China’s Party Pep Talk Preening

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Chinese shares were up over 30 percent on the MSCI index through July, as solid economic data and financial work conference rhetoric overcame US trade retaliation threats following lack of agreement to cut steel exports in particular during the bilateral strategic dialogue in Washington. Second quarter GDP growth was 6.9 percent, with majority contributions from consumption and services, as infrastructure investment rose 20 percent and fixed-asset outlays at half that pace. Inflation was steady at 1.5 percent with money supply expansion continuing to drop to 9.5 percent on shadow banking and international conglomerate- centered deleveraging. The Yuan appreciated 3 percent against the dollar as the central bank hailed “market confidence” and Fitch Ratings pointed to a 1 percent jump in foreign ownership under the new Bond Connect. President Xi called for improved currency trading and internationalization efforts at the annual financial sector Party forum, ahead of the landmark October Congress which will formalize his second term. Reserves have returned to the $3 trillion mark, and banks have been net foreign exchange sellers the past year, as Chinese tourist spending abroad increased 2.5 percent in 2016. The Economist’s “Big Mac Index” puts RMB undervaluation at 45 percent, but less subjective expert readings have it in the 5 percent range.  Politburo statements at the July meeting focused on debt risks, including in local governments and households, with the latter soon to reach 50 percent of GDP. Ratings agencies reinforced caution, with S&P keeping a long-term negative outlook due to runaway credit despite the high savings rate. A financial stability council was formed to coordinate regulation and urgent action through the central bank, which ordered lower wealth management product returns as they approached a 2-year top toward 5 percent. It will be on the lookout for capital and insurance market “abnormal fluctuations” as well as real estate froth and the warning helped prompt a 17 percent loss on the small company tech-heavy ChiNext.

All big state enterprises will be converted to joint stock ownership by year-end but private capital participation has not yet been defined. Profits were up 15 percent among a cross-section of 100 firms in the first half, but company leverage averages over 150 percent, according to official statistics. The government has introduced curbs on further lending to aggressive overseas acquirers like HNA and Dalian Wanda to set an example as it consolidates holdings, most recently in the shipping industry, with coal and heavy machinery deals in the pipeline. Property investment jumped 8.5 percent at mid-year and the 70-city price index again was higher in June. President Xi may leave the sector alone until his reelection, but he has tightened controls over local government borrowing with phase out of financing vehicles, with large real estate assets, in favor of more disciplined bond issuance. He may elevate anti-corruption chief Wang Quishan, who oversaw the biggest investment trust bankruptcy during the 1990’s financial crisis with foreign creditors, to premier in a sign that top-level restructuring expertise and vision may again be pressing. His latest target was a party boss in Chongqing who may now be eliminated from standing committee consideration, as gaming center Macau continues to suffer from the anti-capital flight and money laundering purge.