A policy change did beget
In China, addiction to debt
Per last night’s report
Continues, the bulls’ views, to whet
The data from China continues to surprise modestly to the upside. Last week, you may recall, the Manufacturing PMI report printed above 50 in a surprising rebound. Last night, Q1 GDP printed at 6.4%, a tick better than expected, and the concurrent data; Fixed Asset Investment (6.3%), IP (8.5%) and Retail Sales (8.7%) all beat expectations as well. In fact, the IP data blew them away as the analyst community was looking for a reading of 5.9%. While there is some possibility that the data is still mildly distorted from the late Lunar New Year holiday, it certainly seems as though the Chinese have managed to prevent any significant further weakness in their economy.
How, you may ask, have they accomplished this feat? Why the way every government does these days. As we also learned last week, debt in China continues to grow rapidly, far more rapidly than the economy, which means that every yuan of debt buys less growth. It should be no surprise that there is diminishing effectiveness in this strategy, but it should also be no surprise that this is likely to be the way forward. In the short run, this process certainly pads the data story, helping to ensure that growth continues. However, there is a clear and measurable negative aspect to this policy.
Exhibit A is real estate. One of the areas seeing the most investment in China continues to be real estate. The problem with expanding real estate debt (it grew 11.6% in Q1 compared to 6.4% growth for GDP) is that real estate investment is not especially productive. For an economy that relies on manufacturing, productivity growth is crucial. The more money invested in real estate, the less available for improved efficiencies in the economy. Longer term this will lead to slower GDP growth in China, just as it has done in all the developed world economies. However, as politics, even in China, is based on the here and now, there is no reason to expect these policies to change. Two years ago, President Xi tried to force a crackdown on excessive debt used to finance the property bubble that had inflated throughout China. However, it is abundantly clear that the priorities have shifted to growth at all costs. At this stage, I expect that we will see consistently better numbers out of China going forward, regardless of any trade resolution. If Xi wants growth, that is what the rest of the world will see, whether it exists or not.
Turning to the FX market, this implies to me that we are about to see CNY start to strengthen further. Last night saw a 0.40% rally taking the dollar down to key support levels between 6.68-6.69. I expect that we are going to see the renminbi start a more protracted move higher and at this point would not be surprised to see the USDCNY end 2019 around 6.30. That is a significant change in my view from earlier this year, but there has also been a significant change in the policy stance in China which cannot be ignored.
Elsewhere, risk overall has been ‘on’ as investors have responded to the better than expected Chinese data, as well as the continued dovishness from the central banking community, and keep buying stocks. If you recall several weeks ago, there was a conundrum as both stocks and bonds were rallying. At the time, the view from most pundits was that the stock market was wrong and that the bond market was presaging a significant slowdown in the economy. In fact, we saw that first yield curve inversion at the time in early March. However, since then, 10-year Treasury yields have backed up by 22bps and now sit above 2.60% for the first time in a month, while stock prices have continued to rally. As such, it appears that the bond market had it wrong, not the stock market. The one caveat is that this stock market rally has been on diminishing volumes which implies that it is not that widely supported. The opposing viewpoints are the bulls believe there is a big catch up rally in the wings as those who have missed out reach peak FOMO, while the bears believe that though the rally has been substantial, it has a very weak underlying basis, and will retreat rapidly.
As to the FX market, yesterday saw dollar strength, which was a bit surprising given the weaker than expected economic data (both IP and Capacity Utilization disappointed) as well as mixed to negative earnings data from the equity market. However, this morning, the dollar has retraced those gains with the pound being the one real outlier, falling slightly amid gains in virtually every other currency, as inflation data from the UK printed softer than expected at 1.9%, thus pushing any concept of tighter policy even further into the future.
On the data front, this morning brings the Trade Balance (exp -$53.3B) and then the Fed’s Beige Book is released this afternoon. We also have two more Fed speakers, Harker and Bullard, but that message remains pretty consistent. No change in policy in the near future and all efforts to determine the best way to push inflation up to the target level. What this means in practice is that there is a vanishingly small probability that US monetary policy will tighten any further in the near future. Of course, neither will policy elsewhere tighten, so I continue to view the dollar’s prospects positively with the clear exception of the CNY as mentioned above.