Big Trouble In Not So Little China...

Why hasn’t the panic of the recent decline followed by the government induced rally spilt over into other markets?  While there was obvious concern that answer is simple enough… The Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite index rose 150% for the 12 months through June 12th. The rally, however, wasn’t based on any material upswing in economic fundamentals. Instead, over much of this period, the economy slowed with both exports and domestic demand weakening as did corporate profits. Capital outflows increased and even with high trade surpluses, the balance of payments turned negative for two quarters. Importantly, the authorities continued to guide public expectations towards lower medium-term growth as they had done over the past two years.

 But after a very lackluster performance at best for the preceding four and half years, sometime at the start of 2H14, market sentiments changed. It is likely that talks of market liberalization, including an opening of the capital account, and in particular the authorities’ presumed intention to “rebalance” the economy’s portfolio from the excessive and worrisome dependence on bank credit to more equity and bond financing is likely to have been the catalyst.  

Starting last November, the PBOC also began cutting lending rates and bank reserve requirements. While the easing was intended to support growth and liquidity, which had dried up because of increased capital outflows, market participants took this as corroboration of the government’s intended “support” for equity market expansion.  

Talks of A-share’s inclusion in the MSCI index that could potentially bring in significant foreign inflows added to the froth and the rally accelerated. China’s onshore stock market has historically been thin on institutional participation with previous rallies largely driven by retail investors. Between 80% to 90% of the China’s market is dominated by retail investors, many of which subscribe to domestic investor newsletters that have been bullish on China’s push towards new tech IPOs. The all led to speculative excess in the ChiNext and Shenzhen exchanges primarily. Hundreds of new brokerage accounts were opened and amateur investors bought on margin. An estimated 4,000 new hedge funds were opened in China in one month, and China had over 200 companies list their shares for the first time, the most of any other country. Studies have shown that most of China’s day traders are working class investors that do not have a college education. They tend to treat stock investing like a day at the horse track.


This time it wasn’t different. For instance, during the past twelve months, the number of individual investor accounts rose from 93 million to 115 million in the Shanghai stock exchange, and rose from 113 million to 142 million in the Shenzhen stock exchange. 

Initially this correction was driven by high valuations, accelerated pace of IPOs, market fears that the monetary easing would slow down, and a tightening of rules on margin financing. Subsequently, the correction intensified as policy measures were seen as inadequate or ill-targeted. 

However this latest correction is not remarkable in the history of China’s stock market. There have been at least two previous cycles since 2000 where the price volatility has been much larger. The previous stock market volatility during 2006-08 was much more dramatic (up 450% between June 2005 and October 2007, and down 70% between October 2007 and October 2008). The impact on the real economy in these cycles was limited, including through wealth effects and contagion to other financial assets.

The development of new market instruments (futures & options), in particular the extensive use of margin financing, hints at potentially more extensive wealth destruction among household and corporate retail investors. For example, margin financing provided by brokerage firms rose from 0.4 trillion yuan in June 2014 to 2.3 trillion yuan at the recent peak level on June 18th (coming back down to about 1.4 trillion yuan by July 9). Compared to previous episodes of stock market correction, this time round there is greater concern over the potential spillover to the real economy, especially as the economy doesn’t have the buffer from strong export growth. China’s export growth has fallen to 0.6%oya during the first five months of this year, after continuously slowing in the past five years from the heady days of high double-digit growth before 2008. In the absence of the buffer from export growth, the burden of keeping up the pace of activity and income has fallen squarely on domestic drivers that could be adversely affected.

The government’s attempt to stem the free fall has involved a number of intrusive interventions in market operations .

• June 27th 2015: Interest rate and RRR cut (China Financials: Reinforcing the Policy Put vs Deleveraging) 

• June 29th 2015: pathways for national pension funds to invest in the equities market; 

• July 1st 2015: a) reduce transaction costs; b) CSRC abolished mandatory requirement on margin calls and liquidation for margin loans; c) broaden financing channels for brokers (China Securities: Policy makers roll out further “market-saving” measures) 

• July 4th 2015: a) 21 brokers pledged to buy blue chips stocks; b) suspending 28 IPOs; (China Securities: A pledge to "national service")

 • July 5th 2015: PBOC to provide liquidity support to CSFC to stabilize the market (More measures to support the A-share market: PBOC to provide liquidity support to CSFC) 

These interventions, along with the voluntary suspension of trading by 43% of the listed companies, do not help promote the orderly development of the equity and corporate bond markets. While these measures are likely to be short-lived and one expects them to be removed once the market stabilizes, the interventions could discourage foreign institutional participation. While the government has recently changed investment norms to encourage local pension and other long-term funds to invest in the stock market, an orderly growth of the equity market typically also requires foreign institutional participation to add depth and maturity as evidenced in other emerging market economies. In the absence of the equity market providing a reliable source of funding, the burden of financing China’s growth would again fall back on bank credit. The experience could also make the authorities more cautious in liberalizing the corporate bond market and outward capital account transactions.

