Trade War Still a Sideshow,China Still Slowing

The message of this blog for years, and multiple times since January of this year, is that the country relies on credit-driven property and infrastructure development. Everyone looking for stimulus for China needs to account for policy that is delivering the exact opposite. And as has happened every single time before, when the rubber meets the road and the government faces the reality of its development model, it opens the credit gushers.

Caixin: Opinion: China Could Have Difficulty Holding Its Tough Line on Real Estate
Is it possible to stabilize economic growth without support from the property sector? And will property regulations be further tightened? These questions are crucial to judging the direction of China’s economy.

...From a historical perspective, an economic recovery at times when there was a drop in external demand usually relied on the “dual engines” of infrastructure investment and real estate.

...Admittedly, policymakers have not used real estate as a tool to boost the economy in the latest round of economic stimulus, but that doesn’t mean they will allow it to depress economic growth.
There's nothing wrong with this opinion piece. I'm using it to highlight the fact I've been saying this all along. However, it does signal that perhaps the government is running out of patience.

As for infrastructure spending, China has reached some limits.

SCMP: China’s railway spending plummets as Beijing struggles to sustain momentum
China’s spending on railways, a key driver for growth in the last decade, tumbled in August – in part because all major towns are now covered by the country’s extensive railway network.

China’s economic planning agency said on Wednesday that railway fixed-asset investment was 449.6 billion yuan (US$63 billion) in the first eight months of this year, which marked a modest 2.5 per cent fall from the same period last year.

However, August alone marked a steep fall of 27.1 per cent compared to the same month in 2018, according to calculations by the South China Morning Post, based on the official data.
Three takeaways. One, infrastructure spending is hitting its natural limit. Two, real estate development often accompanies (before or after) infrastructure development. When the government announces a high-speed rail stop in a town, the real estate around the station booms. A lack of spending has knock-on effects. Additionally, even if they keep spending on rail, they will build stations in out-of-the-way rural areas unlikely to attract developers. Three, credit-fueled economic growth requires a rising rate of borrowing because as credit becomes multiples of GDP, even a small decrease can have a huge impact on total nominal demand. Thus it is not surprising to see that as railroad spending slows, it tips into collapse.

Real estate remains in a slowdown, yet is also still very close to an explosive bull market if the government lets the credit genie out of the bottle.

Reuters: China's home price growth at weakest in nearly a year, developers seen cutting prices
Average new home prices in China’s 70 major cities rose 8.8% in August from a year earlier, compared with a 9.7% gain in July and the weakest pace since October 2018, Reuters calculated from official National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) data on Tuesday.

On a monthly basis, average new home prices rose 0.5% in August, less than July’s growth of 0.6% and the smallest increase since February. However, it still marked the 52nd straight month of gains.

Most of the 70 cities surveyed by the NBS still reported monthly price increases for new homes, though the number was down to 55 from 60 in July.
Investment could slow substantially in the fourth quarter though.
China’s property investment grew at its fastest pace in four months in August, data showed on Monday, in contrast to a protracted slowdown in industrial output and investment.

But some analysts said the rebound in investment was likely due to developers rushing to meet government requirements before they can start sales on growing financing pressure and worries about the market’s prospects as regulators have made clear that supervision is only set to tighten.
Turning to the global economy, Andy Xie in SCMP reminds us that a trade war deal is unlikely. US-China trade war: both sides have reason to compromise, but their differences remain intractable
China and the United States are taking steps to de-escalate the trade war. It has raised hopes for a breakthrough at the scheduled talks next month. While there could be an agreement to ease some of the tit-for-tat punitive measures, a complete solution is unlikely.

Indeed, the trade war is likely to continue for many years. The auxiliary tech war will only escalate. Full-scale military competition may not be far off.

US President Donald Trump is backing off to a degree because the stock market cannot absorb further blows. Americans depend on the stock market for their retirement. If it crashes, it is adios Trump. Right after the market crash in response to his announcement of a 5 percentage point increase on tariffs, he admitted to having second thoughts.

