Does China have the ‘financial arsenic’ to ruin the US?

The media has been highly critical of Donald Trump’s threatened tariff war with China, suggesting that China has the stronger hand.

Twitter: US-China trade deficit

I disagree on two points:

  1. Trump is right to confront China. Even Paul Krugman, not a noted Trump supporter, called for this in 2010.
  2. China’s position may not be as strong as many assume. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard sums this up neatly in The Age:

The Bank for International Settlements says offshore dollar debt has ballooned to $US25 trillion in direct loans and equivalent derivatives. At least $US1.7 trillion is debt owed by Chinese companies, often circumventing credit curbs at home. Any serious stress in the world financial system quickly turns into a vast dollar “margin call”. Woe betide any debtor who had to roll over three-month funding.

The Communist Party leadership will not kowtow to Donald Trump.

Photo: Bloomberg

The financial “carry trade” would seize up across Asia, now the epicentre of global financial risk. Nomura said the region is a flashing map of red alerts under the bank’s predictive model of future financial blow-ups. East Asia is vulnerable to any external upset. The world biggest “credit gap” is in Hong Kong where the overshoot above trend is 45 per cent of GDP. It is an accident waiting to happen.

China is of course a command economy with a state-controlled banking system. It can bathe the economy with stimulus and order lenders to refinance bad debts. It has adequate foreign reserve cover to bail out its foreign currency debtors. But it is also dangerously stretched, with an “augmented fiscal deficit” above 12 per cent of GDP.

It is grappling with the aftermath of an immense credit bubble that has pushed its debt-to-GDP ratio from 130 per cent to 270 per cent in 11 years, and it has reached credit saturation. Each yuan of new debt creates barely 0.3 yuan of extra GDP. The model is exhausted.

China has little to gain and much to lose from irate and impulsive gestures. Its deep interests are better served by seeking out the high ground – hoping the world will quietly forgive two decades of technology piracy – and biding its time as Mr Trump destroys American credibility in Asia.

East to West: Headed for war?

Followers of international relations can take their pick of wars at present. There is a trade war brewing between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, which could descend into a currency war with competing devaluations. We have a Russia waging a cyber war on the West, a Cold War in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, a proxy war in Yemen between Saudia Arabia and Iran, a frozen war in Georgia and Ukraine, and a hot war in Syria that threatens to escalate into a major confrontation between Russia and the West. On top of that we have Kim Jong-un trying to break into the big leagues by test-firing ICBMs over Japan. It’s a tough neighborhood.

The “peace dividend” that was supposed to follow the collapse of Communism is well and truly over. The next major ideological conflict is upon us. Democracy versus the Dictators. For the West to prevail it will have to engage in a coordinated muscular diplomacy over the next few decades. A good start would be Margaret Thatcher’s Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (2002):

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the oval office, 1988

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the oval office, 1988

“For my part, I favour an approach to statecraft that embraces principles, as long as it is not stifled by them; and I prefer such principles to be accompanied by steel along with good intentions.

…The habit of ubiquitous interventionism, combining pinprick strikes by precision weapons with pious invocations of high principle, would lead us into endless difficulties. Interventions must be limited in number and overwhelming in their impact.

….I should therefore prefer to restrict my guidelines to the following:

Don’t believe that military interventions, no matter how morally justified, can succeed without clear military goals.

Don’t fall into the trap of imagining that the West can remake societies.

Don’t take public opinion for granted — but don’t either underrate the degree to which good people will endure sacrifices for a worthwhile cause.

Don’t allow tyrants and aggressors to get away with it

And when you fight — fight to win.’

But the West also needs to clean up its own house and correct many of the abuses to which Capitalism has been subjected over the last few decades. Martin Wolf sums up the challenges in a recent opinion piece US-China rivalry will shape the 21st century in the Financial Times:

‘The threat is the decadence of the west, very much including the US — the prevalence of rent extraction as a way of economic life, the indifference to the fate of much of its citizenry, the corrupting role of money in politics, the indifference to the truth, and the sacrifice of long-term investment to private and public consumption….’

Bold leadership is required. To fight the wars we have to but, more importantly, to resolve conflicts by other means wherever possible. That doesn’t mean avoiding conflict by retreating from red lines. It means establishing and vigorously enforcing new rules that benefit everyone. No one wins in a war. Whether it is a trade war, a cold war or a hot war. Everyone pays a price.

At present global markets, while obviously concerned, remain optimistic that war in its many different hues can be avoided.

China’s Shanghai Composite Index is testing primary support at 3050. Bearish divergence on the Trend Index warns of strong selling pressure.

Shanghai Composite Index

The Footsie is in a primary down-trend having breached primary support at 7100. Bearish divergence on the Trend Index warns of long-term selling pressure. But the index has rallied to test resistance at 7300. Respect is likely, followed by a gradual down-trend rather than a dramatic fall.

FTSE 100

In the US, Dow Jones Industrial Average respected primary support at 23,500. Recovery above the declining trendline and resistance at 25,000 would suggest that another advance is in the offing.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

‘It must be thoroughly understood that war is a necessity, and that the more readily we accept it, the less will be the ardor of our opponents….’

~ Thucydides (circa 400 BC)

Trade Wars: Playing hardball with China

Remember North Korea and the imminent nuclear war? With leaders trading insults on Twitter and bragging: “My nuclear button is bigger than yours.” It may resemble a WWF arena more than international diplomacy but that is how Donald Trump conducts foreign affairs.

The current Twitter war over trade tarrifs is no different. Threat and counter-threat of wider and deeper trade tariffs are likely to bounce back-and-forth over the next few weeks. Xi Jinping thinks he has the upper hand because he doesn’t face criticism from a hostile media at home. Nor does he need to front up to a hostile domestic opposition. They’re all safely tucked away in jail. His stock market has already crashed, so there is not too much to worry about on that front either.

Shanghai Composite Index

Xi will do his best to undermine Trump’s shaky support. Targeting Trump’s electoral base with tariffs on soy bean imports (farming states) and steel tubing (Texas) in order to undermine his support. Targeting technology companies like Boeing and Apple, where China is a large slice of their global market, is also likely to elicit strenuous lobbying in Washington. As are well-timed tweets aimed at undermining stock support levels, threatening a major stock market rout.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

Trump probably recognizes that China can withstand more pain, but figures that he has the capacity to inflict more pain. The US has a large trade deficit with China.

Twitter: US-China trade deficit

And exports comprise a larger percentage of China’s GDP.

In 2010, Paul Krugman wrote:

Some still argue that we must reason gently with China, not confront it. But we’ve been reasoning with China for years, as its surplus ballooned, and gotten nowhere: on Sunday Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, declared — absurdly — that his nation’s currency is not undervalued. (The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that the renminbi is undervalued by between 20 and 40 percent.) And Mr. Wen accused other nations of doing what China actually does, seeking to weaken their currencies “just for the purposes of increasing their own exports.”

But if sweet reason won’t work, what’s the alternative? In 1971 the United States dealt with a similar but much less severe problem of foreign undervaluation by imposing a temporary 10 percent surcharge on imports, which was removed a few months later after Germany, Japan and other nations raised the dollar value of their currencies. At this point, it’s hard to see China changing its policies unless faced with the threat of similar action — except that this time the surcharge would have to be much larger, say 25 percent.

I don’t propose this turn to policy hardball lightly. But Chinese currency policy is adding materially to the world’s economic problems at a time when those problems are already very severe. It’s time to take a stand.

Krugman (no surprise) now seems more opposed to trade tariffs but observes:

….I think it’s worth noting that even if we are headed for a full-scale trade war, conventional estimates of the costs of such a war don’t come anywhere near to 10 percent of GDP, or even 6 percent. In fact, it’s one of the dirty little secrets of international economics that standard estimates of the cost of protectionism, while not trivial, aren’t usually earthshaking either.

I believe that Krugman’s original 2010 argument is still valid and that Trump is right in confronting China. The gap between imports and exports of goods is widening, especially since 2014, not shrinking.

Exports and Imports: Value of Goods for China

But let’s hope that Trump has done his homework. At this stage this is just a Twitter war rather than a trade war, intended to soften up your opponent rather than inflict real damage. But for Trump to succeed he must demonstrate that the US is prepared to endure the pain of a lengthy trade war if needed.

Men naturally despise those who court them, but respect those who do not give way to them.

~ Thucydides (circa 400 BC)

China holds its head above water

A quick snapshot from the latest RBA chart pack.

Manufacturing is holding its head above water (50 on the PMI chart) and industrial production shows a small upturn but investment growth is falling, as in many global economies including the US and Australia. Retail sales growth has declined but remains healthy at 10% a year.

China

Electricity generation continues to climb but steel, cement and plate glass production all warn that real estate and infrastructure development are slowing.

China

Interest rates remain accommodative.

China

Real estate price growth is slowing but remains an unhealthy 10% a year. Real estate development investment rallied in response to lower interest rates but is clearly in a long-term decline.

China

There are no signs of an economy in immediate trouble but there are indications that the real estate and infrastructure boom may be ending. Through a combination of fiscal stimulus and accommodative monetary policy the Chinese have managed to stave off a capitalism-style correction. But failure to clear some of the excesses of the past decade will mean that the inevitable correction, when it does come, is likely to display familiar Asian severity (Japan 1992, Asian Crisis 1997).

Around the markets: Hong Kong & India bullish

Canada’s TSX 60 continues to test resistance at the former primary support level of 900. Bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of strong selling pressure. Decline below 880 would confirm a primary down-trend, with an initial target of 865*.

TSX 60 Index

* Target calculation: 900 – ( 935 – 900 ) = 865

The Footsie recovered above 7400 but bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of long-term selling pressure. Another test of primary support at 7100 remains likely.

FTSE 100 Index

European stocks are taking a beating, with the Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 50 Index testing support at 3400. Sharp decline on Twiggs Money Flow warns of selling pressure. Breach of 3400 would warn of a test of 3200.

DJ Euro Stoxx 50 Index

* Target calculation: 3650 – ( 3650 – 3450 ) = 3850

India’s Sensex remains in a bull market.

BSE Sensex

* Target calculation: 29000 + ( 29000 – 26000 ) = 32000

As does Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index.

Hang Seng Index

* Target calculation: 24000 – ( 24000 – 21500 ) = 26500

While China’s Shanghai Composite index ranges between 3000 and 3300. Government interference remains a concern.

Shanghai Composite Index

Round the world: India & Hong Kong advance, Canada falters

Canada’s TSX 60 retraced to test resistance at the former primary support level of 900. Respect is likely and would signal a bear market. Decline of Twiggs Money Flow/Trend Index below zero would strengthen the bear signal. Medium-term target for the decline is 865*.

TSX 60 Index

* Target calculation: 900 – ( 935 – 900 ) = 865

The Footsie is losing momentum, with penetration of successive trendlines and declining Twiggs Trend Index. A test of primary support at 7100 is likely.

FTSE 100 Index

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 50 Index, representing the 50 largest stocks in the Euro Zone, found support above 3400. Penetration of the declining trendline would indicate the correction is over and suggest the start of another advance — confirmed if the index breaks its recent (May 2017) high.

DJ Euro Stoxx 50 Index

* Target calculation: 3650 – ( 3650 – 3450 ) = 3850

It’s full steam ahead for India’s Sensex. Trend Index troughs above zero indicate strong buying pressure. Expect some profit-taking at the target of 32000* but any correction is likely to be shallow as the bull market gathers momentum.

BSE Sensex

* Target calculation: 29000 + ( 29000 – 26000 ) = 32000

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index has also reached its target of 26500. Again Trend Index troughs above zero indicate solid buying pressure.

Hang Seng Index

* Target calculation: 24000 – ( 24000 – 21500 ) = 26500

China’s Shanghai Composite index is also rallying but I remain wary of government intervention.

Shanghai Composite Index

Credit Suisse contrary view on Iron Ore

Where is the Chinese iron ore inventory cycle?

By Houses and Holes at 9:06 am on July 5, 2017
Republished with thanks to Macrobusiness.

From Credit Suisse:

Iron ore turns up, once again confounds bears on the Street

Iron ore once again confounded those calling it down by jumping at the end of June. However, this was predictable. In late May and early June we were hearing anecdotally (Platts) that some steel mills were on-selling contractual cargoes of iron ore to repay quarterly loans due at the end of June. That was a destocking event which inevitably put pressure on the price by adding cargoes to the daily sales list. But by the end of the month, loans were met and destocking is always followed by restocking.

Street still focused on port stocks, China mills are not Iron ore has been nothing if not volatile so it has been a tough call, but the Street keeps getting it directionally wrong, doubling down when the price is sliding. We believe one big difference between the Street’s price forecasts and what actually happens is that analysts are looking at a different side of the supply-demand equation from the actual buyers – Chinese steel mills. The street is obsessed with ever-rising port stocks. These stocks seem a clear indication that iron ore is over-supplied so for commodity analysts, that means the price should fall until some supply is destroyed to restore balance. Therefore, when the iron ore price is rising, analysts publish grim warnings that this can’t last due to too much supply. When the price falls again, the analysts feel validated that they were right, and promptly down grade price forecasts because it’s “the end”. But then the price rises again….

Why do the steel mills keep buying?

China steel mills seem unconcerned about port stocks, although it is not clear why. We do note that steel mills own two thirds of the port stocks anyway (traders the remainder) so perhaps SOEs are taking contractual cargoes, but only using the high grade portions currently while steel prices are so high? They could buy other high grade supply from the traders’ stocks. As we found on our visit to Tangshan mills at the start of May, SOEs have no concerns obtaining bank loans so may not worry about working capital. They may plan to destock later when prices are lower. And interestingly, Mysteel’s survey of around 67 small to medium steel mills which will be private, seem to have normalised inventories rather than any build up. So larger SOEs may be the culprits.

Steel mill buying follows demand, not supply

But if we leave aside the port stocks issue, then steel mills’ buying decisions are based on demand, not supply. The volatile iron ore price is actually reflecting destock-restock cycles by steel mills. One influence on the stock cycles is seasonal and predictable, another is Chinese macro factors, particularly policy decisions and is very difficult or impossible to forecast. Macro factors and seasonal demand periods guide steel mills as to whether steel demand will be strong and prices strong. If it looks promising, they want to buy ore to run flat out. And when one is buying, all start buying to beat the iron ore price peak.

How has this worked in practice?

Seasonally we reached the construction season end in June, so rebar demand should have been lower, and it has been. But equally importantly it was clear from anecdotal reports in Platts that destocking was taking place – mills were dumping contractual cargo deliveries into the spot market, liquidating to raise cash for debt repayments due at the end of June. It is clear that near the end of the month, that would cease as debts were met. Instead, the mills that had sold incoming cargoes would need to go back and buy to continue steel production – restock follows destock. And so it has played out.

As commentators searched for an explanation for the price jump, they latched onto a speech about the economy by President Xi on 27 June that was the only notable macro event. It was not a rip-roaring call by the President, but may have provided reassurance. From Reuters’ reports we see that the President said the full-year growth target could be met, said China was capable of meeting systemic risks despite challenges and noted that maintaining medium to high speed long-term growth will not be easy due to the sheer size of the economy, but the Government is committed to bolstering consumer-driven growth and curbing excess capacity in industries such as steel and coal.

No change to our 3Q price forecast of $70/t

Despite the run-up in the iron ore price it remains below our 3Q price forecast of $70/t. But our call was not based on the end of a short-term destocking cycle. Instead, we are looking towards September and October, which is seasonally a strong period for steel production and consumption – after the summer heat and rain, but before the winter freeze. If steel mills want to be producing strongly in September, they need to be booking iron ore cargoes in late July and August, and these are typically months where the price lifts. June is normally the low point for iron ore, heading into the summer steel demand lull.

Looming winter cuts may add to 3Q iron ore demand

This year there is an additional factor to consider. The Environment Ministry has its widely publicized industrial curtailments planned for 26+2 cities over winter. Smog reaches hazardous levels over Beijing-Tianjin during the winter when coal burn for heating joins the normal industrial smoke. Next winter, a change is planned by reducing industrial emissions from mid-Nov to late-Feb. The steel industry in Hebei, Henan, Shanxi and Shandong is expected to cut output by 50%, If this policy is enforced – and smog is a high priority issue – then steel output may fall by 35-45Mt over the three months. If prices remain high, steel mills will want to keep selling so it might be possible for them to over-produce and build some inventory in 2H. If this is so, then 3Q iron ore buying could be extra strong.

