Category Archives: Economy

China’s First-Quarter GDP Growth Highlights Rebalancing Shortfalls

MORE UNRUFFLED WATERS for the Chinese economy–at least on the surface. First-quarter GDP growth, as reported by the National Bureau of Statistics, came in at 6.9% year-on-year.

That is its fastest pace in six quarters and the first back-to-back quarterly increase in GDP in seven years. The first-quarter number is also well in line with the 6.5% official annual growth target set last a month.

However, a closer look at the components of growth suggests that deeper currents swirl dangerously, and particularly that the old-school model of state investment-led growth still holds sway. Fixed asset investment in the first quarter, up 9.2%, was an acceleration from 2016’s 8.1% growth rate. Infrastructure investment rose by 23.5% while real estate development was up 9.1%. Industrial production also rose.

Worryingly for the rebalancing of the economy towards greater domestic consumption, retail sales growth slowed to 10% in the first quarter from 2016’s 10.4% expansion.

US President Donald Trump’s backing off from threatening a trade war with China because he needs Beijing’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea has provided breathing room for China’s economy, which it appears to be exploiting with some gusto.

The stimulus that Beijing has given the economy has led the International Monetary Fund to raise its forecasts for China’s growth this year and next in its latest World Economic Outlook to 6.6% and 6.2% respectively. That is 0.1 and 0.2 percentage points higher than its January forecasts and 0.4 and 0.2 percentage points higher than its October 2016 forecasts.

The question remains, however: how sustainable can this pace of growth be long-term without rebalancing taking more substantial hold and the problem of excess leverage being tackled?

As the IMF puts it:

The medium-term outlook, however, continues to be clouded by increasing resource misallocation and growing vulnerabilities associated with the reliance on near-term policy easing and credit-financed investment.

At some point, as prime minister Li Keqiang again emphasised, Beijing will have to switch growth gears. That will mean unwinding its most recent stimulus–very carefully. But that is unlikely to start happening until after President Xi Jinping has consolidated his political control at the critical Party plenum later this year.

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The Sound Of Another Trump Flip-Flop

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IT IS ALL going rather swimmingly for China with the United States right now. Following the happily smooth summit between President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump in Florida last week, the US president has said that China is not manipulating its currency.

During his election campaign last year, Trump had repeatedly accused Beijing of artificially driving down the value of the yuan to increase its export competitiveness, and had said he would label China as a currency manipulator on his first day in office.

His about-turn pre-empts the US Treasury’s forthcoming biannual report to Congress on the foreign-exchange policy of the United States’ principal trading partners: being designated a currency manipulator by the US Treasury legally triggers US Congressional sanctions against the offending country.

In the Obama-era, the Treasury had always found a way to avoid that, but the risk to China once Trump won the election last November was acute.

Trump now accepts that China has not been manipulating its currency for a while. His need to work with Beijing on dealing with North Korea — regardless of his previous comments that the United States would take unilateral action against Pyongyang if China failed to rein in its neighbour as Washington expected — appears to have helped clarify his vision.

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OECD Edges Up China Growth Forecasts

THE OECD HAS raised its forecast for China’s GDP growth this year by one-tenth of a percentage point from the 6.4% forecast it made last November. It has also raised its 2018 projection by one-fifth of a percentage point, to 6.3%. The 2017 forecast puts it squarely in line with the new official target of ‘about 6.5%’.

Its nutshell summary is:

Growth in China is expected to edge down further by 2018 as the economy manages a number of necessary transitions, including shifting towards consumption and services, adjustment in several heavy industries, working off excess housing supply and ensuring credit developments are sustainable. Demand is being supported by very expansionary fiscal policy, including via policy banks, which in turn is boosting private investment and trade. Producer price inflation has picked up strongly, but consumer price inflation remains low.

The OECD also notes that the rapid growth of private-sector credit and the relatively high level of indebtedness by historic norms is a key risk. Non-financial companies’ high debt levels provide particular vulnerability to a rapid rise in interest rates or unfavourable demand developments, it says. The report also advocates spending be directed at health and education and directed away from adding to financial risks.

The significant uncertainty about the future direction of trade policy globally is a key theme in the report, which makes the self-evident point that a roll-back of existing trade openness would be costly. Around one in seven jobs in China is linked to participation in global value chains.

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Li Lays Out China’s Economic Goals For The Year

CHINA HAS SET its growth target for this year at ‘around 6.5%’, prime minister Li Keqiang told the annual session of parliament. That is down from 2016’s goal of 6.5%-7% and the outcome of 6.7%.

The glide path to slower but more sustainable growth continues. However, it will be a more cautious approach this year ahead of an important party plenum later this year at which the scope of President Xi Jinping’s second term and eventually succession will be set.

