Asia

Last week, the Chinese authorities created a stir when they announced that they are initiating an urgent review of outstanding debt for all of the various levels of the public sector in China, right down to individual villages. This raised market concerns, because one interpretation of this action is that the authorities may not have a handle on the amount of publicly-guaranteed debt in the economy, particularly in the local government sector, where the growth of debt has recently been extraordinarily rapid.

The authorities do not appear to have decided when (or whether) the results of this survey will be announced and of course there will be the usual suspicions that the eventual numbers will be massaged for public view. Until recently, it had generally been assumed by China watchers that, while the growth in private and corporate credit was running dangerously ahead of GDP growth, there was a major silver lining in the healthy financial condition of the government sector. 

The financial shock which has recently hit the emerging markets stemmed in part from a period of severe stress in the Chinese money markets, which has now been brought under control. But the challenges facing China are chronic, not acute. And since the country is much more than “first among equals” in the Brics, a prolonged slowdown in its economy would keep all emerging market assets under pressure for a long while.

Although China is probably not facing anything as dramatic as a “Lehman” moment, it will need to spend several years tackling the combination of excess credit and over-investment that has followed the Rmb4tn ($652bn) stimulus package of 2008. Hailed at the time as a masterstroke, the package has caused a hangover that has now been implicitly acknowledged by the new administration under reformist Premier Li Keqiang

The transfer of power in China from the outgoing regime led by Hu Jintao to the incoming leadership of Xi Jinping has occurred without a hitch. This is a mark of increased political maturity in China.

In fact, the handover has been described by Citigroup economists as the first complete and orderly transition of power in the 91-year history of the Chinese Communist party.

During President Hu’s decade, China’s real GDP per capita rose at 9.9 per cent per annum. China accounted for 24 per cent of the entire growth in the global economy, and Chinese annual consumption of many basic commodities now stands at about half of the world total. Perhaps the most important question in the world economy today is whether China’s economic miracle can continue in the decade of Xi Jinping. The IMF forecasts shown in the graph above suggest that the miracle will persist, but many western economists disagree. 

It is often claimed by economists that the central banks have run out ammunition to boost economic activity, but they certainly have not lost the ability to have an impact asset prices. Since the latest round of quantitative easing was signalled back in June (see this blog), global equity prices have risen by 14.5 per cent, and commodity prices are up by 15.4 per cent, despite the fact that economic activity data have shown no improvement whatever over this period.

Clearly, these impressive moves in asset prices have been triggered by a sharp decline in the disaster premia that were priced into markets only three months ago. Mario Draghi and Ben Bernanke have, in a sense, purchased global put options on risk assets, and have offered them without charge to the investing community.

By doing the market’s hedging for it, the central bankers have certainly had an impact. Confidence, while not fully restored, is much improved, which is exactly what was intended. But there is no sign yet from hard data that the downward slide in global GDP growth has been reversed. Until that happens, the market rally will remain on insecure foundations. 

Risk assets fell sharply in the month of September, with equities generally down by between 5 and 10 per cent, and commodities falling by even more than that. The best performing asset in the month was the US dollar effective rate, a clear symptom of the widespread flight to safety. The worst performers were equities in the BRICs, and cyclical commodities like copper. (See charts on asset performance here.)

What had appeared to be mainly a problem for European markets in August has therefore broadened considerably in the past few weeks. The financial markets have started to price in a global recession. They will be very sensitive to the next move in the economic data. So far, it is hard to tell whether a renewed recession has  been triggered, or whether the developed world has “only” become stuck in a period of prolonged stagnation. Either outcome would be bad enough for labour markets, and risk assets – but there would still be a large difference between them, which is why the question matters a lot.  

Although the US economy is no longer quite as dominant as it once was in the global economy, there is no sign that the Federal Reserve is losing its primacy among the major central banks – at least, not as far as the financial markets are concerned.