China – Coal, Steel, Water and Demographics – Which way now?


Macro Letter – No 62 – 30-09-2016

China – Coal, Steel, Water and Demographics – Which way now?

  • The price of coking coal has risen 164% this year, doubling since July
  • The NDRC is still attempting to reduce both coal and steel production this year
  • The April stimulus package has boosted construction and infrastructure demand
  • The pace of Chinese growth has stabilised but at a much reduced level

This year several commodity markets saw significant price increases. I discussed this in Macro Letter – No 51 – 11-3-2016 – How do we square the decline in trade with the rebound in industrial commodities?

The price of Iron Ore, Aluminium and other industrial metals has rallied sharply over the last few weeks – WTI now seems to have followed suit. Most commentators regard this as a short covering rally.

Over the last six months the US economy has maintaining momentum, albeit at a disappointingly modest pace. Elsewhere the economic headwinds are blowing harder, with Europe and Japan still mired in a “slow-growth/no-growth” environment. Yet during the last few weeks the spot price of premium coking coal – one of the key inputs for steel production – has doubled to more than $200/tonne. Although this is from multi-year lows seen in 2015, coking coal is now the top performing commodity market year to date:-


Source: Steel Index,

According to CME data, the futures curve for Australian Coking Coal is in steep backwardation out to December 2017 delivery. This suggests a short-term supply shortage rather than a generalised increase in demand. – Stunning coking coal rally wreaks havoc in steel, iron ore explains what has been happening:-

The rise in the price of coking is upending the economics of the iron ore and steel markets with the Australian export benchmark price climbing 164% so far this year.

Metallurgical coal was exchanging hands at $206.40 on Monday according to data provided by Steel Index as it consolidates at higher levels following weeks of panic buying not seen since 2011, when floods in key export region in Queensland sent the price surging to $335 a tonne (albeit not for long).

The rally was triggered by Beijing’s decision to limit coal mines’ operating days to 276 or fewer a year from 330 before as it seeks to restructure the industry. Safety closures and weather related supply curbs in China and Australia only added fuel to the fire.


Source: TSI, Bloomberg, SGX

The price of Iron Ore has also risen by 31% to around $55/tonne, but, as the chart above makes clear, the ratio between the price of iron ore and coking coal is now at its lowest this century.

China’s coking coal output has fallen more than 10% due to the government edict to curtail domestic production. In response import volumes rose 45% in August alone. Goldman Sachs and Macquarie have both increased their price forecasts for 2017 and 2018.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) – the agency responsible for implementing production cuts – had achieved only 39% of the annual target for reducing coal capacity and 47% of the annual reduction in steel capacity as of the end of July. The Peterson – Institute – State of Play in the Chinese Steel Industry explains the reasons for this policy. Suffice to say, China’s domestic steel production tripled between 2005 and 2015 taking its share of global steel production from 31% to 50%. Under WTO rules it will have Market Economy Status from December 2016 – a wave of anti-dumping laws suits may well follow unless it curtails production.

Despite common knowledge of official policy, commentators have suggested that the recent production cut was intended to deliberately squeeze coal prices, allowing heavily indebted coal producers to repay loans to domestic Chinese banks. After two meetings between the China Iron and Steel Association and the NDRC, coal producers will now be allowed to produce an additional 50 tonne/day from October to alleviate shortages.

The steel industry was under margin pressure even before the rise in coal prices – the government has been forcing an industry wide consolidation. The high price of coal accelerates this “oligopolisation” of the sector. It is part of a broader reform and consolidation of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). The Peterson Institute – China’s SOE Reform—The Wrong Path takes issue with this policy. It has its attractions in the short-term nonetheless – consolidation reduces competition within industries, the pricing power of these consolidated “oligopolies” should rise, enabling them to increase profitability and reduce their indebtedness. President Xi has called for “Stronger, bigger, better” state-owned enterprises. I fear for the squeezed private sector in this environment.

A more important structural reform was announced last month when the Supreme People’s Court ordered the establishment of more special divisions to handle liquidation and bankruptcy cases in intermediate courts. China has an undeveloped bankruptcy code – defaulting borrowers linger, acting as a drag on the economy. At the G20 summit President Xi said, “China has taken the most robust and solid measures in cutting excess capacity and we will honour our commitment with actions”. An efficient method of “zombie corporation liquidation” would expedite this process.

Another explanation for the government’s decision to reduce the number working days at coal mines is its commitment to reducing pollution. Brookings – The end of coal-fired growth in China looks at the bigger picture:-

China’s coal consumption grew from 1.36 billion tons per year in 2000 to 4.24 billion tons per year in 2013, an annual growth rate of 12 percent. As of 2015, the country accounts for approximately 50 percent of global demand for coal. In other words, China’s economic miracle was fueled primarily by coal.

…China’s coal consumption decreased by 2.9 percent in 2014 and 3.6 percent in 2015, and the economy has maintained a moderate speed of growth. This indicates that there is a decoupling of economic growth from the growth in coal consumption. China’s coal consumption might have in fact already peaked.

Over the past 35 years, coal powered the engine of China’s rapidly developing economy. Coal represented 75 percent of overall energy consumption. This number decreased to 64.4 percent in 2015—the lowest in China’s modern history—as the country’s energy intensity decreased by 65 percent relative to 35 years ago. In fact, though rarely noticed until the recent peak, this has been part of a fundamental shift in the Chinese economy’s relationship with coal.

The authors present three arguments to support their view that China’s reliance on coal is in structural decline. Firstly, a decrease in manufacturing and construction, which have seen over-investment during the last decade or more. Second, policies on climate change and air pollution—especially the Paris Agreement’s, signed this month, which calls for a 20% clean energy target by 2030. Read China-United States Exchange Foundation – After the Paris Climate Agreement, What’s Next? for more details. Finally, China’s adoption of technological innovation in energy, communications, and manufacturing.

In his G20 speech President Xi said “…green mountains and clear water are as good as mountains of gold and silver”. The problem of clean water is probably the single greatest resource challenge facing China today as this article from CEAC – China that once thrived on water, faces water problems today points out:-

The total amount of water resources in China is so huge as to reach 2325.85 billion cubic meters, which is the 4th largest in the world. However, Chinese population is so large that the per capita amount of water resources is only 1730.4 cubic meters. This is extremely small in the world. Moreover, water resources are distributed unevenly by the region. Generally speaking, water is scarce in northern parts of China, including the Northeast, the North, and the Northwest regions. Beijing is in the North region. On the other hand, water is abundant in the South Central, the South, and the Southwest regions. The problem is that water is growing scarcer, while its consumption is rising. Particularly, people in Northwest China suffer from chronic shortage of water.

…It is not the quantity of water that matters critically in China. The quality of water is deteriorating rapidly. According to “The Monthly Report of Ground Water” which was released by the Ministry of Water Resources of China this January, they conducted water quality observation researches of 2,103 wells in the Songliao plain of the Northeast region and the Jianghan plain in an inland area last year, and it turned out that 80% of ground water is too severely contaminated to drink. Ground water pollution is serious, particularly in the regions of water scarcity.

