Russell Lee Hollywood, California. Used car lot. 1942
Look, it’s very clear where I stand on China; I’ve written a lot about it. And not just recently. Nicole Foss, who fully shares my views on the topic, reminded me the other day of a piece I wrote in July 2012, named Meet China’s New Leader : Pon Zi. China has been a giant lying debt bubble for years. Much if not most of its growth ‘miracle’ was nothing but a huge credit expansion, with an outsize role for the shadow banking system.
A lot of this has remained underreported in western media, probably because its reporters were afraid, for one reason or another, to shatter the global illusion that the western financial fiasco could be saved from utter mayhem by a country producing largely trinkets. Even today I read a Bloomberg article that claims China’s Q1 GDP growth was 7%. You’re not helping, boys, other than to keep a dream alive that has long been exposed as false.
China’s stock markets have a long way to fall further yet. This little graph from the FT shows why. The Shanghai Composite closed down another 1.27% today at 2,927.29 points. If it ‘only’ returns to its -early- 2014 levels, it has another 30% or so to go to the downside. If inflation correction is applied, it may fall to 1,000 points, for a 60% or so ‘correction’. If we move back 10 or 20 years, well, you get the picture.
That is a bursting bubble. Not terribly unique or mind-blowing, bubbles always burst. However, in this instance, the entire world will be swept out to sea with it. More money-printing, even if Beijing would attempt it, no longer does any good, because the Politburo and central bank aura’s of infallibility and omnipotence have been pierced and debunked. Yesterday’s cuts in interest rates and reserve requirement ratios (RRR) are equally useless, if not worse, if only because while they may provide a short term additional illusion, they also spell loud and clear that the leadership admits its previous measures have been failures. Emperor perhaps, but no clothes.
Every additional measure after this, and there will be many, will take off more of the power veneer Xi and Li have been ‘decorated’ with. Zero Hedge last night quoted SocGen on the precisely this topic: how Beijing painted itself into a corner on the RRR issue, while simultaneously spending fortunes in foreign reserves.
[..] how does one reconcile China’s reported detachment from manipulating the stock market having failed to prop it up with the interest rate cut announcement this morning. The missing piece to the puzzle came from a report by SocGen’s Wai Yao, who first summarized the total liquidity addition impact from today’s rate hike as follows “the total amount of liquidity injected will be close to CNY700bn, or $106bn based on today’s onshore exchange rate.” And then she explained just why the PBOC was desperate to unlock this amount of liquidity: it had nothing to do with either the stock market, nor the economy, and everything to do with the PBOC’s decision from two weeks ago to devalue the Yuan. To wit:
In perspective, the PBoC may have sold more official FX reserves than this amount since the currency regime change on 11 August.
Said otherwise, SocGen is suggesting that China has sold $106 billion in Treasurys in the past 2 weeks! And there is the punchline. It explains why the PBOC did not cut rates over the weekend as everyone expected, which resulted in a combined 16% market rout on Monday and Tuesday – after all, the PBOC understands very well what the trade off to waiting was, and it still delayed until today by which point the carnage in local stocks was too much. Great enough in fact for China to not have eased if stabilizing the market was not a key consideration.
In other words, today’s RRR cut has little to do with net easing considerations, with the market, or the economy, and everything to do with a China which is suddenly dumping a record amount of reserves as it scrambles to stabilize the Yuan, only this time in the open market!
The battle to stabilise the currency has had a significant tightening effect on domestic liquidity conditions. If the PBoC wants to stabilise currency expectations for good, there are only two ways to achieve this: complete FX flexibility or zero FX flexibility. At present, the latter is also increasingly unviable, since the capital account is much more open. Therefore, the PBoC has merely to keep selling FX reserves until it lets go.
And since it can’t let go now that it has started off on this path, or rather it can but only if it pulls a Swiss National Bank and admit FX intervention defeat, the one place where the PBOC can find the required funding to continue the FX war is via such moves as RRR cuts.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, too, touches on the subject of China’s free-falling foreign reserves.
The great unknown is exactly how much money has been leaving the country since the PBOC stunned markets by ditching its dollar exchange peg on August 11, and in doing so set off a global crash. Some reports suggest that the PBOC has already burned through $200bn in reserves since then. If so, this would require a much bigger cut in the RRR just to maintain a neutral setting. Wei Yao said the strategy of the Chinese authorities is unworkable in the long run.
If they keep trying to defend the exchange rate, they will continue to bleed reserves and will have to keep cutting the RRR in lockstep just to prevent further tightening. They may let the currency go, but that too is potentially dangerous. She said China can use up another $900bn before hitting safe limits under the IMF’s standard metric for developing states.
“The PBOC’s war chest is sizeable, but not unlimited. It is not a good idea to keep at this battle of currency stabilisation for too long,” she said. Citigroup has also warned that China’s reserves – still the world’s largest at $3.65 trillion but falling fast – are not as overwhelming as they appear, given the levels of short-term external debt. The border line would be $2.6 trillion. “There are reasons to question the robustness of China’s reserves adequacy. By emerging market standards China’s reserves adequacy is low: only South Africa, Czech Republic and Turkey have lower scores in the group of countries we examined,” it said.
It is a dangerous game they play, that much should be clear. And you know what China bought those foreign reserves with in the first place? With freshly printed monopoly money. Which is the same source from which the Vinny the Kneecapper shadow loans originated that every second grandma signed up to in order to purchase ghost apartments and shares of unproductive companies.
And that leads to another issue I’ve touched upon countless times: I can’t see how China can NOT descend into severe civil unrest. The government at present attempts to hide its impotence and failures behind the arrest of all sorts of scapegoats, but Xi and Li themselves should, and probably will, be accused at some point. They’ve gambled away a lot of what made their country function, albeit not at American or European wealth levels.
If the Communist Party had opted for what is sometimes labeled ‘organic’ growth (I’m not a big afficionado of the term), instead of ‘miracle’ Ponzi ‘growth’, if they had not to such a huge extent relied on Vinny the Kneecapper to provide the credit that made everything ‘grow’ so miraculously, their country would not be in such a bind. It would not have to deleverage at the same blinding speed it ostensibly grew at since 2008 (at the latest).
There are still voices talking about the ‘logical’ aim of Beijing to switch its economy from one that is export driven to one in which the Chinese consumer herself is the engine of growth. Well, that dream, too, has now been found out to be made of shards of shattered glass. The idea of a change towards a domestic consumption-driven economy is being revealed as a woeful disaster.
And that has always been predictable; you can’t magically turn into a consumer-based economy by blowing bubbles first in property and then in stocks, and hope people’s profits in both will make them spend. Because the whole endeavor was based from the get-go on huge increases in debt, the just as predictable outcome is, and will be even much more, that people count their losses and spend much less in the local economy. While those with remaining spending power purchase property in the US, Britain, Australia. And go live there too, where they feel safe(r).
I fear for the Chinese citizen. Not so much for Xi and Li. They will get what they deserve.