China Archives

China: Taking the Temperature

Continuing on from last week’s topic, we look East for signs of a stronger or weaker January effect for riskier assets.

Washington Beltway antics have not gone away (eg. the new Treasury Secretary’s loopy signature). But we think investors should focus on the Global Economy, where companies big, medium and small struggle for sales and profits.

One interesting corner of the Global Economy is China. While there are over 100 ETFs with China exposure (courtesy of ETFdb.com), by screening out sub-$100m funds, one can limit oneself to just 6 ETFs for consideration. FXI is by far the largest (with similarly profiled GXC and MCHI taking #2 and #3 slots) while HAO, PGJ and CHIQ offer exposure to different and smaller segments of the Chinese economy.

What is interesting about the structure of the equities available in China is that they primarily offer exposure to the domestic economy. Exports may have been the important driver of the “China Miracle” but for fund managers and regular investors alike it has always been hard to pick up meaningful direct exposure.

Therefore, when looking at China going forward, it is important to look at indicators for the domestic economy. Two reliable indicators are the imported Iron Ore Price and Electricity Production.

Electricity

China's Electricity Production - Monthly
Source: Bloomberg

Electricity Production is a well-followed index because it has proven to be a very clean and useful data set over the years. While GDP numbers and CPI figures have drawn sideways glances from time to time, the jumpy electricity figures (note the regular Chinese New Year drop every year in Jan-Feb) are not considered politically sensitive. What the figures show this year is pretty consistent growth at around the 9%-10% level.

Iron Ore

Imported Iron Ore - Monthly
Source: Bloomberg

The other price to watch is the Iron Ore import price. China imports bulk iron ore from Australia, Brazil and other countries to feed the domestic and export production machines. From September 2011 to September 2012, the price of sea-borne Iron Ore almost halved as the Chinese economy softened. Part of that was due to the petering out of stimulus programs launched in 2008 and 2009 but the leadership change of 2012 also played a part in the overall bearishness.

Without much fanfare, the price has rebounded sharply, first to the 120 level and now into the 150’s. While most Australia exporters are still keeping $120 in their cashflow projections for the year, it is clear that Chinese demand for Iron Ore has returned.

Conclusion – Cautiously Optimistic

The Chinese Economy looks like it is stabilizing at high single digit growth rates. It is clearly not following the path of fellow BRIC members Russia and Brazil which have experienced sharp deceleration in growth rates over the last few years. The China ETFs are exposed primarily to the domestic market which our two indices above suggest will see some strength. But remember that most of the component stocks in the S&P 500 (SPY), EAFE (EFA) and the DAX (EWG) also have big stakes in China’s economic fortunes. With low expectations for the G8 economies, the global multinationals are looking at the massive middle class spending power forming in China and India to drive growth in the medium term.

FXI ranks well in our Balanced ETF Portfolio, which is the default portfolio in slot #7. It also comes out on top of our large ETF rankings.

The Meaning of 7.5% Growth

China recently announced that the target for economic growth has been lowered from 8% to 7.5%. For most countries, this would hardly rate more than a line or two buried deep in the middle of the paper. However, for China, the 8% growth rate is deeply symbolic. The 8% rate has been a key metric against which the Communist Party has measured itself in this latest 10 year political cycle. Anything below 8% growth is cast as the equivalent of a recession. The success of one party rule in China hinges on the ability of that party to deliver the economic goodies.

The actual number will probably come in at least 1% over or under the official 7.5% target. But all of China’s provinces and Special Municipalities are now on notice to make sure that the numbers they serve up to Beijing are in accordance with the new policy. Conspicuous bank lending to property developers is no longer in the cards.

Looking beyond China, how does this downgrade impact markets around the world? The immediate knee jerk reaction is negative but it will be interesting to see if investors can shift their mindset from the immediate aftershock of the Global Financial Crisis. In 2008/2009, demand from China, India and Brazil amongst other emerging markets was crucial to sustaining overall global demand. The largest non-financial companies in the US and Europe would have suffered much more severely without the boost of emerging markets demand. Additionally, China was a major purchaser of US Treasury bonds as China sought to recycle its massive trade surplus with the US. That position has now shifted to the Federal Reserve.

