Chemical output signals trouble for global economy

A petrochemical plant on the outskirts of Shanghai. Chinese chemical industry production has been negative on a year-to-date basis since February

Falling output in China and slowing growth globally suggest difficult years ahead, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

Chemicals are the best leading indicator for the global economy. Data for both Chinese and global chemical production, shown in the first chart, are warning that we may now be headed into recession.

China’s stimulus programme has been the key driver for the world’s post-2008 recovery, as we discussed here in May (“China’s lending bubble is history”).

It accounted for about half of the global $33tn in stimulus programmes and its decline is currently having a dual impact, as it reduces both demand for EM commodities and the availability of global credit.

In turn, this reversal is impacting the global economy — already battling headwinds from trade tariffs and higher oil prices.

Initially the impact was most noticeable in emerging markets but the scale of the downturn is now starting to hit the wider economy:

  • China’s demand has been the growth engine for the global economy since 2008, and its scale has been such that this lost demand cannot be compensated elsewhere
  • China’s shadow banking bubble has been a major source of speculative lending, helping to finance property bubbles in China and many global cities
  • It also financed a domestic construction boom in China on a scale never seen before, creating excess demand for a wide range of commodities

But now the lending bubble is bursting. The second chart shows the extent of the downturn this year. Shadow banking is down 84%  ($557bn) in the year to September, according to official People’s Bank of China data. Total Social Financing is down 12% ($188bn), despite an increase in official bank lending to support strategic companies.

It seems highly likely that the property bubble has begun to burst, with China Daily reporting that new home loans in Shanghai were down 77% in the first half. In turn, auto sales fell in each month during the third quarter, as buyers can no longer count on windfall gains from property speculation to finance their purchases.

The absence of speculative Chinese buyers, anxious to move their cash offshore, is also having a significant impact on demand outside China in former property hotspots in New York, London and elsewhere.

The chemical industry has been flagging this decline with increasing urgency since February, when Chinese production went negative on a year-to-date basis. The initial decline was certainly linked to the government’s campaign to reduce pollution by shutting down many older and more polluting factories.

But there has been no recovery over the summer, with both August and September showing 3.1% declines according to American Chemistry Council data. Inevitably, Asian production has also now started to decline, due to its dependence on exports to China. In turn, like a stone thrown into a pond, the wider ripples are starting to reach western economies.

President Trump’s trade wars aren’t helping, of course, as they have already begun to increase prices for US consumers. Ford, for example, has reported that its costs have increased by $1bn as a result of steel and aluminium tariffs. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has also caused oil prices as a percentage of GDP to rise to levels typically associated with recession in the past.

The rationale is simply that consumers only have so much cash to spend, and money they spend on rising gasoline and heating costs can’t be spent on the discretionary items that drive GDP growth.

It seems unlikely, however, that Trump’s trade war with China will lead to his expected “quick win”. China has faced far more severe hardships in recent decades, and there are few signs that it is preparing to change core policies. The trade war will inevitably have at least a short-term negative economic impact but, paradoxically, it also supports the government’s strategy to escape the “middle income trap” by ending China’s role as the “low-skilled factory of the world”, and moving up the ladder to more value-added operations and services.

The trade war therefore offers an opportunity to accelerate the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), initially by moving unsophisticated and often polluting factories offshore. It also emphasises the priority given to the services sector:

  • Already companies, both private and state-owned, are focusing their international acquisitions in BRI countries. According to EY, 12 per cent of overall Chinese (non-financial) outbound investment was in BRI countries in 2017, versus 9 per cent in 2016, and 2018 is likely to be considerably higher. Apart from south-east Asia, we expect eastern and central Europe to be beneficiaries, given the new BRI infrastructure links, as the map highlights
  • Data from the Caixin/Markit services purchasing managers’ index for September suggests the sector remains in growth mode. And government statistics suggest the services sector was slightly over half of the economy in the first half, with its official growth reported at 7.6 per cent versus overall GDP growth of 6.8 per cent

We expect China to come through the pain caused by the unwinding of the stimulus bubbles, and ultimately be strengthened by the need to refocus on sustainable rather than speculative growth. But it will not be an easy few years for China and the global economy.

The rising tide of stimulus has led many investors and chief executives to look like geniuses. Now the downturn will probably lead to the appearance of winners and losers, with the latter likely to be in the majority.

Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.

China’s lending bubble is history

As China’s shadow banking is reined in, the impact on the global economy is already clear, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

China’s shadow banking sector has been a major source of speculative lending to the global economy. But 2018 has seen it entering its end-game, as our first chart shows, collapsing by 64% in renminbi terms in January to April from the same period last year (by $274bn in dollar terms).

The start of the year is usually a peak period for lending, with banks getting new quotas for the year.

The downturn was also noteworthy as it marked the end of China’s lending bubble, which began in 2009 after the financial crisis. Before then, China’s total social financing (TSF), which includes official and shadow lending, had averaged 2 times gross domestic product in the period from 2002 to 2008. But between 2009 and 2013, it jumped to 3.2 times GDP as China’s stimulus programme took off.

It is no accident, for example, that China’s Tier 1 cities boast some of the highest house price-to-earnings ratios in the world or, indeed, that Chinese buyers have dominated key areas of the global property market in recent years.

The picture began to change with the start of President Xi Jinping’s first term in 2013, as our second chart confirms. Shadow banking’s share of TSF has since fallen from nearly 50% to just 15% by April, almost back to the 8% level of 2002. TSF had already slowed to 2.4 times GDP in 2014 to 2017.

The start of Mr Xi’s second term has seen him in effect take charge of the economy through the mechanism of his central leading groups. He has also been able to place his supporters in key positions to help ensure alignment as the policy changes are rolled out.

This year’s lending data are therefore likely to set a precedent for the future, rather than being a one-off blip. Although some of the shadow lending was reabsorbed in the official sector, TSF actually fell 14% ($110bn) in the first four months of the year. Already the economy is noticing the impact. Auto sales, for example, which at the height of the stimulus programme grew more than 50% in 2009 and by a third in 2010, have seen just 3% growth so far this year.

The downturn also confirms the importance of Mr Xi’s decision to make “financial deleveraging” the first of his promised “three tough battles” to secure China’s goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020, as we discussed in February.

It maps on to the IMF’s warning in its latest Global Stability Financial Report that:

In China, regulators have taken a number of steps to reduce risks in the financial system. Despite these efforts, however, vulnerabilities remain elevated. The use of leverage and liquidity transformation in risky investment products remains widespread, with risks residing in opaque corners of the financial system.”

The problems relate to the close linkage between China’s Rmb250tn ($40tn) banking sector and the shadow banks, through its exposure to the Rmb75tn off-balance-sheet investment vehicles. The recent decision to create a new Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission is another sign of the changes under way, as this will eliminate the previous opportunity for arbitrage created by the existence of separate standards in the banking and insurance industries for the same activity, such as leasing.

As the IMF’s chart below highlights, lightly regulated vehicles have played a critical role in China’s credit boom. Banks, for example, have been able to use the shadow sector to repackage high-risk credit investments as low-risk retail savings products, which are then made available in turn to consumers at the touch of their smartphone button. This development has heightened liquidity risks among the small and medium-sized banks, whose reliance on short-term non-deposit funding remains high. The IMF notes, for example, that “more than 80% of outstanding wealth management products are billed as low risk”.

Mr Xi clearly knows he faces a tough battle to rein-in leverage, given the creativity that has been shown by the banks in ramping up their lending over the past decade. The stimulus programme has also created its own supporters in the construction and related industries, as large amounts of cash have been washing around China’s property markets, and finding its way into overseas markets.

But Mr Xi is now China’s most powerful leader since Mao, and it would seem unwise to bet against him succeeding with his deleveraging objective, even if it does create short-term pain for the economy as shadow banking is brought back under control.

As Gabriel Wildau has reported, the official sector is already under pressure from Beijing to boost its capital base. Analysts are suggesting that $170bn of new capital may be required by the mid-sized banks, whilst Moody’s estimates the four megabanks may require more than double this amount by 2025 in terms of “special debt” to meet new Financial Stability Board rules.

Essentially, therefore, China’s lending bubble is now history and the tide of capital flows is reversing. It is therefore no surprise that global interest rates are now on the rise, with the US 10-year rate breaking through 3%. Investors and companies might be well advised to prepare for some big shocks ahead. As Warren Buffett once wisely remarked, it is “only when the tide goes out, do you discover who’s been swimming naked”.

Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.

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