In the shorter-term there has been some increase in demand. Steel usage has risen in response to the mini-stimulus package implemented in April. It was aimed largely at railway and housing construction. Electricity demand picked up again in May +2.1% from April +1.9%, fuelling an increase in demand for thermal coal. Other leading indicators, also suggest that the slowdown in Chinese growth may have run its course. There has been an increase in railway freight volumes and pickup in copper output:-


Source: Market Realist, National Bureau of Statistics

Outside China the picture looks mixed. LME stocks of Copper and Zinc have recovered but Nickle and Aluminium stocks remain depleted. Global demand still appears to be subdued.

Chinese economy is unlikely to return to the double digit growth rates seen prior to the great recession, but, despite its indebtedness, the world’s largest command economy may be able to avoid an imminent banking crisis.

The Debt to GDP ratio continues to rise. A source of grave concern which is noted in the BIS Quarterly Review, September 2016. At the end of July total Chinese debt reached $28trln – greater than the government debt of the US and Japan combined. Corporate debt, which is fortunately denominated primarily in local currency, now stands at 171% of GDP whilst total debt stands at 255%. A favourite BIS measure is the Credit to GDP gap. A figure above 10 is a warning signal that an economy may be approaching a “Minsky Moment” – China scores 30.1, the highest of any large economy.

China has also continued to reduce its vast foreign exchange reserves, although at a more moderate pace than in 2014 and 2015. In July it reduced its holding of US Treasuries by $22bln – the largest one month decline in three years. It also released information about its gold holdings which, as many market participants had predicted, have risen substantially – it last reported this information in 2009. The US Bond sales may, therefore, have been to insure the stability of the RMB versus the US$ ahead of the G20 summit which was hosted by China this month.

Should we be concerned about a Chinese banking crisis? According to Michael PettisChina Financial Markets – Does it matter if China cleans up its banks? banking solvency is not the issue, but the indebtedness of the economy is:-

The only “solution” to excessive debt within the economy is to allocate the costs of that debt, and not to transfer it from one entity to another.

The recapitalization of the banks is nice, in other words, but it is hardly necessary if we believe, and most of us do, that the banks are effectively guaranteed by the local governments and ultimately the central government, and that depositors have a limited ability to withdraw their deposits from the banking system. “Cleaning up the banks” is what you need to do when lending incentives are driven primarily by market considerations, because significant amounts of bad loans substantially change the way banks operate, and almost always to the detriment of the real economy.

…If we change our very conservative assumptions so that debt is equal to 280% of GDP, and is growing at 20% annually, and that debt-servicing capacity is growing at half the rate of GDP (3.0-3.5%, which I think is probably still too high), then for China to reach the point at which debt-servicing costs rise in line with debt-servicing capacity, Beijing’s reforms must deliver an improvement in productivity that either:

Causes each unit of new debt to generate 18 times as much GDP growth as it is doing now, or

Causes all assets backed by the total stock of debt (280% of GDP) to generate 50% more GDP growth than they do now.

Pettis remains pessimistic about China’s ability to grow its way out of debt. History is certainly on his side in this respect, however, policies such as the One Belt One Road Initiative, which aims to improve cross-border infrastructure in order to reduce transportation costs between China and its trading partners, still makes sense at this stage of China’s development. Comparisons have been made with the US Marshall Plan which helped to regenerate Europe after WWII but with an indicated aim of financing $4trln of new projects, its scale is much larger. Chatham House – Westward ho—the China dream and ‘one belt, one road’: Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping reviews the policy in detail, as does Peterson Institute – China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Meanwhile, the great rebalancing towards domestic consumption continues, at what, in other countries, would be considered break-neck speed. This may, nonetheless, be too slow for China – the mini-stimulus package, in April, was a clear political capitulation. The Kansas City Federal Reserve – Consumer Spending in China: The Past and the Future looks at the success of rebalancing to date and the prospects going forward. They point out that Chinese consumption as a share of GDP declined between 1970 and 2000 largely as a result of demographic forces – low birth rate and aging population – together with urbanisation. Post 2000 rapid house price appreciation accelerated this trend. Since 2010 consumption has begun to rise from a low point of 37% of GDP, this coincides with the peak in household savings at 42% – it is now around 38.5%. The authors predict:-

In a benchmark scenario of relatively stable income growth and a further modest decline in the household saving rate, consumption growth in China remains at around 9 percent per year over the next five years, causing the share of Chinese consumption in GDP to increase by about 5 percentage points to 44 percent by 2020. This scenario has two implications. First, it suggests that strong consumption growth is sustainable in the near future, allowing China to continue transitioning toward a consumption-driven economy. Second, it suggests that strength in near-term Chinese consumption growth will partly rely on a further decline in the household saving rate. As the household saving rate cannot decline indefinitely, consumption growth may need to rely more heavily on household income to be sustainable in the long run.

Parallels have been made with Japan where the savings rate has declined from 40% to 19% of GDP since 1970. If China follows this pattern, savings as a percentage of income will continue to decline. The transition could be relatively smooth provided the residential property market does not collapse in the interim. The FRBKC article concludes:-

The declining saving rate in China reflects both a changing demographic structure—an expected increase in the young dependency ratio after multiple decades of decline—and a changing consumption pattern of young people, who face less pressure to save thanks to financial support from their parents and grandparents.

In the long run, transitioning to a consumption-driven economy may require some policy changes. Specifically, China may need to implement successful supply-side reforms—which are on the government’s agenda but haven’t yet been significantly pushed forward—to enable domestic production to meet rising domestic demand. Although the Chinese household saving rate is declining from a very high level, the downward trend cannot last forever. A truly consumption-driven economy must rely on strong household income growth, which is ultimately driven by improved technology and investment.

In the long run, demographic forces will affect China more than any other factor. According to the Ministry of Human Resources China’s working population hit a record 774.5mln in 2015, however, the UN estimate China will have 212mln fewer workers by 2050. The UN Demographic Profile is found on page 189.

Market impact and investment opportunities

Next week the RMB will be included in the SDR – the Peterson Institute – China’s Renminbi Is about to Break the Financial Glass Ceiling discusses this in more detail. There is widespread speculation that the PBoC will widen the RMB currency bands at any moment. In other respects the PBoC is in a more difficult position. The RMB has already weakened by 5% against the US$ this year. Cutting interest rates would probably cause the currency to weaken further, riling the US voters ahead of the election. They are not impotent, however, and injected a record RMB 310bln into the money market in August – part of an overt policy to support the official banking sector, diminishing the influence of shadow banks.

Domestic investors have favoured bonds over equities for the past couple of months, while the spread between corporate bonds and government bonds has narrowed. Chinese 10yr government bond yields have fallen around 50bp this year, but official policy, encouraging investors to purchase higher yielding bonds and reduce their exposure to leveraged wealth management products and other non-standard assets, is boosting demand for corporate issues.

Retail investors, who were badly burnt in the stock market collapse of 2015, remain obsessed with the property market despite massive over-supply. Equity broker margin balances remain low. Institutional portfolio managers have reduced exposure to stocks from 62% in July to 49% this month. In the post-crash environment IPO issuance has been subdued with only RMB 955bln of capital raised in the seven months to July. This compares to RMB 1.55trln in 2015. The final quarter may see better sentiment. Stocks may get a boost from local government spending in Q3 and Q4 – if only to insure their budgets are not reduced next year. The table below, from Star Capital, ranks forty of the world’s major stock markets. Using their metrics, China is second cheapest and has the lowest PE, Price to Cash flow and Price to Book:-

Country CAPE PE PC PB PS DY Rank
Russia 4.9 7.5 3.6 0.8 0.8 4.10% 1
China 12.4 6.1 3.2 0.8 0.6 4.70% 2
Brazil 8.5 44.1 6.6 1.4 1.1 3.40% 3
South Korea 12.6 11 5.5 1 0.6 1.80% 5
Hungary 9.9 ? 5.1 1.2 0.6 2.80% 6
Czech 8.7 11.8 5.5 1.2 1 7.50% 8
Turkey 9.7 10.8 6.2 1.3 0.9 2.70% 9


The Shanghai Composite Index (SHCOMP) is down 8.85% YTD and by 41.84% since its high in June 2015, however it is up 48.25% from June 2014. Russia’s RTS Index by contrast is up 72.81% from its December 2014 low but still 29.68% below its level of June 2014.

Looking outside China, several Australia-centric mining stocks have already risen on the back of the move in coking coal but it seems unlikely that the supply imbalance will prove protracted. Anglo American (AAL) is still looking to sell more of its Australian coal mines – they may well find Chinese buyers.

Outside of China, infrastructure investment across Asia Pacific is on the rise, which is supportive for industrial commodities in general. KPMG – 10 emerging trends in 2016, published in January, takes a very optimistic long term view:-

Ultimately, however, we believe that this may well be the tipping point that ushers in 50 years (or more) of prosperity as capital starts to match up with projects which, in turn, will drive economic growth in the developing world and shore up retirement savings in the mature markets.

Commodity markets tend to exhibit very individual characteristics, however, several industrial and agricultural commodities have formed a longer term base this year. Is this the beginning of the next commodity super-cycle? It’s too soon to call, but without a rise in global demand the prospects for substantial gains are likely to be limited – Indian GDP growth is slowing. The IMF WEO July update revised its India GDP forecast for 2016 to 7.4% from 7.5% – in 2015 it was 7.6%. Its China forecast was revised up 0.1% and its overall Emerging Market and Developing Economy forecast for 2016 and 2017 was unchanged at 4.1% and 4.6%, although, world economic growth was revised 0.1% lower.

China’s stock market remains cheap by many metrics, but the level of indebtedness is an impediment to economic growth. The property market, although over-supplied, continues to attract investment, but this is economically unproductive in the long run. Government policy is attempting to steer the economy towards higher domestic consumption and technologically driven, productivity enhancing, investments. Environmental issues are finally being addressed, yet the challenge of clean water remains substantial.

Near term, debt reduction – and it has yet to begin – will hamper growth, which will, in turn, reduce the attractiveness of Chinese stocks. Reform of the SOEs will involve consolidation into a smaller number of vast enterprises. Private enterprises will suffer. “Zombie” companies will start to be dealt with as bankruptcy procedures become standardised, but, as with all policy in China, a gradualist approach is likely to be implemented. Commodity markets may continue to rise due to supply side factors but I doubt that Chinese demand will rebound even to the level of 2013/2014, let alone the early part of the century.

Central Banks – Ah Aaaaahhh! – Saviours of the Universe?


Macro Letter – No 48 – 29-01-2016

Central Banks – Ah Aaaaahhh! – Saviours of the Universe?


Copryright: Universal Pictures

  • Freight rates have fallen below 2008 levels
  • With the oil price below $30 many US producers are unprofitable
  • The Fed has tightened but global QE gathers pace
  • Chinese stimulus is fighting domestic strong headwinds

Just in case you’re not familiar with it here is a You Tube video of the famous Queen song. It is seven years since the Great Financial Crisis; major stock markets are still relatively close to their highs and major government bond yields remain near historic lows. If another crisis is about to engulf the developed world, do the central banks (CBs) have the means to avert catastrophe once again? Here are some of the factors which may help us to reach a conclusion.

Freight Rates

Last week I was asked to comment of the prospects for commodity prices, especially energy. Setting aside the geo-politics of oil production, I looked at the Baltic Dry Index (BDI) which has been plumbing fresh depths this year – 337 (28/1/16) down from August 2015 highs of 1200. Back in May 2008 it touched 11,440 – only to plummet to 715 by November of the same year. How helpful is the BDI at predicting the direction of the economy? Not very – as this 2009 article from Business Insider – Shipping Rates Are Lousy For Predicting The Economy – points out. Nonetheless, the weakness in freight rates is indicative of an inherent lack of demand for goods. The chart below is from an article published by Zero Hedge at the beginning of January – they quote research from Deutsche Bank.

BDI_-_1985_-_2016 (4)

Source: Zerohedge

A “Perfect Storm Is Coming” Deutsche Warns As Baltic Dry Falls To New Record Low:

…a “perfect storm” is brewing in the dry bulk industry, as year-end improvements in rates failed to materialize, which indicates a looming surge in bankruptcies.

The improvement in dry bulk rates we expected into year-end has not materialized.

…we believe a number of dry bulk companies are contemplating asset sales to raise liquidity, lower daily cash burn, and reduce capital commitments. The glut of “for sale” tonnage has negative implications for asset and equity values. More critically, it can easily lead to breaches in loan-to-value covenants at many dry bulk companies, shortening the cash runway and likely necessitating additional dilutive actions.

Dry bulk companies generally have enough cash for the next 1yr or so, but most are not well positioned for another leg down in asset values.


The slowing and rebalancing of the Chinese economy may be having a significant impact on global trade flows. Here is a recent article on the subject from Mauldin Economics – China’s Year of the Monkees:-

China isn’t the only reason markets got off to a terrible start this month, but it is definitely a big factor (at least psychologically). Between impractical circuit breakers, weaker economic data, stronger capital controls, and renewed currency confusion, China has investors everywhere scratching their heads.

When we focused on China back in August (see “When China Stopped Acting Chinese”), my best sources said the Chinese economy was on a much better footing than its stock market, which was in utter chaos. While the manufacturing sector was clearly in a slump, the services sector was pulling more than its fair share of the GDP load. Those same sources have new data now, which leads them to quite different conclusions.

…Now, it may well be the case that China’s economy is faltering, but its GDP data is not the best evidence.

…To whom can we turn for reliable data? My go-to source is Leland Miller and company at the China Beige Book.

…China Beige Book started collecting data in 2010. For the entire time since then, the Chinese economy has been in what Leland calls “stable deceleration.” Slowing down, but in an orderly way that has generally avoided anything resembling crisis. 

…China Beige Book noticed in mid-2014 that Chinese businesses had changed their behavior. Instead of responding to slower growth by doubling down and building more capacity, they did the rational thing (at least from a Western point of view): they curbed capital investment and hoarded cash. With Beijing still injecting cash that businesses refused to spend, the liquidity that flowed into Chinese stocks produced the massive rally that peaked in mid-2015. It also allowed money to begin to flow offshore in larger amounts. I mean really massively larger amounts.