The market took that as a sign that no more was coming. He has taken more conciliatory steps since, such as postponing some of the tariffs to December from September.

China’s incentives for reconciliation are multifaceted. The top concern is to have a smooth national day celebration on October 1. Events and dates drive Chinese politics. This is a matter of face. Second, inflation is rising in political importance.
Not unrelated to the various articles above, comes an economist saying the government can keep unemployment low even with 4 percent GDP growth.

SCMP: China can handle much slower GDP growth rate and still create enough jobs, government economists say
China should not be alarmed by a much slower economic growth rate in the coming years, perhaps as low as 5 or even 4 per cent, with the economy now large enough to still create sufficient jobs at these growth rates, according to three prominent Chinese economists who advise the government.

The headline gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate slowed to 6.2 per cent in the second quarter this year, the lowest figure since quarterly records began in March 1992, due to the headwinds created by the slowing economy and the trade war with the United States. The risks are also growing that it could slip below 6.0 per cent next year which would fall outside of the government’s target range of between 6 and 6.5 per cent for 2019.

“China had to put growth as a top priority because China had to create enough jobs, and when China’s economic size was small, China had to achieve a high growth rate to ensure [sufficient] employment,” said Zhang Yuxian, the head of the economic forecasting division at the State Information Centre, a think tank under the Chinese government’s economic planning agency.

“But for now, a 6 per cent growth rate means 5.4 trillion yuan (US$761 billion) worth of additional GDP and China’s labour force supply has stopped growing. In other words, a 6 per cent growth rate is enough to absorb the new labour supply. When China’s economic size grows to 100 trillion yuan (US$14 trillion) or 110 trillion yuan, a growth rate of 5 or 4 per cent will be enough, so what’s the point of aiming for an overly high growth rate?”
The commodity sectors may not be an sanguine...

Moreover, while some blame the slowdown on trade, it isn't the key factor. It's better understood as a coincident event.

SCMP: Trade war alone did not cause the slump in Asia’s export hubs, but Donald Trump ‘blocking’ recovery
Outside Hong Kong, large semiconductor-producing economies including Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have also started feeling the pinch.

All three, which count China as a major trading partner, have seen sharp drops in growth this year, showing the twin perils of being overexposed to the electronics sector and the world’s second largest economy.

On Tuesday, Singapore announced its non-oil exports fell 8.9 per cent in August, led by a 25.9 per cent decline in electronics, the largest exports after machinery and equipment. Electronic exports, of which semiconductors form a big chunk, have now fallen every month this year. In all but one of those months, the slump has been double-digit.

In South Korea last year “semiconductor sales accounted for a staggering 92 per cent of Korean export growth, a single product dependence more akin to an oil nation”, said Rory Green, China and North Asia economist at TS Lombard.
This is very evident for the U.S. As the import numbers indicate, the U.S. trade deficit isn't shrinking. Importers moved away from China.
There has been no meaningful uptick in M2 or TSF growth.

Finally, there's no sign of a major stimulus in China even in the wake of the Federal Reserve's rate cut and hinting at perma-QE.

iFeng: 美联储二度降息后 中国货币政策走势如何?
Wang Qing said that the future structural monetary policy tools will continue to exert efforts to provide "directed drip irrigation" for private enterprises and small and micro enterprises.
Terms like "fine-tuning" and "drip irrigation" do not indicate the market anticipates the opening of the credit gushers.

If China's non-real estate related domestic economy does not greatly increase its borrowing and its contribution to GDP, the economy is going to experience another step-down in growth. If the government waits another quarter or more before throwing in the towel, the global economy may experience China-related pain into early 2020. And if the economy slows and they don't act, if they've reached the natural limits of their powers, or if the global financial system delivers enough pressure through the rising dollar, then say 你好 to Chinese GDP contraction.

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