Last month we attended a trip hosted by CICC in China to gain a deeper ‘on the ground’ understanding of the health of the Chinese economy. This was a commodities and macro focussed trip and the third consecutive year we attended.
The government’s reform efforts in reducing excess supply in the economy continue to impress.
Upstream industries are in generally much sounder financial health relative to my first trip in 2016, and the reform focus has clearly pivoted away from financial to environmental health, consistent with remarks over recent months by President Xi. It’s widely expected commodity prices should be supported by reduced supply, although shifting attention to cleaning up the environment may have some unintended consequences for demand.
Xi’s supply side reforms keeping the steel market balanced
To its credit, the government’s ambitious attempts to tackle inefficient steel production and revive profitability is clearly working. My visit to Tangshan, one of China’s big steel producing cities, was testament to that with ‘diamond-effect’ paintwork on Range Rovers, Lamborghinis outside the front of hotels and generally more ‘German metal’ on the road than my previous visits
Aside from these anecdotes, clearly regulatory and financial tightening has forced inefficient producers out of the steel market, with larger and more profitable operators who benefit from economies of scale still producing at near full capacity. Secondly, the government’s core objective of cleaning up the environment is forcing steel mills and other industrialised factories to reinvest in cleaner infrastructure to decrease pollution levels. What I found interesting was how local government officials, far from ignoring Beijing’s call for tighter environmental policy given the negative implications on growth, are implementing a stricter framework than Beijing is pushing for.
For example, we heard that the white smoke emissions from steel mills will not be allowed in Tangshan from November this year, despite the lack of producers with appropriate technology. While measures like this are likely to be watered down, it does highlight the seriousness of local authorities’ environmental conservation efforts. Clearly over tightening risks exist as the government’s focus shifts from quantity to quality of economic growth. However, we gain some comfort from the significant improvement in the coordination of policy and implementation over the last two years, and hence I think any signs of overtightening will be dealt with accordingly.
Steel producers and other market participants we spoke to weren’t overly concerned with the pick-up in protectionist rhetoric and policy from the US.
The general sense was policies implemented so far were relatively modest in their effect, while any significant tightening would be self-defeating for the US. Admittedly I was a little surprised to see such a relaxed attitude, although we generally concur with the view, as detailed in a blog piece released last week.
Moreover, discussions with a couple of reputable economists also highlighted risks from domestic overtightening far outweighed those of a trade war.
Soft economic activity data
The timing of the Chinese New Year (CNY) makes analysing and interpreting recent soft data prints extremely hard. Chinese demand data generally goes through a seasonal lag following CNY, but it seems to be uncharacteristically slow to recover this year.
At this point and as a result of discussions from the trip, we believe that demand is delayed rather than permanently reduced. We are closely monitoring inventory levels of steel which appear to be moderating and hence provide some comfort that demand has merely been delayed rather than reduced. Weakness should therefore recover during the second quarter. Furthermore, consumer and business confidence surveys continue to point to a healthy macro-backdrop.
Despite slightly reducing some risk in our emerging market debt and emerging market multi-asset strategies before the recent sell-off, we are still positive on the global growth story. China’s contribution to the world economic expansion remains significant, and hence our constructive view on China supports our positive outlook on global growth. In our view, further sell-offs in asset prices relating to a Chinese growth slowdown will provide us with a good opportunity to increase risk at more attractive levels.
In terms of bottom-up positioning, we still hold a long position in the renminbi against other regional peers. The closing interest rate differential with the US (i.e. difference between US and Chinese interest rates) creates some challenges, but overall the balance of payments are in a robust position. Capital outflows remain contained, capital inflows are also gaining traction thanks to recent liberalisation measures and benchmark announcements, while strong global growth is continuing to underpin healthy export growth. Furthermore, we also think renminbi strength is welcomed by the authorities as it helps to contain capital outflow pressures while also assisting in trade negotiations with the US.
In recent weeks, the US administration has acted on 2016 election promises to put America first in global trade policy. This has taken two forms – global metals tariffs, and China-specific tariffs relating to technology intellectual property theft. Our baseline is that this will not start a reciprocal trade war, and hence have limited medium-term impact on global growth and markets. A further sell off in risk assets may provide opportunities for investors to add risk. Our asset allocation preferences are emerging market currencies and equities.
