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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Generation game

Solar flare up
Since the last post there have been moves to further consolidation and government control of the solar industry as two of the largest players, LDK and Suntech are facing increased state involvement and even takeover.  Amidst global oversupply, plummeting prices and possible trade law sanctions, a couple of themes are present (i) use of bankruptcy is not prevalent yet (with rollovers of debt preferred) and (ii) increasing state involvement.  An excellent article by Tim Worstall in Forbes had a headline which summed up the situation - "China still hasn't got the hang of this capitalism thing", namely the importance of unprofitable enterprises going bankrupt.  It would seem fairly obvious that there are plenty of impediments to swift and orderly wind-down of institutions - loss of face, bureaucratic interference, vested local government interests and the like.

But it wasn't supposed to be like this - the article refers to an official who pronounced that the government intended the industry to consolidate - i.e. a large number of enterprises close or merge - intentions which were complicated by unwillingness of banks and local governments to toe the line.    And what a contrast from the fanfare in a previous Forbes article announcing the launch of the new US style bankruptcy regime China in 2007 - the predictions of a "high level of sophistication" and "determination to build a sound legal system" seem over-enthusiastic statements now.  Possibly due to the need to promote stability ahead of the leadership change next month, officials seem to be falling back to tried and tested methods of state interventionism, which will only continue to propagate distortions in the current financial system.

It's a family affair
At the time of writing there has been an overwhelming response to the New York Times' investigation into the wealth and connections of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's family.  It is not just that the Chinese administration has blocked access to the Times' website (as it did with Bloomberg and the Brookings Institution when they released similar findings regarding incoming Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang), responded with what the Financial Times referred to as a "hatchet job" piece in the People's Daily, or that unusually the administration has instructed lawyers to deny and  look at pursuing legal redress (which members of the legal community thought were poorly thought out) With the Guardian comparing it to the Pentagon Papers as the most "direct challenge to a sitting government", it is clear that the investigation has ruffled feathers at a sensitive time.

It is not clear yet if there will be a lasting impact from these revelations about China's leaders - the Economist which has a special report covering the upcoming Party Congress, concludes that all the disclosures strengthen the case for reform.  Like many similar autocracies the connected elite of China have had an entrenched position for a long time in China and it seems unlikely that this will change after the handover beyond certain personnel changes (which was the conclusion of Katherine Hille in the FT).  But could tensions between ruling factions and their connected others spillover after the transition?

Factional tension was suggested by Hille (noting rumours on Chinese social media that information in the New York Times had been provided by factional opponents of Wen) and more broadly the Wen revelations have opened a greater discussion on corruption in China, which as the FT Alphaville blog noted that perceptions of corruption were reaching levels where they could be destabilising.  Cue then a closed door lecture from a Chinese (or Hong Kong-based) academic arguing that China is in fact nearly bankrupt and a warning from permanent China bear Gordon Chang warning that there is now a "stampede" of money and even officials are now fleeing China and all does not seem well.

A light-hearted piece in the Daily Mail might suggest otherwise (with news of a marriage of the niece of president-in-waiting Xi Jinping to a young unknown British businessman, Daniel Foa) but there is a very deep family tension involved in this year's leadership trauma.  Forming part of a highly recommendable podcast of experts (comprising Chovanec, Garnaut and Anderlini) was a real insight into the the deep inter-generational enmity between Jinping and Xilai (and their factions in the Party), which had arisen between their fathers, Xi Zhongxun and Bo Yibo, during the cultural revolution.  Garnaut in particular has been in explosive form revealing casualties of the factional struggles for position in both the military and political leadership. Add to this interventions of factions led by Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao and Jiang Zemin and things look set for an explosive mix.

An Englishman called Daniel Foa holds a book (c) ImageChina
As has been noted China's new leaders are likely to signal a clear directional change in policy very soon after the handover (as has been customary).  Whether they retain a princeling dominance and an absolute autocracy or opt for a more compromising approach (such as a management focussed Singaporean model) will remain to be seen.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Two steps forward?

Gathering headwinds...
After a break from blog-posting it is interesting to see a consensus forming as doubts further crystallise around the China and BRICS growth story.  At least on one report, the IMF has joined the increasing ranks of observers who are bearish on growth prospects, while in Beijing another chapter in the grizzly Bo Xilai saga progressed when, on the eve of a national holiday, it was announced that a consensus on the persistent political questions had been reached - Bo Xilai would be expelled from the party (to face a criminal trial) and the 18th National Party Congress would take place on 8 October (apparently a date which will bring good fortune).

Good luck will be needed, because China is facing a number of headwinds, including tensions with Japan over disputed islands and the slowing economy which has even been noticed in the wealthy tech hub of Dongguan.  Aggressive positioning such as talk of rapid sales of Japanese bonds by the Chinese (at a time when it is trying to diversify its holdings of US treasuries), a no-show by Chinese banks at an IMF Conference in Japan (when Chinese banks may need assistance from the IMF sometime in the future) and announcements of ever-increasing local stimulus (which UBS called "unicorn", JP Morgan called "castles in the air" and the Beyond Brics team have taken to comparing by regional cuisine), seem counter-productive while uncertainty surrounded China's leader-in-waiting, who disappeared for 12 days recently.

The human side to the evolving atmosphere has come to the fore recently - not only with the riots at Foxconn facilities (and if you are hoping to read this on an iphone 5 - deepest sympathies), but also with deflationary prospects further reducing likelihood of a rebalancing and growth in consumer demand.  Gavekal Dragonomics has noted that given the current destocking cycle and fading CPI numbers, a little bit of inflation may be a good thing.  At the sharper end, industries like solar are desperately trying to slash costs and restructure debts.
Chinese de-stocking in action
A gold postscript
There have been some interesting commentaries about global currencies and the monetary system in the past couple of weeks, including from the Economist and from George Magnus of UBS who still sees issues from global savings imbalances.  Following on from the last post there has been some further discussion of the possibility that China is in fact stockpiling gold (here also and even that China and Russia are stockpiling in concert in response to US quantitative easing).  Ironically for both China and Russia, any suggestion of monetary system strength has been challenged by heavy use of reverse repos by the countries' central banks (by which the central banks inject cash into the domestic banks in exchange for securities  - other link here).

It was noted in the commentary of the Russian moves that the repos coincided with announcements from the Central Bank of Russia that it would not intervene to support the Ruble (Russia's currency).  While it was noted that this was a gesture likely to be received well by markets as pro-reform (like Renminbi liberalisation in China), especially given the CBR's previous failures to do so, the alternative explanation, that the central banks simply do not have sufficient resources to defend their currencies from outflows.  Parallel to this it was announced that official estimates predicted a sooner than expected ending for Russia's long established current account surplus, due to falling exports and high government expenditure.

Beyond any policy preferences the central banks may have in pursuing reverse repos (and the short term stimulus they provide), there remain risks for the central banks, namely i) that they will become less effective and ii) the central bank will run out of resources to execute the repo operations.  There is evidence of both these effects in China (links here and here).

Some analysts expect ineffective repos could lead to an RRR cut (reducing the amount banks are required to hold in deposits) which could free up lending and accelerate inflation and stoke lending and the property bubble - something it turns out is additionally caused by social factors including the one child policy according to Foreign Policy magazine.  Growth in the Chinese property market is already picking up, but as shown by Also Sprach Analyst in a current series, the current valuation models may significantly miscalculate the market.

A call for more clarity on China is probably due.  Or at least after the unicorns are gone.

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