According to a recent article on Reuters, on Saturday Lou Jiwei, the chairman of the CIC, China’s sovereign wealth fund, said at a conference on Saturday in response to a question about his expected performance: “It will not be too bad this year. Both China and America are addressing bubbles by creating more bubbles and we’re just taking advantage of that. So we can’t lose.”In my last entry I noted that after the recent “green shoots” period, during time which it seemed hard to find anyone who was skeptical of our seeming ability to turn the corner on the crisis without actually having addressed any of the underlying imbalances, it was good to see that more and more analysts, and especially policymakers, had begun to worry again. President Hoover went down in a blaze with his “light at the end of the tunnel”, and of course one of my favorite stories of that time is his response in June 1930 to a delegation requesting a public works program to help speed the recovery: “Gentleman, you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over.”
As I see it the more policymakers worry, the better. This crisis is far from over. Until we know how the continued adjustment in US household consumption and debt will evolve, and how this adjustment will play out in China’s own changing consumption rate – most importantly whether it will complement the fiscal and credit expansion embarked upon by Beijing or, as I believe, conflict enormously with it – the crisis won’t be over. We need policymakers to resist the green-shoots nonsense and to worry about what happens when fiscal, monetary and credit tools stop working.
Although I thoroughly disagree with the “So we can’t lose” part of Mr. Lou’s statement – I have been a trader for too long to hear those words with anything but the deepest dread, and I am sure he didn’t intend the way it read – it is nonetheless interesting to me that by now skepticism is so widespread that a major investor can even propose our inability to work through the imbalances as a reasonable investment strategy.
We need skepticism. For one thing it has caused Beijing increasing worry about the risks of continuing to extend the stimulus package, to the point where they are now making serious noises about cutting back. My biweekly column in today’s South China Morning Post argues that in spite of the damage this has done to the stock market, it is undoubtedly a good thing that they are thinking about cutting back.
But it won’t be easy, and I suspect that already the effect of rumors about slowing the fiscal expansion is strengthening the hands of those who want to stomp again on the gas pedal. For example the stock market was down 6.7% today, bringing its total decline since August 4 to 23.3%. Even my genius PKU student Gao Ming, who has so far ridden this chaos pretty well, admitted to me today that it was not a good day for him.
Why did the market collapse? Forget about fundamentals. As I have argued many times before, China lacks the necessary tools that fundamental investors use (e.g. good macro data, good financial statements, a clear corporate governance framework, a stable regulatory environment, a market discount rate) and so no matter what people say, there are no fundamental investing here. There is only speculation, and the two things above all that drive the markets are those old speculator favorites, changes in underlying liquidity and government signaling.
The whole market is worried about both, and the most important is concern that the days of explosive bank credit growth are behind us. On Friday, for example, Bloomberg reported that:
Today the mainland newspapers were even more worrying. Several reported that new loans in August would be just RMB 300 billion, after last months’ new loan total of RMB 356 billion, and RMB 1,231 billion on average during the previous six months.
RMB 300 billion is nothing to sneeze at, especially since that probably nets out a lot of bills coming due – so that new medium-and long-term investment is likely to be substantially higher. It is also worth remembering that August is normally a bad month for new lending – last year net new loans were only RMB 272 billion.
Still, after the deluge of new lending for the first half of the year, it clearly represents a significant contraction in the rate of credit expansion, and if you believe, as I do, that China’s “impressive” growth rate this year is actually a very disappointing consequence of a huge fiscal and credit stimulus, any indication that the stimulus will slow down cannot be good for sentiment.
I wonder, and I know I am not the only one wondering, what Zhongnanhai is thinking as it sees the impact of these rumors of a contraction in the furious rate of credit expansion. For one thing it seems that there are only two positions on the switch – “surge” and “swoon” – and I suspect that very quickly we will see the switch turned back to “surge”. Although there seems to have been a little upward blip in US import numbers, I think this represents more of a temporary bounce from a steep earlier decline, and that the external environment continues to be very poor.
My guess is that if the local stock markets do not soon recover their bounce (and they won’t without government help) and, even worse, if we start to see the awful sentiment seep into the real estate sector, Beijing will once again push forcefully for credit and fiscal expansion. In my opinion there is simply no way that domestic consumption – unless it is primed with government giveaways – can make up the slack quickly enough.
Speaking of which I saw an interesting article in today’s People’s Daily. On the one hand it seems positive for an eventual generational-inspired rise in consumption, and on the other hand it seems negative about structural impediments: