Global divergence

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No one talks about decoupling anymore. It is one of those pieces of vocabulary associated with 2008 and the hope that emerging market fundamentals would insulate those economies from what turned out to be the greatest recession since the Great Depression. That hope was not entirely misplaced, of course. Exhibit 1 below shows, first, Chinese GDP on a year-on-year basis (the green line). While during the Great Financial Crisis in 2008 -2009 Chinese GDP was nearly halved—and Chinese equities performed dismally—there was a sharp rebound on the back of enormous fiscal stimulus. Now we may be seeing its inverse, and that is best illustrated by the other line (the blue line) on the chart, the Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index, down 8.5% on Monday, July 27, alone.

Some commentators have suggested that this does not really matter. Exhibit 1 illustrates the rationale to their thinking: year-to-date, the index has gained 15.18% (to July 27), and the one-year gain is over 75%. While the highs were higher, the averages are looking good.

Exhibit 1: There’s no meaningful correlation between China’s GDP (constant price year-on-year) and valuations of the Shanghai Composite Index (lhs).

EN Shanghai comp index

Source: Bloomberg,  27 July 2015

There is a degree of merit to this argument. The Shanghai Composite has never been a bellwether of the Chinese economy in the sense that the S&P 500 might be said to be for the US. It exhibits no meaningful correlation with GDP, and it has not been a vehicle for significant retirement planning. The A-share market is not easily available to overseas investors, and the price movements are driven almost entirely by domestic flows, limiting contagion.

Unfortunately, there are serious flaws in this view. First, the composition of the investor base has changed even this year, with more and more small retail investors participating in the market ‑ and thus suffering losses. Many of these investors blame the central government, which they have accused of encouraging them to invest in the first place. There is some truth to this, unfortunately. To pick one example, Bloomberg Business cited the Xinhua News Agency in September 2014, which ran eight articles in that week alone advocating buying equities, and the futures exchange cut margin requirements in that same week. Buying shares on margin is common: such financing exceeds CNY2 trillion (US$322 billion).

Recognising this, Chinese authorities have already put in place controls, including preventing shareholders holding more than 5% of a stock from selling for six months, and they have begun purchasing stock outright. The track record for controls such as this is unedifying. There are broader issues, too. The Chinese government maintains its legitimacy on the basis of improving living standards and good custodianship of the economy, and the suggestion that there are developments beyond its control could be damaging and lead to unpredictable outcomes. There is also a wealth effect, and we can expect a reduction in consumption commensurate with the shock.

We are seeing some effects already. Oil has sunk to new recent lows of under US$48 per barrel. While that will be at least partly related to the lifting of Iranian sanctions, other commodities are reacting similarly. This puts direct pressure on many emerging market commodity exporters ‑ and some not-so-emerging-markets, such as Australia and Canada, and their currencies.

However, in Europe and the US, the picture seems different. Germany released its monthly Ifo survey, with all three components—business climate, current assessment, and expectations—beating expectations. That is in line with the ZEW survey released two weeks ago and a raft of other data, including the stock market up over 13% year-to-date; France’s has gained almost 16%, and Spain’s 21%. Now that Greece is, temporarily at least, behind us, the world’s largest and wealthiest trade grouping has defied all of last year’s gloomy prognostications.

The US picture is less positive. The earnings season in particular has not hit the high notes of previous quarters, with IBM notably pointing to China. Data is generally strong: initial jobless claims were the lowest for 42 years, and housing data has also been particularly robust. What remains elusive is evidence beyond the merely anecdotal of wage growth. In addition, a leak of confidential staff forecasts used during the June 17 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting showed staffers had lower expectations for the path of federal funds than the Committee does itself. At the margin, this may lengthen the odds of a hike in September – and events in China are not helping either.

Written on 27 July 2015.

Alex Johnson

Head of Absolute Return Multi-Sector Fixed Income

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