China

This photo taken on October 17, 2011 shows a worker monitoring the loading of containers on to a ship at the harbour in Qingdao, in northeast China's Shandong province (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

  © STR/AFP/Getty Images

China’s economic rebalancing has been the main downside risk to global economic activity in 2014, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. The industrial production figures for August were the weakest seen since the 2008-09 recession, and they were followed by a statement from finance minister Lou Jiwei to the effect that there would be no change in economic policy “in response to one indicator”.

This echoed Premier Li Keqiang’s recent speech at the summer Davos meetings, which indicated broad satisfaction with the overall thrust of policy. “Just like an arrow shot, there will be no turning back”, he promised.

The possibility of a clash between a slowing economy and a Chinese administration that appears implacably set on a pre-determined course was not what the markets wanted to hear. Many western investors have long been predicting a hard landing for China, and do not need much persuasion to believe that it is finally at hand. But recent data do not suggest that it is happening yet. Read more

There has been a significant weakening in China’s exchange rate in recent days. Although the spot rate against the dollar has moved by only about 1.3 per cent, this is actually a large move by the standards of this managed exchange rate. Furthermore, the move is in the opposite direction to the strengthening trend seen in the exchange rate over the past three years.

This has triggered some pain among investors holding long renminbi “carry” trades, along with much debate in the foreign exchange market about what the Chinese authorities are planning to do next. Since China does not explain its internal or external monetary policy in a transparent manner that is intelligible to outsiders, there is much scope for misunderstanding its true intentions. The key question is whether the Chinese authorities are changing their commitment to a strong exchange rate and, if so, why? Read more

Financial markets began 2014 in an ebullient mood. Omens of economic recovery in the developed world buoyed investors across the globe. Troubles in emerging markets, it was thought, would amount only to a handful of little local difficulties.
It did not last.
In developed markets, the past three weeks have seen the steepest falls in equity prices since mid-2013, when fears that the US Federal Reserve would begin phasing out its massive bond-buying programme caused interest rates to surge. This time, however, there has been no rise in short-term interest rates in the US or Europe, and bond yields have fallen slightly. There has been no change then in the market’s reading of the Fed or the European Central Bank’s policy stance.

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As we enter 2014, the five-year bull market in developed market equities remains in full swing. Recently, I argued that equities now look overvalued, but not egregiously so, and that the future of the bull market could depend on when the level of global GDP started to bump up against supply side constraints, forcing a genuine tightening in global monetary conditions.

Today, this blog offers a year end assessment of three crucial issues that relate to this: the supply side in the US; China’s attempt to control its credit bubble; and the ECB’s belief that there is no deflation threat in the euro area. At least one of these questions is likely to be the defining macro issue of 2014 and beyond. Read more

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. Read more

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 KeqiangRead more

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. Read more

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. Read more

Three large downside risks continue to undermine confidence in global asset markets: the eurozone crisis, fading growth in the US and a possible hard landing in China. Of these, the last is the hardest to read, because of doubts about the accuracy of economic data and the impenetrability of the true intentions of policy makers (at least to this outside observer). Nevertheless, investors are forced to come to a view on inflexions in the Chinese cycle, because global markets have become extremely sensitive to them.

The Chinese data for economic activity which were published last week seem consistent with a softish landing rather than anything worse. While there is no definitive evidence yet of a turning point in the cycle, downward momentum has abated. The authorities are once again relying on investment spending to dig the economy out of a hole. This should work in the period immediately ahead, but the longer term consequences could be less benign. Read more

With the Chinese economy seemingly in the midst of a fairly soft landing, global investors have not been paying much attention to China in recent months. However, all that will change as a result of the extremely weak Chinese activity data for April which were published last week. Asian equities and commodity prices have already fallen this quarter, and that will turn into a global problem if the April activity data are a harbinger of things to come.

The April data have not only shaken investors out of their earlier complacency, they have clearly affected policy makers too. The cut of 50 basis points in the banks’ reserve requirement ratio announced on Saturday suggests that the urgent need for a policy injection is at last being recognised. The question now is whether Chinese policy makers, in sharp contrast to their normally sure-footed behaviour,  have left it too late to stem the downward momentum in the economy, and especially in the property sector.  Read more