Dealing with a Different China

China Beige Book’s fourth-quarter report revealed a rude interruption to the positive “stable deceleration” trend. Their observers in cities all over that vast country reported weakness in every sector of the economy. Capital expenditures dropped sharply; there were signs of price deflation and labor market weakness; and both manufacturing and service activity slowed markedly.

That last point deserves some comment. China experts everywhere tell us the country is transitioning from manufacturing for export to supplying consumer-driven services. So if both manufacturing and service activity are slowing, is that transition still happening?

The answer might be “yes” if manufacturing were decelerating faster than services. For this purpose, relative growth is what counts. Unfortunately, manufacturing is slowing while service activity is not picking up all the slack. That’s not the combination we want to see.

Something else China Beige Book noticed last quarter: both business and consumer loan volume did not grow in response to lower interest rates. That’s an important change, and probably not a good one. It means monetary stimulus from Beijing can’t save the day this time. Leland thinks fiscal stimulus isn’t likely to help, either. Like other governments and their central banks, China is running out of economic ammunition.

Mauldin goes on to discuss the devaluation of the RMB – which I also discussed in my last letter – Is the ascension of the RMB to the SDR basket more than merely symbolic? The RMB has been closely pegged to the US$ since 1978 though with more latitude since 2005, this has meant a steady appreciation in its currency relative to many of its emerging market trading partners. Now, as China begins to move towards full convertibility, the RMB will begin to float more freely. Here is a five year chart of the Indian Rupee and the CNY vs the US$:-

INR vs RMB - Yahoo

Source: Yahoo finance

The Chinese currency could sink significantly should their government deem it necessary, however, expectations of a collapse of growth in China may be premature as this article from the Peterson Institute – The Price of Oil, China, and Stock Market Herding – indicates:-

A collapse of growth in China would indeed be a world changing event. But there is just no evidence of such a collapse. At most there is suggestive evidence of a mild slowdown, and even that is far from certain. The mechanical effects of such a mild decrease on the US economy should, by all accounts, and all the models we have, be limited. Trade channels are limited (US exports to China represent less than 2 percent of GDP), and so are financial linkages. The main effect of a slowdown in China would be through lower commodity prices, which should help rather than hurt the United States.

Peterson go on to suggest:-

Maybe we should not believe the market commentaries. Maybe it was neither oil nor China. Maybe what we are seeing is a delayed reaction to the slowdown in the world economy, a slowdown that has now gone on for a few years. While there has been no significant news in the last two weeks, maybe markets are only realizing that growth in emerging markets will be lower for a long time, that growth in advanced economies will be unexciting. Maybe…

I think the explanation is largely elsewhere. I believe that to a large extent, herding is at play. If other investors sell, it must be because they know something you do not know. Thus, you should sell, and you do, and so down go stock prices. Why now? Perhaps because we have entered a period of higher uncertainty. The world economy, at the start of 2016, is a genuinely confusing place. Political uncertainty at home and geopolitical uncertainty abroad are both high. The Fed has entered a new regime. The ability of the Chinese government to control its economy is in question. In that environment, in the stock market just as in the presidential election campaign, it is easier for the bears to win the argument, for stock markets to fall, and, on the political front, for fearmongers to gain popularity.

They are honest enough to admit that economics won’t provide the answers.

Energy Prices

The June 2015 BP – Statistical Review of World Energy – made the following comments:-

Global primary energy consumption increased by just 0.9% in 2014, a marked deceleration over 2013 (+2.0%) and well below the 10-year average of 2.1%. Growth in 2014 slowed for every fuel other than nuclear power, which was also the only fuel to grow at an above-average rate. Growth was significantly below the 10-year average for Asia Pacific, Europe & Eurasia, and South & Central America. Oil remained the world’s leading fuel, with 32.6% of global energy consumption, but lost market share for the fifteenth consecutive year.

Although emerging economies continued to dominate the growth in global energy consumption, growth in these countries (+2.4%) was well below its 10-year average of 4.2%. China (+2.6%) and India (+7.1%) recorded the largest national increments to global energy consumption. OECD consumption fell by 0.9%, which was a larger fall than the recent historical average. A second consecutive year of robust US growth (+1.2%) was more than offset by declines in energy consumption in the EU (-3.9%) and Japan (-3.0%). The fall in EU energy consumption was the second-largest percentage decline on record (exceeded only in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2009).

The FT – The world energy outlook in five charts – looked at five charts from the IEA World Energy Outlook – November 2015:-


Source: IEA

With 315m of its population expected to live in urban areas by 2040, and its manufacturing base expanding, India is forecast to account for quarter of global energy demand growth by 2040, up from about 6 per cent currently.


Source: IEA

Oil demand in India is expected to increase by more than in any other country to about 10m barrels per day (bpd). The country is also forecast to become the world’s largest coal importer in five years. But India is also expected to rely on solar and wind power to have a 40 per cent share of non-fossil fuel capacity by 2030.


Source: IEA

China’s total energy demand is set to nearly double that of the US by 2040. But a structural shift in the Asian country away from investment-led growth to domestic-demand based economy will “mean that 85 per cent less energy is required to generate each unit of future economic growth than was the case in the past 25 years.”


Source: IEA

US shale oil production is expected to “stumble” in the short term, but rise as oil price recovers. However the IEA does not expect crude oil to reach $80 a barrel until 2020, under its “central scenario”. The chart shows that if prices out to 2020 remain under $60 per barrel, production will decline sharply.


Source: IEA

Renewables are set to overtake coal to become the largest source of power by 2030. The share of coal in the production of electricity will fall from 41 per cent to 30 per cent by 2040, while renewables will account for more than half the increase in electricity generation by then.

The cost of solar energy continues to fall and is now set to “eclipse” natural gas, as this article from Seeking Alpha by Siddharth Dalal – Falling Solar Costs: End Of Natural Gas Is Near? Explains:-

A gas turbine power plant uses 11,371 Btu/kWh. The current price utilities are paying per Btu of natural gas are $3.23/1000 cubic feet. 1000 cubic feet of natural gas have 1,020,000 BTUs. So $3.23 for 90kWh. That translates to 3.59c/kWh in fuel costs alone.

A combined cycle power plant uses 7667 Btu/kWh, which translates to 2.42c/kWh.

Adding in operating and maintenance costs, we get 4.11c/kWh for gas turbines and 3.3c/kWh for combined cycle power plants. This still doesn’t include any construction costs.

…The average solar PPA is likely to go under 4c/kWh next year. Note that this is the total cost that the utility pays and includes all costs.

And the trend puts total solar PPA costs under gas turbine fuel costs and competitive with combined cycle plant total operating costs next year.

At this point it becomes a no brainer for a utility to buy cheap solar PPAs compared to building their own gas power plants.

The only problem here is that gas plants are dispatchable, while solar is not. This is a problem that is easily solved by batteries. So utilities would be better served by spending capex on batteries as opposed to any kind of gas plant, especially anything for peak generation.

