China: Why Did the Market Collapse?

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.

So Chinese policymakers have had to choose between policies that boost employment in the short term while making the overcapacity problem in the long term worse and, on the other hand, force a more efficient adjustment in the domestic imbalance while increasing job losses.

Until now, Beijing had come down resolutely on the side of boosting employment. It had shifted a massive amount of resources, mainly through the banking system, into new investment in infrastructure and new production facilities. This created jobs and boosted consumption, but it did so by expanding current and future production even faster, only worsening the domestic imbalances and making China even more reliant on US consumption.

It probably had no choice. As in nearly every major economy, the first instinct of policymakers since the crisis began has been to enact measures to slow unemployment growth. If unemployment grew too quickly and caused consumption to fall, it could easily tip the economy into a long-term and irreversible contraction.

But there was always a limit to how far Beijing should push. It could continue spending like crazy on good and bad projects to keep workers employed, but if all this spending simply increases capacity faster than it raised consumption, the net result would be an unsustainable debt burden and a more difficult reckoning.

That is why we should welcome the signs that Beijing may be reaching the limits of its investment push. The government believes that it has created enough momentum to avoid the worst consequences of the global crisis and the contraction in the export markets, but it is also stepping back from creating a worse crisis.

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:

Bank of China Ltd., the nation’s third-largest by assets, plans to slow credit growth in the second half of the year and improve loan quality after posting an unexpected profit gain in the second quarter.

…Lending in the second half will be “much smaller,” with new credit in July and August dropping from the monthly averages of the first half, President Li Lihui told reporters yesterday.

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:

College students, once a major demographic for banks issuing credit cards in China, are now finding that many lenders such as China Merchants Bank and Bank of Communications have recently steepened their application requirements or stopped issuing credit cards to students altogether.

The changes in policy originate with a notice issued by the China Banking Regulatory Commission at the end of July. According to the notice, other than parents authorizing access their account, banks are not allowed to issue credit cards to those under 18. For students over 18 unemployed or without income, a cosigner is required. Paying with plastic is really common on campuses, and is not unusual for a student in China to have up to 3 to 4 credit cards. “Whenever I go back home, I use a credit card to buy plane tickets, because at the end of the semester I’m usually short on cash,” said Sun Chenghao, a senior student at the China Foreign Affairs University.

But such convenience also has its drawbacks. Of all recent credit card debt cases heard at the People’s Court in Beijing’s Xuanwu District this July, about 25 percent involved college students.

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About Michael Pettis 166 Articles

Affiliation: Peking University

Michael Pettis is a professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets. He has also taught, from 2002 to 2004, at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management and, from 1992 to 2001, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

Pettis has worked on Wall Street in trading, capital markets, and corporate finance since 1987, when he joined the Sovereign Debt trading team at Manufacturers Hanover (now JP Morgan). Most recently, from 1996 to 2001, Pettis worked at Bear Stearns, where he was Managing Director-Principal heading the Latin American Capital Markets and the Liability Management groups.

Visit: China Financial Markets

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