The China Effect

Today we present an abridged version of a new report examining China’s direct and indirect influences on global asset markets, and particularly equity, commodity and FX markets. The full version of the report is available to RGE Monitor premium subscribers. It takes a more in-depth look at Chinese commodity demand, the place of commodities within China’s foreign asset portfolio, as well as an update of our Chinese economic outlook. The full version also includes graphical analysis that should help readers parse recent trends in Chinese markets.  Enjoy the preview!

Chinese Equities

 

The Shanghai composite index has fallen almost 20% from its August 4 peak, putting it within the traditional definition of a bear market. Thus far this year, however, the index has risen over 50%, and it has surged even more since its low in late 2008. Yet Chinese equities remain vulnerable given the liquidity outlook and the challenges of using relatively blunt tools to guide asset markets.

Correlations between Chinese and global equities (especially emerging market equities) have increased since 2007. Economies most reliant on Chinese investment, or on the commodities consumed by China, tend to show the most significant correlations. Yet even the markets of Central and Eastern Europe have shown greater co-movements. While Mainland markets are dominated by domestic investors and foreign investment is heavily restricted, they have vaguely led global markets, being among the first to begin to fall from overheated heights in early 2008 and the first to climb in late 2008 following China’s stimulus announcement. China’s linkages with global markets, to the extent that they exist, seem more macro than financial. The same government policies designed to avoid bubbles and limit further misallocation of capital—including the slowing of credit extension currently underway—could not only restrain frothy Chinese equities, some investors worry, but also suggest that the Chinese and global recovery will be weaker.

Thus steps taken to ‘fine-tune’ Chinese monetary policy and cool overheating in some sectors of the economy, could contribute to more global market volatility. A burst Chinese bubble could reduce Chinese demand and prefigure poor performance in other markets as liquidity is withdrawn. While markets in the U.S. and Europe seem more likely to take their cues from local trends–particularly the corporate earnings and economic growth outlooks than Chinese markets, a slowdown in Chinese demand, could give pause. An increase in exports to China is among factors supporting European exports in Q2.

Chinese equities were looking very bubbly in July and early August, and in our most recent economic outlook, we highlighted developing asset bubbles in China’s property and equity markets as one of several potential risks of China’s stimulus. Chinese liquidity has begun to be less loose, even if it is not yet tight and inflows to Chinese equity markets have slowed from July onwards. Several trends which supported equity markets in H1 2009—record bank lending with few restrictions, the improvement in consumer confidence, the deferral of IPOs—are no longer supportive. Inflows to the Chinese equity market slowed in July 2009 as bank lending slowed and government regulators suggested a closer look would be taken at the allocation of funds. Meanwhile price/earnings ratios are no longer as cheap, having almost doubled from their late 2008 lows. Corporate earnings may stay weak given the difficulty in passing on higher production costs.  All of these factors suggest that Chinese equities might have farther to fall.

On the plus side, further correction might have only a limited effect on the Chinese economy, given lower wealth effects than in developed markets. Market capitalization is a much smaller share of GDP and equity investment is a much smaller share of savings. Sentiment is affected. New accounts opened by Chinese retail investors have fallen since their late July peak. The reluctance of retail investors to incur losses could contribute to a boom and bust cycle, negatively affecting Chinese and global asset markets.

Chinese Commodity Demand

Record commodity imports, particularly of metals, contributed to the commodity price climb in H1 2009 (pumped up by the ample liquidity from zero interest rate policies and quantitative easing). A sustained reduction in Chinese imports of commodities is perhaps the biggest risk to global commodity markets, particularly metals. In fact there is some preliminary evidence that the extensive stockpiling that contributed to the record volumes of commodity imports early in 2009 may be slowing as prices rise. The volume of imports of key metals like copper, tin and aluminum has slowed in either June or July 2009. While this reduction may reflect seasonal trends, with stockpiles filled and costs high, a further slowdown should not be ruled out.

Chinese imports of commodities, especially base metals, grew sharply in the first half of 2009 as China sought to restock depleted reserves and build up new stockpiles. Even the infrastructure-heavy stimulus likely absorbed only some of the imports, suggesting that China might be on the verge of a commodity glut  Further purchases, particularly later in Q2, may have extended beyond the official stockpiling to include investors who took physical delivery as a hedge.

Yet, not all of the increased demand is due to stockpiling. Metal processing has been a key part of China’s fiscal stimulus—with any excess production purchased by the government. There have been reports that some of the state metal and grain reserves became net sellers domestically, suggesting the pace of imports might slow. The Baltic Dry Index, a measure of shipping costs that reflects demand for bulk commodities, has fallen from its 2009 highs. Import volumes of several key metals fell in June and July 2009. Should they fall further, and should global stock piles grow, commodity prices could correct from their current levels.

Chinese commodity purchasers are in part price-sensitive. In 2008, Chinese producers made due with cheaper alternatives to expensive ores.  Purchases of scrap copper and aluminum rose in July 2009 even as the imports of higher-grade ore and materials fell. While the continued demand for scrap metal does suggest some underlying metal demand from Chinese consumers, they have their price.

Despite China’s role as the largest consumer of many commodities, it has has had limited success as a price setter despite its influence as one of the largest demanders of most commodities. Unwilling to accept the 33% negotiated by Japanese companies and their ore suppliers for bulk shipments, China held out for 40-50% reductions—a concession suppliers were reluctant to give. Only one—Fortescue, a relatively small producer, agreed to a 35% price cut.

Unlike metal ore imports, whose volumes have doubled and in some cases tripled from 2008 levels, oil imports have only recently topped 2008 levels. Chinese oil imports did report a sharp increase to 19 million tons in July, well above recent levels, perhaps due to demand from new refineries. Yet end user demand in China and globally has not climbed much even as supply has inched up again—OPEC members have been increasing production. Worse than expected macro news, meanwhile, would lik
ely contribute to a correction, to the $50 range more in line with supply/demand fundamentals.

Yet, liquid financial conditions and the improving  “less bad” macro climate may keep commodity prices in their current US$ 70 range, despite weak demand and an increase in storage Should oil prices keep climbing, they could put a damper on the economic recovery and on the revival of energy demand. Yet over the next few years, supply constraints supply, limited investment and high production costs for the new supplies that are entering the market could keep prices elevated and a damper on global growth, especially among the oil importers like China, India and the U.S.