The influence of the oil price, whilst diminishing, still dominates. In the near term the importance of the oil price on financial market prices will relate to the breakeven cost of production for companies involved in oil exploration. Oil companies have shelved more than $400bln of planned investment since 2014. The FT – US junk-rated energy debt hits two-decade lowtakes up the story:-

US-High Yield - Thompson Reuters

Source: Thomson Reuters Datastream, FT

The average high-yield energy bond has slid to just 56 cents on the dollar, below levels touched during the financial crisis in 2008-09, as investors brace for a wave of bankruptcies.

…The US shale revolution which sent the country’s oil production soaring from 2009 to 2015 was led by small and midsized companies that typically borrowed to finance their growth. They sold $241bn worth of bonds during 2007-15 and many are now struggling under the debts they took on.

Very few US shale oil developments can be profitable with crude at about $30 a barrel, industry executives and advisers say. Production costs in shale have fallen as much as 40 per cent, but that has not been enough to keep pace with the decline in oil prices.

…On Friday, Moody’s placed 120 oil and gas companies on review for downgrade, including 69 in the US.

…The yield on the Bank of America Merrill Lynch US energy high-yield index has climbed to the highest level since the index was created, rising to 19.3 per cent last week, surpassing the 17 per cent peak hit in late 2008.

More than half of junk-rated energy groups in the US have fallen into distress territory, where bond yields rise more than 1,000 basis points above their benchmark Treasury counterpart, according to S&P.

All other things equal, the price of oil is unlikely to rally much from these levels, but, outside the US, geo-political risks exist which may create an upward bias. Many Middle Eastern countries have made assumptions about the oil price in their estimates of tax receipts. Saudi Arabia has responded to lower revenues by radical cuts in public spending and privatisations – including a proposed IPO for Saudi Aramco. As The Guardian – Saudi Aramco privatisation plans shock oil sector – explains, it will certainly be difficult to value – market capitalisation estimates range from $1trln to $10trln.

Outright energy company bankruptcies are likely to be relatively subdued, unless interest rates rise dramatically – these companies locked in extremely attractive borrowing rates and their bankers will prefer to renegotiate payment schedules rather than write off the loans completely. New issuance, however, will be a rare phenomenon.


“We don’t want technology simply because it’s dazzling. We want it, create it and support it because it improves people’s lives.”

These words were uttered by Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, at Davos last week. The commodity markets have been dealing with technology since the rise of Sumer. The Manhattan Institutes – SHALE 2.0 Technology and the Coming Big-Data Revolution in America’s Shale Oil Fields highlights some examples which go a long way to explaining the downward trajectory in oil prices over the last 18 months – emphasis is mine:-

John Shaw, chair of Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, recently observed: “It’s fair to say we’re not at the end of this [shale] era, we’re at the very beginning.” He is precisely correct. In recent years, the technology deployed in America’s shale fields has advanced more rapidly than in any other segment of the energy industry. Shale 2.0 promises to ultimately yield break-even costs of $5–$20 per barrel—in the same range as Saudi Arabia’s vaunted low-cost fields.

…Compared with 1986—the last time the world was oversupplied with oil—there are now 2 billion more people living on earth, the world economy is $30 trillion bigger, and 30 million more barrels of oil are consumed daily. The current 33 billion-barrel annual global appetite for crude will undoubtedly rise in coming decades. Considering that fluctuations in supply of 1–2 MMbd can swing global oil prices, the infusion of 4 MMbd from U.S. shale did to petroleum prices precisely what would be expected in cyclical markets with huge underlying productive capacity.

Shipbuilding has also benefitted from technological advances in a variety of areas, not just fuel efficiency. This article (please excuse the author’s English) from Marine Insight – 7 Technologies That Can Change The Future of Shipbuilding – highlights several, I’ve chosen five:-

3-D Printing Technology:…Recently, NSWC Carderock made a fabricated model of the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) using its 3-D printer, first uploading CAD drawings of ship model in it. Further developments in this process can lead the industry to use this technique to build complex geometries of ship like bulbous bow easily. The prospect of using 3-D printers to seek quick replacement of ship’s part for repairing purpose is also being investigated. The Economist claims use this technology to be the “Third Industrial Revolution“.

Shipbuilding Robotics: Recent trends suggest that the shipbuilding industry is recognizing robotics as a driver of efficiency along with a method to prevent workers from doing dangerous tasks such as welding. The shortage of skilled labour is also one of the reasons to look upon robotics. Robots can carry out welding, blasting, painting, heavy lifting and other tasks in shipyards.

LNG Fueled engines

…In the LNG engines, CO2 emission is reduced by 20-25% as compared to diesel engines, NOX emissions are cut by almost 92%, while SOX and particulates emissions are almost completely eliminated.

…Besides being an environmental friendly fuel, LNG is also cheaper than diesel, which helps the ship to save significant amount of money over time.

…Solar & Wind Powered Ships:

…The world’s largest solar powered ship named ‘Turanor’ is a 100 metric ton catamaran which motored around the world without using any fuel and is currently being used as a research vessel. Though exclusive solar or wind powered ships look commercially and practically not viable today, they can’t be ruled out of future use with more technical advancements.

Recently, many technologies have come which support the big ships to reduce fuel consumption by utilizing solar panels or rigid sails. A device named Energy Sail (patent pending) has been developed by Eco Marine Power will help the ships to extract power from wind and sun so as to reduce fuel costs and emission of greenhouse gases. It is exclusively designed for shipping and can be fitted to wide variety of vessels from oil carrier to patrol ships.

Buckypaper: Buckypaper is a thin sheet made up of carbon nanotubes (CNT). Each CNT is 50,000 thinner than human air. Comparing with the conventional shipbuilding material (i.e. steel), buckypaper is 1/10th the weight of steel but potentially 500 times stronger in strength  and 2 times harder than diamond when its sheets are compiled to form a composite. The vessel built from this lighter material would require less fuel, hence increasing energy efficiency. It is corrosion resistant and flame retardant which could prevent fire on ships. A research has already been initiated for the use of buckypaper as a construction material of a future aeroplane. So, a similar trend can’t be ruled out in case of shipbuilding.

Shipping has always been a cyclical business, driven by global demand for freight on the one hand and improvements in technology on the other. The cost of production continues to fall, old inventory rapidly becomes uncompetitive and obsolete. The other factor effecting the cycle is the cost of finance; this is true also of energy exploration and development. Which brings us to the actions of the CBs.

The central role of the central banks

Had $100 per barrel oil encouraged a rise in consumer price inflation in the major economies, it might have been appropriate for their CBs to raise interest rates, however, high levels of debt kept inflation subdued. The “unintended consequences” or, perhaps we should say “collateral damage” of allowing interest rates to remain unrealistically low, is overinvestment. The BIS – Self-oriented monetary policy, global financial markets and excess volatility of international capital flows – looks at the effect developed country CB policy – specifically the Federal Reserve – has had on emerging markets:-

A major policy question arising from these events is whether US monetary policy imparts a global ‘externality’ through spillover effects on world capital flows, credit growth and asset prices. Many policy makers in emerging markets (e.g. Rajan, 2014) have argued that the US Federal Reserve should adjust its monetary policy decisions to take account of the excess sensitivity of international capital flows to US policy. This criticism questions the view that a ‘self-oriented’ monetary policy based on inflation targeting principles represents an efficient mechanism for the world monetary system (e.g. Obstfeld and Rogoff, 2002), without the need for any cross-country coordination of policies.

