Friday, January 8, 2016

The Challenge For China

The Chinese stock market fell some 12% this first week of 2016.  The downturn triggered corresponding drops in other stock markets around the world, including a loss of over 6% for the week in the U.S.  The financial press is probably secretly delighted, since such volatility captures the attention of a lot of people and brings a surge of traffic onto their websites.  But most people are unhappy.

The Chinese stock market fell for a simple reason--it's overvalued.  It's been overvalued for a while, at least since early 2015.  As we in America know, overvalued stocks fall sooner or later.  It happened in 2000 and 2008.  It's happening now in China, and elsewhere. 

Chinese financial regulators complicated matters by halting trading after a circuit breaker was triggered by a 7% fall two days in a row.  Circuit breakers can be useful in ameliorating short term panics.  But significant overvaluation, as one sees in China, is a long term problem, and circuit breakers may actually increase selling pressure by sharply limiting the time available for trading.  When trading hours are circumscribed, sellers want to move quickly to sell, but buyers want time to evaluate whether or not prices are leveling out.  The result is that there are many more sellers than buyers in a limited amount of time and prices plummet.  Chinese regulators had to suspend the circuit breakers, which was followed by a modest rise in Chinese stocks at the end of the week.

But the regulatory miscues aren't the long term story.  Stocks in China were pumped up by a number of government policies that directly or indirectly encouraged investment in equities.  The bubble peaked and burst this past summer, and the Chinese government has since been trying to prop up the market with restrictions on selling and government-induced purchasing.  These measures to balance supply and demand don't address the basic underlying problem--Chinese stocks aren't worth their nominal market prices--and consequently can't really calm things down. 

At this point, losses inhere in Chinese stocks.  These losses have not been fully recognized in market prices.  With the Chinese economy slowing and capital flowing out of China, there isn't much realistic prospect of the losses reversing.  They will have to be realized sooner or later.  The Chinese government probably understands this, but will endeavor to smooth out the process of realization of the losses to reduce the pain perceived by investors.  The U.S. Federal Reserve and European Central Bank used similar smoothing strategies to deal with the fallout from the Great Recession and the European sovereign debt crisis.  Smoothing carries a major risk of kicking the can down the road, with losses emerging like new heads of the Hydra if underlying economic growth hasn't been revived.  The challenge for China will be to accelerate its economic growth.  But the prospects for a near-term rebound of the Chinese economy are poor.  Low-cost manufacturing is gradually shifting out of China, where wages are rising, and hasn't yet been fully replaced by anything else.  China's economy seems to be meandering.  We can expect more market volatility.

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