren’t in the market for an insurance or an annuity product, then take a look at Nuveen.


Another good way to decide where to house a new brokerage account is to find a brokerage company whose stated values align with your own values. TIAA and Nuveen each have been catering to all clients, and especially to their public sector clients, in an empathetic way for over 100 years by operating as a not-for-profit, by keeping costs low, and by dividending any profits they do make back to their accountholders, while at the same time maintaining a high level of product offerings as well as customer service to their clients. Each has helped out its clients to reach their financial goals, and they can do the same for you as well or better than its brokerage brethren.

Option Premiums Are Too Low

I trade options, mostly options on financial indexes such as the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100. Option premiums, which is what you pay to buy an option or what you receive if you sell an option, have been declining this year. Said another way, I have to sell at a strike price closer to the trading price of the underlying index in order to generate the same covered call revenue that I was able to generate last year. I believe current options premiums do not represent the full level of risk inherent in our economy, and hence are too low. Read on to see why.

Function of Risk

There are a number of components to the value of an option premium, and among them are Risk, meaning the likelihood that the actual result will differ from the predicted result. When the perceived level of Risk is higher, option premiums will be higher, and vice versa. One measure of Risk in the investing markets is the VIX Index, which I have written about before. The VIX is currently at 16.64, which is very close to its low since the start of Covid during 1Q 2020. It is higher than the 13-ish handle it displayed during most of 2019, by about 28%. One might conclude that the VIX has mirrored Covid infections: a spike during early 2020 followed by a decline to current lower levels, with several bumps along the way. However, I believe this is a simplified reading that misses one key element: government debt.

Increased Debt

Where did the US Government get all of the money it used to pay out to citizens and small businesses as part of the Covid stimulus plan? It borrowed, massively. The US Federal budget deficit in 2020 was $3.1 Trillion, and is projected to be an additional $3 Trillion in 2021. (Source: Congressional Budget Office). That’s $6 + Trillion dollars of additional leverage pumped into our economy. The effect of leverage is that it magnifies any change in the growth or shrinkage of economic performance. If corporate earnings improve, the magnitude of the improvement is enhanced by the leverage, and vice versa.

I ask you: Do you believe an additional $6 Trillion in Federal leverage would tend to enhance or diminish any risks that actual corporate performance matches projected corporate performance? My money says that the leverage would enhance risks, by a significant amount, or much more than the 28% that the VIX is higher now than in 2019. I don’t know by how much, but 28% seems low.


My argument is not that you should buy VIX Index call options because I believe it will rise; nor is my argument that you should buy Index call options for the same reason. Moreover, I am not arguing the merits of the $6 Trillion expansion of the Federal budget deficit one way or another. My point is that all of this additional borrowing makes projected likely outcomes more risky, and significantly so. If all goes according to script, then no harm and no foul. But when has the economy ever followed a script? As much as a script plays a role, so does improvisation. Consequently, I believe that current option premiums do not fully represent the level of risk commensurate with the higher level of debt in the economy. Perhaps what we will see is a lower base level of the VIX and option premiums, such as we have now, with intermittent spikes to significantly higher levels as incongruent data is released, such that the average over a period of time is heightened. We have a much different economy now than we had before Covid and we should adapt our expectations as a result.

I hope you all are having a good Summer so far, as my family and I are!