…Our results indicate that the simple prescriptions about the benefits of flexible exchange rates and inflation targeting are very unlikely to hold in a global financial environment dominated by the currency and policy of a large financial centre, such as the current situation with the US dollar and US monetary policy. Our preliminary analysis does suggest however that an optimal monetary policy can substantially improve the workings of the international system, even in the absence of direct intervention in capital markets through macro-prudential policies or capital controls. Moreover, under the specific assumptions maintained in this paper, this outcome can still be consistent with national independence in policy, or in other words, a system of ‘self-oriented’ monetary policy making.

Whether CBs should consider the international implications of their actions is not a new subject, but this Cobden Centre article by Alisdair Macleod – Why the Fed Will Never Succeed – suggests that the Fed should be mandated to accept a broader role:-

That the Fed thinks it is only responsible to the American people for its actions when they affect all nations is an abrogation of its duty as issuer of the reserve currency to the rest of the world, and it is therefore not surprising that the new kids on the block, such as China, Russia and their Asian friends, are laying plans to gain independence from the dollar-dominated system. The absence of comment from other central banks in the advanced nations on this important subject should also worry us, because they appear to be acting as mute supporters for the Fed’s group-think.

This is the context in which we need to clarify the effects of the Fed’s monetary policy. The fundamental question is actually far broader than whether or not the Fed should be raising rates: rather, should the Fed be managing interest rates at all? Before we can answer this question, we have to understand the relationship between credit and the business cycle.

There are two types of economic activity, one that correctly anticipates consumer demand and is successful, and one that fails to do so. In free markets the failures are closed down quickly, and the scarce economic resources tied up in them are redeployed towards more successful activities. A sound-money economy quickly eliminates business errors, so this self-cleansing action ensures there is no build-up of malinvestments and the associated debt that goes with it.

When there is stimulus from monetary inflation, it is inevitable that the strict discipline of genuine profitability that should guide all commercial enterprises takes a back seat. Easy money and interest rates lowered to stimulate demand distort perceptions of risk, over-values financial assets, and encourages businesses to take on projects that are not genuinely profitable. Furthermore, the owners of failing businesses find it possible to run up more debts, rather than face commercial reality. The result is a growing accumulation of malinvestments whose liquidation is deferred into the future.

Macleod goes on to discuss the Cantillon effect, at what point we are in the Credit Cycle and why the Fed decided to raise rates now:-

We must put ourselves in the Fed’s shoes to try to understand why it has raised rates. It has seen the official unemployment rate decline for a prolonged period, and more recently energy and commodity prices have fallen sharply. Assuming it believes government unemployment figures, as well as the GDP and its deflator, the Fed is likely to think the economy has at least stabilised and is fundamentally healthy. That being the case, it will take the view the business cycle has turned. Note, business cycle, not credit-driven business cycle: the Fed doesn’t accept monetary policy is responsible for cyclical phenomena. Therefore, demand for energy and commodities is expected to increase on a one or two-year view, so inflation can be expected to pick up towards the 2% target, particularly when the falls in commodity and energy prices drop out of the back-end of the inflation numbers. Note again, inflation is thought to be a demand-for-goods phenomenon, not a monetary phenomenon, though according to the Fed, monetary policy can be used to stimulate or control it.

Unfortunately, the evidence from multiple surveys is that after nine years since the Lehman crisis the state of the economy remains suppressed while debt has continued to increase, so this cycle is not in the normal pattern. It is clear from the evidence that the American economy, in common with the European and Japanese, is overburdened by the accumulation of malinvestments and associated debt. Furthermore, nine years of wealth attrition through monetary inflation (as described above) has reduced the purchasing power of the average consumer’s earnings significantly in real terms. So instead of a phase of sustainable growth, it is likely America has arrived at a point where the economy can no longer bear the depredations of further “monetary stimulus”. It is also increasingly clear that a relatively small rise in the general interest rate level will bring on the next crisis.

So what will the Fed – and, for that matter, other major CBs – do? I look back to the crisis of 2008/2009 – one of the unique aspects of this period was the coordinated action of the big five: the Fed, ECB, BoJ, BoE and SNB. In 1987 the Fed was the “saviour of the universe”. Their actions became so transparent in the years that followed, that the phase “Greenspan Put” was coined to describe the way the Fed saved stock market investors and corporate creditors. CEPR – Deleveraging? What deleveraging? which I have quoted from in previous letters, is an excellent introduction to the unintended consequences of CB largesse.

Since 2009 economic growth has remained sluggish; this has occurred despite historically low interest rates – it’s not unreasonable to surmise that the massive overhang of debt, globally, is weighing on both demand pull inflation and economic growth. Stock buy-backs have been rife and the long inverted relationship between dividend yields and government bond yields has reversed. Paying higher dividends may be consistent with diversifying a company’s investor base but buying back stock suggests a lack of imagination by the “C” Suite. Or perhaps these executives are uncomfortable investing when interest rates are artificially low.

I believe the vast majority of the rise in stock markets since 2009 has been the result of CB policy, therefore the Fed rate increase is highly significant. The actions of the other CBs – and here I would include the PBoC alongside the big five – is also of significant importance. Whilst the Fed has tightened the ECB and the PBoC continue to ease. The Fed appears determined to raise rates again, but the other CBs are likely to neutralise the overall effect. Currency markets will take the majority of the strain, as they have been for the last couple of years.

A collapse in equity markets will puncture confidence and this will undermine growth prospects globally. Whilst some of the malinvestments of the last seven years will be unwound, I expect CBs to provide further support. The BoJ is currently the only CB with an overt policy of “qualitative easing” – by which I mean the purchasing of common stock – I fully expect the other CBs to follow to adopt a similar approach. For some radical ideas on this subject this paper by Professor Roger Farmer – Qualitative Easing: How it Works and Why it Matters – which was presented at the St Louis Federal Reserve conference in 2012 – makes interesting reading.

Investment opportunities

In comparison to Europe– especially Germany – the US economy is relatively immune to the weakness of China. This is already being reflected in both the currency and stocks markets. The trend is likely to continue. In the emerging market arena Brazil still looks sickly and the plummeting price of oil isn’t helping, meanwhile India should be a beneficiary of cheaper oil. Some High yield non-energy bonds are likely to be “tarred” (pardon the pun) with the energy brush. Meanwhile, from an international perspective the US$ remains robust even as the US$ Index approaches resistance at 100.


Source: Marketwatch

Is the ascension of the RMB to the SDR basket more than merely symbolic?


Macro Letter – Supplemental – No 2 – 11-12-2015

Is the ascension of the RMB to the SDR basket more than merely symbolic?