Ahem, not a lot of humility there. CS was telling folks that iron ore was going higher at $94. It was it that missed the destock not the other way around.

Still, there’s some reasonable arguments here. The jump in price triggered by Li’s bland comments was a surprise. Mills have been lowish on stock so may be behind some of it. But let’s face it, when Dalian open interest also soars then we can be pretty sure that China’s loony tune retail speculators (Banana Man) also played some significant role.

Those rebar stocks are also bullish and it’s true that mills follow demand. Q3 may well hold up and mills replenish their inventories though $70 as average looks a big stretch from here. $60 would probably cover it.

But the September-November period is not seasonally bullish at all. It is seasonally weak and traditionally brings in a big destock. If we combine that with what I expect to be a slowing of growth at the margin by then, then mills will indeed follow demand and shed inventories into year end. Especially so given port stocks will be even higher before then if we see some price pressure in Q3.

Daily iron ore price update (headfake) | Macrobusiness

By Houses and Holes
at 12:05 am on June 28, 2017
Reproduced with permission of Macrobusiness.

Iron ore price charts for June 27, 2017:


Tianjin benchmark roared 6% to $59.10. Coal is calm. Steel too.

The trigger of course was this, via SCMP:

China would like foreign businesses to keep their profits in the country and reinvest them, Premier Li Keqiang said in his keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in Dalian on Tuesday, although he added there would be no restrictions on the movement of their money.

Economy

China’s economic growth is gaining fresh momentum and there will be no hard landing in the world’s second-biggest economy. The unemployment rate in May dropped to 4.91 per cent, he noted, the lowest level in many years.

Market access

China will continue to open its markets in the services and manufacturing sectors. It will loosen restrictions on shareholdings by foreign companies in joint ventures and will ensure China will continue to be the most attractive investment destination.

Economic policy

The Chinese government will not rely on stimulus to bolster economic growth. Instead, it will use structural adjustment and innovation to maintain economic vitality. The government will keep stable macro policies – a prudent monetary policy and a proactive fiscal policy – to ensure clarity and stability in financial markets.

Financial risks

China is fully capable of containing financial market risks and avoiding systemic ones. There are rising geopolitical risks and increasing voices opposing globalisation. China will keep its promises in combating climate change and will work to promote globalisation.

Absolutely nothing new there. In fact it is a little reassuring to those of us that think reform is on the verge of returning.

But the market has been heavily sold and so it got excited. There is a little room for it to run given lowish mill iron ore inventories:

But, in all honesty, I’m stretching to be positive. The price jump will very quickly arrive at Chinese ports as bowel-shakingly higher inventories in short order:

And the economy is still going to slow at the margin as housing comes off leading to a destock in the foreseeable future:

The great thing about markets is they always off[er] second chances. On this occasion it is to get even more short.

The disconnect between long-term and short-term rates

Bob Doll highlighted the disconnect between long-term and short-term rates in his latest review. The chart below plots the 3-month T-bill rate against 10-year Treasury yields.

Spot Gold/Light Crude

At this stage, the disconnect is not significant. But a disconnect as in 2004 – 2005 is far more serious. Large Chinese purchases of Treasuries prevented long-term rates from rising in response to Fed tightening, limiting the Fed’s ability to contain the housing bubble.

China: Stay clear

“Never trade against the central bank” is a golden rule of trading. Rule #2 should be: “When the central bank behaves erratically, stay clear.” The PBOC announced a crackdown on wealth management products in May but alarm at the rapid contraction elicited a quick retraction.

The Shanghai Composite Index broke support at 3050/3100 signaling a primary decline. But the PBOCs sudden reversal spurred a recovery, with the index now likely to test resistance at 3300. Rising Twiggs Money Flow indicates buying pressure. Reversal below 3050 is unlikely but would confirm a primary down-trend.

Shanghai Composite Index