China also faces a more uncertain external environment economy than any time since the 2008 global financial crisis, while the stimulus that staved off deflation last year has left the debt crisis still to be dealt with. While China is perfectly able to deal with that on a macro level, signs of local stress are increasingly apparent.  The finance ministry has again just warned of the ‘the hidden-debt risks of local governments’, especially in the rust belt in the Northeast.

Li’s signalled that the leadership considered 6.5% growth a floor, though if there is any suggestion of social or political instability (and especially instability within the political elites), that floor will, no doubt, be lowered.

Last year, 726,000 workers were shifted out of rust-belt industries; this year another 500,000 will follow, according to the labour minister. China created more than 13 million new jobs last year, according to the official figures, but a further half a million redundant iron and steel workers and coal miners is a lot to absorb, and especially in places where few new industries are flourishing.

Removing excess capacity from heavy industry has proved more difficult than planned as has killing off ‘zombie’ state-owned enterprises.

Rebalancing the economy has also progressed more slowly than Xi laid out when he assumed the leadership four years ago; one reason is that he has repeatedly turned to old-school stimulus whenever the economy looked to be slowing too rapidly.

The government will have work to do to reduce last year’s fiscal deficit of 3.8% of GDP to the wished-for 3.0% (which was also last year’s target).

Li set another ‘about’ target, of ‘about 12%’ for broadest measure of money supply (M2). While that is less than 2016’s target 13%, it is still above end-2016  money supply growth of 11.3%. More monetary policy tightening is likely, barring severe adverse external headwinds.

The military budget will again be restricted to a 7% increase (1.3% of GDP), even though US President Donald Trump has promised a 10% hike in the United States’ defence budget. The United States spends 3.3% of its GDP on defence.

Beijing’s holding fast after decades of double-digit growth will increase the already sizeable spending gap, $600-plus billion a year against $140 billion a year, though off-budget procurement could add a further $50 billion to China’s number and the modernisation of the PLA will continue.

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Trump’s Withdrawal From TPP Opens Opportunity For China

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement opens up space for China to assume leadership of the development of trade and investment within the region.

Its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) goes from being a poor second choice to virtually the only game in town. It limitation is that it encompasses Northeast and Southeast Asia along with Australasia, but not the Americas, the carrot that the TPP offered.

However, without the participation of the United States, the TTP is left floundering, for all the talk from quarters such as Australia that something can be salvaged. That would take several years at the very least.

RCEP would be substantial, accounting for about one-third of global GDP and one-half of the world’s population. It would incorporate all the Asian countries that had signed up for TPP plus TTP waiverers, such as Indonesia, and excluded, such India (not forgetting China itself, of course).

RCEP is considerably less liberalising of trade than TTP, however. The scope for exemptions on awkward sticking points is also greater, which may make reaching an eventually agreement easier, though.

Critically different from the TPP, labour, environmental issues are excluded form the RCEP negotiations, as is the role of state-owned enterprises.

RCEP’s primary focus is the trade in manufactures, although trade in services and investments will be discussed as one at India’s insistence. India is competitive in trade in services though less so in manufacturing and especially light manufacturing. It does not want trade in manufactures to be given priority over trade in services and investment, where its companies are competitive.

Intellectual property rights are also a point of contention. Tokyo and Seoul want high levels of IP protection, particularly for their pharmaceutical sectors, and akin to those proposed by the TPP, whereas poorer countries in the region want access to cheap medicines.

Beijing, however, may have both a short and a long game to play. The high standards proposed under TPP for intellectual property protections and the liberalisation of trade in services may well eventually suit Beijing as it gets more success in rebalancing its economy as a more services-oriented and innovate one.

To that end, it may well be prepared to keep the TPP negotiations lingering on should they be of future use. In the meantime, though, Beijing will seize the initiative that Washington has let drop.

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Beijing’s Devaluation Dilemma

 

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THE CLOCK IS ticking down on the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump and thus on Beijing’s decision about if and how to devalue the renminbi. China is caught between an exodus of capital and whatever hawkish policies against it that a Trump administration could bring.

The renminbi fell 7% against the US dollar in 2016, in its biggest fall since 1994. Most of the fall occurred in the fourth quarter as the US Federal Reserve started to raise interest rates.

The case for a one-off step devaluation is that it would, assuming it was large enough, staunch the outflows, and end the need to run down the foreign-exchange reserves to defend the currency. The case against is that Chinese companies with dollar-denominated debt could be put in peril, importers would face a squeeze on margins and Trump’s strident accusations of China being a currency manipulator to support its exporters by undervaluing the renminbi would gain more credence.

Also, a Chinese devaluation could set off a round of competitive devaluations by emerging economies that would rock the world economy. There is ‘previous’ in this regard. Beijing’s unexpected devaluation in August 2015 caused global shockwaves.