  • Chinese rebalancing towards domestic consumption changes the balance of trade
  • China’s largest trading partner remains the EU, making a US$ peg sub-optimal
  • SDR currencies offer the best liquidity for intervention or speculation
  • International investment will be dramatically enhanced by full convertibility

I’ve changed my view of the importance of the RMBs inclusion in the SDR. Initially I thought this a purely symbolic action but, having discussed the issue with several economists and ex-Central Bankers (including one from the PBoC) I believe this a logical move towards free convertibility of the RMB.

For many years the RMB has been pegged to the US$. During the early part of this century it rose relative to its neighbours. This was not such a great imposition on the economy since annual GDP growth was still in double figures.

After the great financial recession of 2008 things changed. New economic policies focused on increasing domestic consumption. At the same time the Chinese economy began to slow dramatically as a result of over-investment, especially in primary industries, meanwhile, the benefits of cheap labour, which had driven China’s mercantilist expansion during the past 25 years, showed signs of fatigue.

After 2008, the US embarked on aggressive quantitative easing which eventually began to foster new domestic employment opportunities – in turn leading to a recovery of the fortunes of the US$. Earlier this year the PBoC devalued the RMB albeit to a small degree.

If you were the PBoC what would you do?

China is rebalancing towards domestic consumption at a pace which would be almost inconceivable in any other country. The implications of this shift include an increase in imports and a structural adjustment in the momentum of the trade surplus. China is moving on from simply being the world’s manufacturer to become a trading nation. A freely convertible currency would reduce frictions in trade and encourage foreign direct investment. The downside to this regime change is the volatility of the exchange rate.

At $3.5trln the PBoC has the largest foreign reserves of any Central Bank. This has primarily been a function of their peg against the US$, although they have actively sought to diversify in to EUR and even the “barbarous relic” gold. During the last 18 months the bank has drawn down on some of those reserves (they peaked at $3.9trln in May 2014) as it managed a devaluation versus the US$ which has fallen from RMBUSD 6.05 in January 2014 to RMBUSD 6.49 today (8-12-2015).

Has the benefit of the US$ peg now run its course? During the period of strong – export led – growth, China was under significant international political pressure to allow the RMB to rise against the US$. The perception is that they resisted international interference, but over the last 20 years the RMB has risen by around 30%. Nonetheless, market commentators immediately seized on the devaluation – especially since August – as a sign that the Chinese were engineering an export led recovery at the expense of the US. This 2013 paper from the Bundesbank – China‘s role in global inflation dynamics suggests there may be some substance to these concerns:-

The overall share of international inflation explained by Chinese shocks is notable (about 5 percent on average over all countries but not more than 13 percent in each region). This suggests that monetary policy makers should take macroeconomic developments in China into account when stabilizing domestic inflation rates; (ii) Direct channels (via import and export prices) and indirect channels (via greater exposure to foreign competition and commodity prices) both seem to matter; (iii) Differences in trade (overall and with China) and in commodity exposure help explaining cross-country differences in price responses.

Nonetheless, the authors note that, between 2002 and 2011, the “supply shock” from cheap Chinese goods explained only 1% of changes in consumer prices outside China, whilst the “demand shock”, from rapid Chinese, growth accounted for 3.6% of changes in global consumer prices. 95% of the variation in global inflation were due to non-Chinese factors.

As the Trans Pacific Partnership comes into effect, China needs to embark on a series of bilateral trade agreements. After the US, its largest trading partners are Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Australia and Malaysia, however, as a currency trading block the Euro Area is preeminent.

There are two alternatives to a US$ peg, the first is to manage the RMB effective exchange rate, but this would be expensive due to the multiple currencies involved, the second option is to peg the RMB to the SDR basket. Both politically and economically this acknowledges China’s position as the second largest economy. It also heralds another incremental change in perception about the pre-eminence of the US$ as a reserve currency.

The RMB will be included in the SDR from October 2016. As the Chinese administration moves towards free-convertibility it is likely that they will start by widening the degree to which the currency can fluctuate. By managing the RMB versus the other SDR currencies they can take advantage of the liquidity these currencies provide and the lower volatility that the SDR basket has relative to its constituents. This will also allow the PBoC to intervene to stem the largest speculative currency flows. Table below shows the annual level of trade by region (2011):-

Region Exports Imports Total trade Trade balance
 European Union 356 211.2 567.2 144.8
 United States 324.5 122.2 446.7 202.3
 Hong Kong 268 15.5 283.5 252.5
 ASEAN 170.1 192.8 362.9 -22.7
 Japan 148.3 194.6 342.9 -46.3


Source: China National Statistics Bureau

Capital Flows

Trade is one aspect of China’s development, the other is capital; the Kansas City Federal Reserve Macro Bulletin – Global Capital Flows from China – takes up the story:-

In 2014-15, China experienced five consecutive quarters of capital outflows for the first time since 2000, and the annual volume of outflows is at a record level. If growth expectations continue to soften, this trend may continue in the near future.

China has been an active investor in Africa and other resource-rich regions, but, as its competitive advantages from labour dissipate, external investment will become far more important. Another reason to allow full convertibility.

Technical issues and challenges

The two requirements for joining the SDR are; being a larger exporter – which is no issue for China -and having a freely accessible currency. They still have some way to go on the latter, but China now has more than two dozen swap lines with foreign central banks, has promoted offshore trading and abolished quotas for foreign central banks and sovereign wealth funds investing in mainland bonds. 

RMB fixing – the PBoC as a participating SDR central bank, must provide the IMF with a daily fix. Currently there is a gap between domestic and the offshore RMB rate, closing that gap will be an operational challenge.

SDR currencies are weighted based on trade and reserve status – Marc Chandler – China And The Pull Of The SDR – elaborates:-

Given China’s export prowess, it suggests the yuan should be a major currency in the SDR. However, as a reserve asset, it is very small. The IMF estimates the yuan’s share of reserves at a minuscule 1.1%.

For more on the technical aspects of the SDR this paper from Europacifica – The RMB in the SDR and why Australia should care offers more insights.

In October China issued its first Treasury bill on the international market. Here is how it was reported by the FT – China completes first London debt sale:-

Spencer Lake, global head of capital financing at HSBC, one of the banks that arranged the sale, called the transaction a milestone in the internationalisation of the renminbi, noting that it was the first debt offering in any currency from the PBoC outside China.

“This strategic move demonstrates the clear commitment by the Chinese authorities to grow the offshore bond market and the confidence in the City of London as a leading renminbi hub for future activities,” he said.

“The PBoC bond will give a genuine boost to liquidity, market confidence and provide investors with the quality that they demand.”

Who will buy the non-performing loans?

Another reason China may want to move towards free convertibility is to encourage foreign investment. An article from Zero-Hedge – One Analyst Says China’s Banking Sector Is Sitting On A $3 Trillion Neutron Bomb explains:-

If one very conservatively assumes that loans are about half of the total asset base (realistically 60-70%), and applies an 20% NPL to this number instead of the official 1.5% NPL estimate, the capital shortfall is a staggering $3 trillion. 

That, as we suggested three weeks ago, may help to explain why round after round of liquidity injections (via RRR cuts, LTROs, and various short- and medium-term financing ops) haven’t done much to boost the credit impulse. In short, banks may be quietly soaking up the funds not to lend them out, but to plug a giant, $3 trillion, solvency shortfall. 