Now, however, a slowdown in Chinese demand may not prove as catastrophic as it would have three years ago.

In the US, there is both slack in the economy and signs that domestic demand is on the mend. Bank lending growth, which had been moribund despite heroic efforts from the Federal Reserve to pump high powered money into the financial system, is finally starting to show the early signs of a recovery. Housing prices at this point are a lagging indicator because there is so much built up inventory both on the market today and likely to come onto market at any sign of better activity. The real issue for the US economy is whether the nascent recovery will get strangled by higher commodity prices feeding into inflation. A China coming off the boil at this point could be just what the Bernanke FED needs to keep an accommodative monetary policy running into 2013 without kicking off double digit inflation.

In Europe, the European Central Bank (ECB) has decided to take a page from the Federal Reserve and double down on their Long Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) which offers troubled European Banks three year money at 1%. Like QE1 & QE2 (Quantitative Easing) rounds in the US, European banks have done the sensible thing and turned the money around into ECB deposits or matching maturity sovereign debt in order to catch the fat spreads at the lowest risk possible. Europe is more exposed to Chinese demand for capital goods than the US but it is obvious that Europe is heading into recession regardless. In fact, it is Europe’s weakness that probably tipped the scales and forced the China to downgrade its GDP target. So, basically, China’s growth is not the most burning issue in Europe’s capitals these days. A more pressing question is whether the ECB is complicit in an effort to drive down the value of the Euro so that export dependent Italy, investment dependent Ireland and tourist dependent Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece can regain a competitive advantage.

So, interestingly, China doesn’t really matter quite as much as it has in the last three or four years as a global engine of demand. It will be interesting to see if the markets recognize the admittedly temporary change in circumstances.

The System numbers do not suggest a significant change in fortune…don’t let a 50 basis point cut in China’s GDP rate spook you unless you are overexposed to Shanghai luxury apartment units.

Chinese Numbers

The market took great comfort in the 4Q GDP number (+8.9%) published an efficient 17 days after the end of the quarter (perhaps the BEA could pick up a few pointers). With a small improvement over the consensus of 8.7%, concerns of a weak Chinese economy have been banished from the 24 hour news cycle for the time being.

China GDP

Source: Bloomberg

However, investors should probably look elsewhere for comfort.

Although China’s multi-decade economic rise is beyond dispute, China’s GDP pronouncements are more about Beijing’s economic policy thinking than a hard accounting of the sum total of goods and services produced in the PRC over a particular quarter. In my association with the Chinese markets, they have been playing this game since at least 1992 when the B share markets opened to foreign investors in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

For the next few announcements, a number too close to 8% would be signal leadership concern for a stalling economy and that a massive state intervention (a credit loosening) is imminent. A number which leans closer to double digits would signal concerns of domestic economic overheating and would foreshadow a credit tightening cycle to tame inflationary pressures. The thresholds change slightly from year to year but the game does not. China is signalling a “wait and see” stance for the time being. For Chinese provinces and municipalities which rely heavily on a bubbly property market to keep their finances in order, that message is not the one they are waiting for. Domestic demand in China is still driven primarily by investment rather than private consumption. And especially since the Global Financial Crisis, much of that investment has been skewed towards the property sector.

In the meantime, one of the “canaries in the mine” has definitely slipped off its perch. The Baltic Dry Index has halved since mid-December. Despite the name, the BDI covers shipping routes across the globe and the primary cargoes are coal, iron ore and grain. The index is subject to impressive swings because the supply of ships is fairly inelastic while demand for cargo is highly elastic That said, a 50% drop attributed to weaker Chinese demand for iron ore shipments, is not something one should ignore.

Baltic Dry Index

Source: Bloomberg

Australia’s “Two Speed” Economy

If China is in fact cooling its demand for iron ore in response to a general domestic slowdown, one should look at the short side of the Australian ETF, EWA. The Australian market is heavily weighted towards resources and financials and any trouble with Australia’s largest export market should show up in the market soon.

Presidential Cycles and Australia

This week, there will be no newsletter as we are on the road in Australia.