At the same time, China’s foreign exchange reserves, being used, regardless of Trump’s claims, to prop up the currency through market intervention, are being eroded. While comfortably large at more than $3 trillion, even they cannot be run down indefinitely. The People’s Bank of China has already used $1 trillion of the reserves to defend the currency, taking them in December to their lowest level in six years.

And what probably matters more is investor sentiment. To that end the central bank earlier this month orchestrated liquidity squeeze in the offshore market in Hong Kong, to make it more expensive to bet against the renminbi, a signal intended equally to be read in the onshore market.

As the devaluation debate rages among policymakers, Beijing has been putting administrative measures in place to reduce the outflows. A stop has been put to the dodge of using investment-linked insurance policies in Hong Kong both to move savings overseas and switch into dollars. The level at which banks are now required to report all yuan-denominated cash transactions has been lowered to 50,000 yuan from 200,000 yuan.

The individual annual quota of $50,000 in foreign currency is unchanged, but citizens are being asked for more detailed information about why they need the cash;  tourism, business travel and medical care and education overseas is looked on favourable, but not purchases of overseas property and financial assets.

Similarly, a closer eye is being kept on Chinese firms foreign direct investment, especially M&A involving real estate, hotels and cinemas. Bitcoin exchanges, which account for 95% of global trading in the crypto-currency, are being leant on to stop a backdoor way to cash out of the yuan. There is even speculation about a crackdown on the excessive transfer fees Chinese football clubs are paying to bring in foreign stars.

In this environment, state-owned enterprises are likely to be leant on to repatriate foreign currency earnings held offshore while foreign firms will find it harder to repatriate their profits.

All of this flies in the face of policies to internationalise the currency that have been persued for some time, and whose continuance was implicit in the IMF’s adding of the renminbi to its basket for Special Drawing Rights last October.

The other conventional prop for a currency is higher domestic interest rates. However, with more than 1 trillion yuan of corporate bonds due to mature every month from now until the third quarter of this year, higher rates would impose a massive refinancing burden on companies.

Also, it is far from clear how much strain higher rates would put on the shadow banking system and what the spillover would be to the rest of the financial system, but the sense is that it is a significant risk.

That leaves devaluation — gradually or in a one-step change — as the most likely option.

In a sense, that is inevitable. Dollar strength globally is probably a bigger factor than renminbi weakness. Last month, however, that did not prevent Trump tweeting, “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency?” Nor is it likely to do so again.

Financial policymaking is difficult at the best of times, never more so than at a time of unpredictability — and with a clock ticking.

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World Bank Holds Its Growth Outlook For China Unchanged

THE WORLD BANK has left its growth forecasts for China to 2019 unchanged from its projections published last June. In the latest edition of its Global Economic Prospects, the Bank reiterates its view that growth this year will slow to 6.5% from 2016’s 6.7%, and then slow further to 6.3% in both next year and 2019.

The Bank takes note, however, of “resurfacing concerns about buoyant property markets, as growth slows gradually toward more sustainable levels, with a rebalancing from manufacturing to services”.

There is little unexpected in the Bank’s sketch of the economy. Growth has been concentrated primarily in services, while industrial production has stabilized at moderate levels. Strong consumption growth highlights the internal rebalancing on the demand side. Investment growth has continued to moderate from its post-crisis peak, concentrated in the private sector; investment by the non-private sector accelerated in 2016.  Fiscal and credit-based stimulus to growth in 2016 focused on infrastructure investment and household credit.

china-economy-chartCredit growth remains well above the pace of nominal GDP growth, with loans to households accounting for an increasing share of credit extension in 2016 on the back of a continued real estate boom, especially in first-tier cities. The ratio of household debt to GDP has surpassed 40%, up almost 10 percentage points over the past three years. Meanwhile, the ratio of non-financial corporate sector debt to GDP reached 170% in 2016.

Producer price deflation came to halt as input prices stabilized. If the cycle has swung back to reflation, as an uptick in global commodity prices as well as recent producer price index numbers might indicate, that would be a significant turning point.

Capital outflows remained sizable last year and continued to put downward pressure on the currency. During 2016, the renminbi depreciated by about 5% in nominal trade-weighted terms (and some 7% against the US dollar) albeit broadly in line with fundamentals.

The renminbi was added to the basket of currencies that make up the International Monetary Fund’s Special Drawing Right in October last.

Soft external demand, heightened uncertainty about global trade prospects and slower private investment are the key risks to the growth outlook for this year. Macroeconomic policy is likely to remain supportive. Meanwhile,  rebalancing from industry to services and from investment to consumption is expected to moderate.

Progress in reducing financial excesses will likely be similarly modest, barring deep structural reforms to state-owned enterprises and corporate restructuring  — both highly unlikely in a year that will see a party plenum that will start to line up the next generation of top political leadership. No sharp policy changes will be implemented which would raise disruption risk, even though the longer it takes to tackle deleveraging the higher the eventual cost will be.

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