China Govt’s Next Moves Critical For World Economy

By John Richardson

CHINA’S decision yesterday to increase the amount banks must set aside as reserves and two interbank interest rate rises in the space of a week are designed to tighten monetary conditions as worries grow over overheating and inflation.

Lending reached Yuan 600bn ($88bn) in the first week of this year, not far short of the full-month average last year.

The New Year fresh-loans surge was noted by a Singapore-based source with a North American polyolefin producer earlier this week, when he commented that recent price rises were partly the result of “an even greater ability by traders to speculate”.

We pointed out last year that easy credit appeared to be enabling China’s many thousands of traders and distributors to buy, hold and sell stock – distorting the true demand picture.

This could have been a significant factor behind the big increases in polyolefin imports, despite an overall demand picture that should have been weaker when you took into account the decline in re-exports.

The credit surge has made it easier to trade not only in chemicals and polymers but also in other commodities, real estate and equities during a period when maximising Yuan revenue has been the focus – ahead of a possible revaluation of the currency at some point this year.

“There’s a lot of talk about hot money flowing in from overseas, but most of this is locally-held money being shifted from dollars into Yuan,” said a Shanghai-based US expat.

“Because bank deposit rates are negative in real terms and financial markets are undeveloped, the only ways to make money are in real estate, equities and commodities.”

And amazingly, we also discovered that the same trader can switch between chemicals, polymers, real estate and equities with such carefree abandon that the underlying motive for a purchase can be obscured.

Sometimes buying a chemicals cargo is all about getting the 90 days’ credit to gamble and make money somewhere else, for example, in the stock market. If the resulting profits are big enough a trader can be quite happy to dump a chemicals cargo at a loss.

The easy credit might well have also encouraged overproduction of finished goods with reports that textile mills were told to keep operating via soft loans in order to keep people in jobs.

True, growth in retail sales seemed spectacular. But a Singapore-based oil and gas consultant told me this today: “What’s going on? I still don’t get. Despite the record-high auto sales in China last year gasoline and diesel demand only increased slightly and so are a lot of new vehicles that have been recorded as sales actually sitting in showrooms somewhere?”

This would be consistent with the analysis of one of the China sceptics, Michael Pettis – and also the China Economic Quarterly which tends to take a more positive view.

Both told this blog last September that retail sales were a bad proxy for real consumption growth because China’s retail sales figures include government purchases and shipments to shopkeepers.

If the steps taken by the government to reduce credit are successful, chemicals demand will therefore go down as speculation abates and surplus industrial production is reduced.

But these measures might not be enough to take the air out of frighteningly big asset bubbles.

“The average real-estate price in Beijing is Yuan 20,000/sq metre. That is a 30% increase in one year,” said a Beijing-based chemicals consultant.

“But if you look at salaries, a fresh graduate gets Rmb2000-3000/month. This is causing a social problem. 

“Shenzhen (in southern China) has seen a 90% increase house prices.”

And the Shanghai- based US expat added: “It doesn’t feel right – it still feels like a bubble economy.

“I have an apartment on the outer ring road of Beijing which is 130 square metres and is right on the flight path from the airport and yet it’s more expensive than downtown loft apartments in many US cities.

“With property so expensive here average salaries are still only a quarter of US levels in major wealthy cities such as Shanghai, and even less elsewhere as you move further inland.

“A lot is made of the fact that the average price of an auto is only $17,000 here compared with $30,000 in the US, but direct comparisons are not valued because very cheap local cars – some of which might come with brakes as optional extras – drag the average price down. Foreign-branded autos in China cost 50% more than in the US.

“Gasoline prices are now only $3.71 a gallon as against $2.54 a gallon because of fuel-price liberalisation and there are other signs of inflation. This place is getting expensive.”

The danger is that if further measures are taken to deflate the economy, the end-result could be the same as in December 2007 – a housing slump with an overall severe economic decline.

Such is the delicate state of the world’s recovery with the rest of Asia increasingly dependent on trade with China (“the second decoupling”), that decisions taken in Beijing over the next few months are going to be of huge importance.

Or, perhaps, the momentum generated by policy steps already taken means that bubbles will keep on inflating and inflating – making the disaster, when it comes, of even greater magnitude 

As famous investor James Chanos, who is shorting China, is quoted as saying: “This could be “Dubai 1,000 times over”.

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