Global metals tariffs were enacted under section 232 of the 1962 US Trade Expansion Act, citing the need to protect domestic steel production to ensure long-term self-sufficiency and hence national security. The US imported around 36 million tonnes of steel last year, and 6 million tonnes of aluminium, worth around US$40bn. Tariffs proposed were 25% and 10% respectively, representing a small fraction of the value of global trade in those metals. Additionally, the US has granted short-term exemptions to Canada, Mexico, the EU, Australia, South Korea, Argentina and Brazil, which account for about 75-80% of those imports. We expect deals to be reached exempting many kinds of specialist steels, as US industry ex-steel is lobbying hard against these measures. Thus this set of tariffs are not a major medium-term risk.
US Trade Representative Lighthizer has been investigating Chinese extraction of US intellectual property under section 301 of the 1977 US Trade Act. Independent estimates have put the long-term cost to the US economy in the range of US$200-400bn. Yesterday, President Trump announced tariffs averaging 25% on a list of goods worth up to $50bn in exports to the US. The final list of goods is yet to be announced, but will come within 15 days, with a 30-day consultation period. The net amount, US$12.5bn, would take around 0.1% off Chinese GDP.
China has responded with mixed rhetoric. A conciliatory speech earlier in the week from Premier Li acknowledging the need to reduce the barriers to foreign investment in China and to end technology transfer demands, reassured markets. This morning, China has announced tariffs of 10-25% on US$3bn worth of US agricultural imports in response to the original section 232 metals tariffs. The announcement carried a stronger tone, warning the US against further actions.
The current level of US tariffs, and the response from China, have both been smaller than we expected, given prior analysis. We do not see this as an incentive for China to escalate this trade conflict given the success of ongoing domestic economic reforms, while the US administration has achieved its PR goals. Our base case is therefore that this round of actions is now largely announced and reflected in markets.
In anticipation of this risk weighing on markets in the short term, earlier in the quarter we reduced emerging market currency exposure in our emerging market debt strategies, and equity risk in the emerging market multi asset strategy. However, in our base case of these trade actions remaining contained as outlined above, this will likely create opportunities to add risk to portfolios in those areas in coming weeks.
Chinese New Year is set to arrive on 16 February 2018, leaving behind the Year of the Rooster and ushering in the Year of the Dog. What are the key themes to look out for in the coming canine-related year?
The nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (the Party) was held from 18 - 24 October, followed by the First Plenary session today (25 October). As expected, President Xi cemented his status as the “Core Leader” of the Party; with “Xi Jinping Thought” having been enshrined into the Constitution. Furthermore, no obvious successor exists within the newly formed Politburo Standing Committee, increasing Xi’s chances of serving past his expected retirement in 2022. Consequently, the significance of other personnel changes was diluted, but from our perspective there will be little to distract President Xi from his policy agenda for the remainder of his term.
At the beginning of the National Congress, Xi’s Work Report laid out the broad plans for the next 30 years. Nevertheless, the market will focus most heavily on what to expect over the next 12 months. In terms of policy direction and momentum, we don’t expect much of a change over the short-to-medium term.
Firstly, Xi has long been considered the most powerful president for decades, so the last week has essentially rubber stamped a process which has been evolving over the last five years and was already well understood. Secondly, and somewhat related, we have seen an impressive shift in the gears of policy implementation over the last 18 months, with a clear focus on better supply side management. This contrasted with previous years where too much emphasis was placed on boosting demand through aggressive credit growth. As a result, the need for drastic policy change is limited at this stage. We therefore expect a continued focus on deleveraging, reducing excess capacity and pollution through SOE shutdowns and tightening controls on the property market to contain overheating risks.
From a portfolio perspective, we remain constructive on the Chinese renminbi. The balance of payments is in surplus as capital outflow pressures have eased significantly. Nevertheless, we still see some evidence of disguised capital outflows and hence do not expect any imminent capital account liberalisation. Trump’s visit to China next month comes as the trade balance between the two countries continues to widen, therefore ongoing currency stability or mild strength will be in China’s best interests.
Accessing China’s interbank bond market is set to become significantly easier following the implementation of China Hong Kong Bond Connect (CHKBC) in July 2017. CHKBC forms a direct, efficient and transparent platform for offshore institutional investors to access the mainland’s debt market, and will almost certainly be the preferred bond market route for new investors. In our view, CHKBC will inevitably speed up the timing of China’s index inclusion and enable a constant flow of capital from international investors. The Chinese bond market remains a compelling investment opportunity given its yield and diversification benefits, and with operational barriers being broken down further this argument is only strengthened.
Our core EMD funds already have the flexibility to trade in China through either RQFII or CIBM direct. However, given the increased flexibility of CHKBC we can use this method for any future funds or segregated portfolios which have not yet had access to the Chinese bond market.
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