What does Australia and year three of the US Presidential cycle have to do with each other? Usually, there would not be much of a connection.

But this year, there is a connection.

To over simplify, we are in year three of the cycle, the time when an incumbent President has to make sure the economy is as stimulated as possible so that the voters will give him another four years in the White House. As a result, it is often a good year to invest in risk assets like equities.

In this cycle, growth is coming from government spending and monetary expansion. And, while the Republicans may still get to repeat their temporary government shutdown routine (maybe they can avoid the political backlash this time), the expansionary policies at the FED are harder to stop.

That means we will continue to see inflationary money creation in the world’s reserve currency. And, since the money cannot all be put to work in the US economy, it will continue to fuel asset and commodity price growth around the globe.

How does that money get around the globe and into local economies? Primarily through Central Banks’ efforts to keep currencies from moving up against the US dollar, the FED’s accommodative policy is being exported to countries (like China) where inflationary expectations have already taken hold.

Australia is one of the places where these pressures will become most evident. As a major producer of agricultural and industrial commodities, it is a secondary beneficiary of the FED’s inflation creating policies. Not only has China’s boom created strong demand for iron ore, coal and other resources, it has also sent a wave of investment capital towards the continent sized country. This has ignited a surge in M&A activity as well as frothy real estate markets. The Reserve Bank of Australia has moved short rates about as high as politically possible (mortgages are mostly floating rate) so the next thing to go is the currency which has just crossed the 1.05 mark (FXA). If the Aussie dollar continues towards 1.10 and 1.20 as local investors expect, that’s a strong signal that one’s investments need to be well placed for an inflationary environment.

This week, for example, the base metal ETF (DBB) nudged the S&P 500 ETF (SPY) out of the top 3 in the Seeking Alpha ETF Portfolio. The main aim of the Fund King System is to track major investment flows to keep one’s money deployed in the most promising corners of one’s investment universe. Right now, it looks like major investors are positioning even more towards the inflation trade,

Extreme Money Flows

iShares Japan

My buy order for EWJ was ignored on Tuesday morning. It wasn’t a large order. I was just putting it in to see if I could pick up the ETF on the cheap.

Unfortunately, I got a bit too clever on the limit (previous close less 10%) so I did not get filled. By 10am, I was pretty sure that I had missed the boat.

Why is that important?

Because the market meltdown in Japan and subsequent bounce are not being driven by rational calculations of the damage to the economy…it is just guesswork at this point. Nor is it a rational response to the nuclear power plant disaster. Our only comparable nuclear power accident scenarios happened decades ago.

It was the dramatic movement of money.

Smart Money Investors panicked and stabbed the sell button as soon as they saw their competitors doing the same. No one was waiting to see if mutual funds were going to be redeemed on the back of the shocking pictures and videos that blanketed the airwaves and bandwidth.

But, foreign investors only own about 25% of the Japanese equity market. There was only so much they could do. And once the selling pressure eased off…investors jumped in and bid the market up (both in Tokyo on Wednesday and EWJ not long after the opening bell on Tuesday).

The lesson in all this is that the weight of money can have dramatic effects on the value of assets. Japan’s “big picture” has not changed since last week. This week it is still the world’s #3 economy with an aging population, strong export sector, shocking level of government debt and extremely low interest rates. In the short term, it has sustained a mighty blow from Mother Nature but it has the institutions and experience to deal with the disaster. Fundamentally nothing much has changed. Emotionally, there have been several very big shifts.

What does the Fund King System have to say about it?

Asian IndicesThe System was not built for “Black Swan” events like this. What it can tell you is that Asia leading up to this event had some pretty crummy numbers behind it. Japan was the strongest of a weak bunch but the whole region is under a dark cloud of uncertainty over China’s short term economic outlook.

The first shocks have hit the market and there will undoubtedly be more aftershocks. One of the longer lasting aftershocks will be in the energy sector. As governments around the world (like Germany) take a close look at their nuclear power programs, the demand for oil is likely to rise. With the popular uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East threatening to disrupt the supply side, oil prices are likely to remain firm for the foreseeable future.

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