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Sunday, 14 April 2013

More and more numbers

China watchers will have been accustomed for some time to the news around numbers coming out of China.  Last year, many headline news stories focussed on the magical figure of 8 - 8% GDP growth that is.  Eight is a lucky number in China but in particular it had for a long time served as a useful baseline for configuring policy - 8% was supposed to be the level at which i) China's economic growth would comfortably surpass and ii) any concern of civil unrest could be dismissed because there would be enough jobs and development to keep the masses happy.

Fast forward to 2013 and the new administration led by Xi Jinping has sought a reset.  Not only had the stated headline growth in fact fallen below 8% (7.4% and 7.6% in the second and third quarters of 2012), but in recent days Xi announced that the days of fast growth were over.

This is nothing new to some readers, the leadership has been hinting at this policy for some time, particularly as some of the costs of rapid growth (including air pollution in Beijing, rivers full of dead livestock, restrictions on imports of uncontaminated foreign milk powder) have become more visible.  What is interesting is that some of the other numbers by which outsiders assess the economy are also pointing to shifts in the economic direction - and possibly not before time.

The most significant statistic in this trend was that of exports to Hong Kong - as noted in a recent Bloomberg piece, and in other media, net global exports and imports rose around 10% (though imports greater leading to a sub $1 billion deficit), were overshadowed by an "astounding" 92.9% jump in exports to Hong Kong.  Many speculated about the causes for this, most likely some sort of fraud or arbitrage activity.  This blog has discussed arbitrage and speculation strategies which use recurring loans to take advantage of differentials between Hong Kong and Chinese versions of the currency (which are priced differently), often using fake invoices.  Others have noted the use of inflated invoices to simply get capital out of the country (capital flight).  Inflated tax rebates and faked local government data are also blamed, but there seem to be real questions as to the competency of Chinese authorities and the likelihood it points to weaknesses in the Chinese economy:
“The breakdown of exports by destination veers towards the absurd,” IHS economists Xianfang Ren and Alistair Thornton said in a note today. “There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that exporters are faking orders” and using a practice to obtain export-tax rebates, IHS said.Zheng Yuesheng, a customs administration spokesman, said today that the practice of false trade declarations “does exist, but is definitely not mainstream.” Exporters must bear legal responsibilities if they do that, Zheng said.The agency has made an initial probe into possible money flows disguised as trade with Hong Kong, and will “work with relevant departments to conduct deeper and more detailed investigations and research so that we can be completely clear about various reasons behind the extraordinary trade growth with Hong Kong,” Zheng said at the briefing in Beijing.
Meanwhile other numbers released pointed to the continuing trend of increasing foreign exchange reserves and gold acquisitions, falling venture capital investment and continuing reported findings of high levels of corruption amongst public officials.  The latest case involves the former head of the powerful Ministry of Railways, accused of accepting $10 million in bribes.  This follows releases of the business interests of ruling Chinese families by Bloomberg and the New York Times last year (a current investigation, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has hinted at information, but not made any significant disclosures yet).  For less high profile convictions, the FCPA Blog maintains an accurate list of current reports of bribe taking).

All in a plan
Whilst looking into another topic this blog came across the latest 5 year plan for the Financial Industry (released in 2012) and there are some numbers amidst all of the vague platitudes (of what harmonious things "shall" happen to improve the efficiency, growth and resilience of all elements of the financial sector).  Overall dominant international law firm Linklaters published a summary talking up the plan as aiming "to promote the steady growth of the financial industry by introducing changes to further regulate and develop the market", but the document has several numbers and supporting statements which look odd:
"The ratio of provisions set aside by commercial banks stood at 217.7%, exhibiting significantly enhanced overall strength. The share of assets brought by the securities industry reached RMB 2.05 trillion, exhibiting a 583% surge compared to the end of 2005 and substantially enhancing its risk resilience capability"
"Small and medium commercial banks were committed to ever deepening reform, while financial asset management companies made steady progress in their transformation"
"Financial risks shall be maintained under control in general. Major financial institutions in banking industry shall preserve high capital quality and level, while the percentage of non-performing loans shall be kept at relatively low level, with increasingly stronger risk management capability"
"The balance of payments shall be led to general equilibrium. Financial policies including
interest rate, exchange rate and foreign exchange administration shall play an important role in achieving the equilibrium in the balance of payments"
The first statement while probably true suggests an out of control boom more than anything.  The other statements, while based on similarly optimistic and suggestive numbers are likely false, particularly the last (except to the extent of de facto truth due to incorrect inputs).

Discussion Topic
Since the Cypriot implosion there has been discussion of the pricing of CDS (credit default swaps, which pay out when entities default) for other Eurozone countries and, in some cases, how concern about CDS payouts (which have to be made by large investment banks) might change the profile of decision makes who are administering bailouts and devising restructuring plans (lest they be accused of stirring the markets by causing a default which triggers CDS payouts unnecesserily).  A question for readers as to what impact there could be from the implosion of large Chinese banks or a change in the risk profile (and CDS pricing) for the Chinese government?  China featured in the top 10 of CDS net notionals for governments in late 2012 and current statistics for liquid CDS (including China) published by Markit are here.  Any comments are welcome!

On a final note of this numbers themed post, a few words from rapper Mos Def and his tune, Mathematics:
Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings
but you push too hard, even numbers got limits
Why did one straw break the camel's back? Here's the secret:
the million other straws underneath it - it's all mathematics

FURTHER NOTE - Michael Pettis has a new post on the GDP numbers which is pretty comprehensive.  Has a nice discussion of the difficulty of stripping out activity to leave true economic growth - which unsurprisingly is a lot less in China than official figures indicate (here). 

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