The mainland Chinese stock market only recently opened to investors this year. A handful of qualified institutional investors have had access to that market for less than two years. It’s never been opened to the world.

The market is still immature and although the Chinese have an interventionist mind set, over here we have hardly set the greatest example..we stopped the shorting of stocks during the financial crisis; we bailed out AIG and engaged in massive quantitative easing which at best has altered the price discovery process and put the stock market at major risk on the longer term and although on the face of it they are doing similar actions there are stories of people being arrested or disappearing for minor infractions, brokerage houses that can do nothing but recommend buys….this is not the type of thing to encourage institutional investment. The whole idea of socialism with Chinese characteristics, which is the government mantra, is paradoxical. Chinese communism in charge of a very capitalistic economy has always been a bit mysterious, and something that those from capitalist countries have been puzzled by.


At first glance, it might appear strange to argue that even after a roughly $3.5 trillion loss of market capitalization, the wealth effect on consumption will be limited, but this is likely to be the case While retail participation had increased substantially in the rally, this had not translated into a consumption boom. In fact, retail sales growth slowed when the stock market was rallying. While increases in wealth may not have been immediately translated into higher consumption, the slide could sour consumer sentiment. Moreover, there could be threshold effects if the stock prices continue to downward trend.



The effect on commodity markets, cart or horse?


Much of the global commodity markets have for sometime now been weighed down by the slowdown in China’s growth. With commodities being  used as collateral for borrowing, it is worth noting that the The risk comes when prices fall by a large magnitude within a short time, driving down the value of the collateral.

WTI & Copper charts


With Hong Kong and Singapore’s ratio of bank credit to GDP close to multi-year highs, the risk is that a worsening of credit quality could further tighten credit conditions and dampen domestic demand. In the coming weeks While the Chinese stock market appears to have calmed down, this may not be the true reflection of market sentiments. 

People have been drawing similarities between US 1929-1935 and the Japanese lost decades, but there are  two things tip a country from recession into depression: too much debt, and the way dealing with that debt pushes down prices (i.e. deflation). In 1929 the US messed up by failing to counteract falling prices by freeing up money—in fact, it catastrophically raised interest rates in the immediate wake of the 1929 crash.

When deflation sets in, falling prices cause the relative cost of debt to rise. That sinks debtors in even deeper, and makes would-be borrowers unwilling to take out loans to build their businesses. As people desperately sell off assets to pay back what they owe, they drive prices down even further—exactly what happened in the Great Depression. Unemployment surged to a quarter. More than 5,000 banks failed, taking with them untold sums of household wealth. It wasn’t until 1939 that the US truly emerged from the Great Depression.Although Bureaucrats and bankers believed that with enough time and loose money, they could grow out from under the debt burden.


Japanese growth forecasts have been,shall we say.....poor.....


But Japan had too much debt for that approach to work. Loose money only went to keep broke companies alive—a phenomenon called “zombies”—instead of funding productive investment that might spur the economy. 

The lesson Japan failed to master is that too much debt makes it near-impossible to grow—and that the only way to get rid of that burden is therefore to recognize losses.

Whereas in the Great Depression, lots of companies and banks went bust, in 1990s Japan, hardly any did. America’s bankruptcy epidemic destroyed huge sums of wealth and, as a result, damaged the economy. But it also cleared away debt problems, preparing the country to borrow, invest, and grow again. While the Great Depression lasted just shy of a decade, Japan’s debt woes haunt it to this day, more than 25 years after its stock crash. Much of it’s simply shifted onto the Japanese government’s balance sheet. 


The threat of deflation still looms....


The growth-obsessed Chinese government is clearly going to do everything to prevent a Great Depression—which, at least in the short term, is good news for the global economy.

What’s worrisome, though, is the longer term. Along with the recent stock market bailout effort, aggressive credit loosening, revived infrastructure stimulus, and a steadfast refusal to let companies fail signals that the Chinese government is planning to grow out from under its $30-trillion debt burden. That suggests that China’s leaders are already busy repeating Japan’s mistakes.

commodity index

Bloomberg Commodity Index weekly chart

Back in 2007/2008, China’s A-shares were trading at 50 times forward earnings and fell 70% from the high and on these current levels the average forward P/E ratios stand at 48.46….the commodity markets are on multi year lows, Let this be a warning......




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