I believe the inclusion of the RMB in the SDR is more than simply symbolic. It will allow the PBoC to move away from a US$ peg, widen it trading bands and balance its currency more effectively relative to its main trading partners. PBoC Intervention can be generally confined to SDR currencies which, due to their high liquidity, will be the cross-currency pairs of choice for speculators.

An Autumn Reassessment – Will the fallout from China favour equities, bonds or the US Dollar?


Macro Letter – No 40 – 28-08-2015

An Autumn Reassessment – Will the fallout from China favour equities, bonds or the US Dollar?

  • The FOMC rate increase may be delayed
  • An equity market correction is technically overdue
  • Long duration bonds offer defensive value
  • The US$ should out-perform after the “risk-off” phase has run its course

It had been a typical summer market until the past fortnight. Major markets had been range bound, pending the widely-anticipated rate increase from the FOMC and the prospect of similar, though less assured, action from the BoE. The ECB, of course, has been preoccupied with the next Greek bailout, whilst EU politicians wrestle with the life and death implications of the migrant crisis.

What seems to have changed market sentiment was the PBoC’s decision to engineer a 3% devaluation in the value of the RMB against the US$. This move acted as a catalyst for global markets, commentators seizing on the news as evidence that the Chinese administration has lost control of its rapidly slowing economy. As to what China should do next, opinion is divided between those who think any conciliatory gesture is a sign of weakness and those who believe the administration must act swiftly and with purpose, to avoid an inexorable and potentially catastrophic deterioration in economic conditions. The PBoC reduced interest rates again on Wednesday by 25bp – 1yr Lending Rate to 4.6% and 1yr Deposit Rate to 1.75% – they also reduced the Reserve Ratio requirement from 18.5% to 18%. This is not exactly dramatic but it leaves them with the flexibility to act again should the situation worsen.

Markets, especially equities, have become more volatile. The largest bond markets have rallied as equities have fallen. This is entirely normal; that the move has occurred during August, when liquidity is low, has, perhaps, conspired to exacerbate the move – technical traders will await confirmation when new lows are seen in equity markets during normal liquidity conditions.

Has anything changed in China?    

The Chinese economy has been rebalancing since 2012 – this article from Michael Pettis – Rebalancing and long term growth – from September 2013 provides an excellent insight. The process still has a number of years to run. Meanwhile, pegging the RMB to the US$ has made China uncompetitive in certain export markets. Other countries have filled the void, Mexico, for example, now appears to have a competitive advantage in terms of labour costs whilst transportation costs are definitely in its favour when meeting demand for goods from the US. This April 2013 article from the Financial Times – Mexican labour: cheaper than China elaborates:-


Source: BofA Merrill Lynch

China’s economy continues to slow, a lower RMB is not unexpected but how are the major economies faring under these conditions?

US growth and lower oil prices?

I recently wrote about the US economy – US Growth and employment – can the boon of cheap energy eclipse the collapse of energy investment? My conclusion was that US stock earnings were improving. The majority of Q2 earnings reports have been released and the improvement is broad-based. This article from Pictet – US and Europe Q2 Earnings Results: positive surprises but no game changer which was published last week, looks at both the US and Europe:-

US earnings: strong profit margins and strong financials

Almost all S&P500 (456) companies published their Q2 results. At the sales level, 46% of companies beat their estimates; meanwhile, the corresponding number was 54% at the net profit level. Companies beat their sales and net profit estimates by 1.2% and 2.2% respectively, thus demonstrating strong cost control. Financials were big contributors as sales and net profit surprises came out at +0.5% and 1.5% respectively excluding this sector. Banks (37% of financials) beat sales estimates by 9% sales surprises and 8.4% at the net profit level. This sector’s hit ratio was especially impressive with 92% of reporting companies ahead of the street estimates. Oil and gas companies, which suffered from very large downgrades in 2015, reported earnings in line with expectations. Sales of material-related sectors (basic resources, chemicals, construction materials) suffered from the decline in global commodity prices, but those companies were able to post better than expected net profits. While positive, these numbers were not sufficient to alter the general US earnings picture. Thus the 2015 expected growth remains anaemic at 1.6% for the whole S&P500 and at 9.1% excluding the oil sector.

Q2 GDP came out at 2.3% vs forecasts of 2.6%, nonetheless, this was robust enough to raise expectations of a September rate increase from the FOMC.

European growth – lower oil a benefit?

The European Q2 reporting season is still in train, however, roughly half the earnings reports have now been published; here’s Pictet’s commentary:-

European earnings: positive surprises, strong banks but no substantial currency impact

A little more than half of Stoxx Europe 600 constituents published their numbers. Sales and net earnings surprises came out at 4% and 4.3% respectively. Excluding financials, the beat was less impressive with 0.8% at the sales level and 2.7% at the net income level. Banks had a strong quarter on the back of a rebound in loan volumes and improvements in some peripheral economies. This sector’s published sales and net income were thus 33% and 11% higher respectively than estimates. One of the key questions going into the earnings season was whether the very weak euro would boost European earnings. Unfortunately, this element failed to impact Q2 earning in a meaningful way. Investors counting on the weaker currency to boost European companies’ profit margins were clearly disappointed as this process remains very gradual. Thus, European corporates’ profit margins remain well below their US counterparts (11% versus 15%).

The weakness of the oil price doesn’t appear to have had a significant impact on European growth. This video from Bruegel – The impact of the oil price on the EU economy from early June, suggests that the benefit of lower energy prices may still feed through to the wider European economy, however they conclude that the weakening of prices for industrial materials supports the view that the driver of lower oil prices is a weakening in the global economy rather than the result of a positive supply shock. The views expressed by Lutz Kilian, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan, are particularly worth considering – he sees the oil price decline as being a marginal benefit to the global economy at best.

When attempting to gain a sense of how economic conditions are changing, I find it useful to visit a country or region. The UK appears to be in reasonably rude health by this measure, however, mainland Europe has been buffeted by another Greek crisis during the last few months, so my visit to Spain, this summer, provided a useful opportunity for observation. The country seems more prosperous than last year – albeit I visited a different province – despite the lingering problems of excess debt and the overhang of housing stock. The informal economy, always more flexible than its regulated relation, seems to be thriving, but most of the seasonal workers are non-Spanish – mainly of North African descent. This suggests that the economic adjustment process has not yet run its course – unemployment benefits are still sufficiently generous to make menial work unattractive, whilst unemployment remains stubbornly high:-

spain-unemployment- youth unemployment rate

Source: Trading Economics

Euro area youth unemployment remains stubbornly high at 22% – down from 24% in 2013 but well above the average for the period prior to the 2008 financial crisis (15%).

If structural reforms are working, Greece should be leading the adjustment process. Wages should be falling and, as the country regains competitiveness, and employment opportunities should rise:-

greece-german unemployment-rate

Source: Trading Economics

The chart above shows Greek vs German unemployment since the introduction of the Euro in 1999. Germany always had structurally lower unemployment and a much smaller “black economy”. During the early part of the 2000’s it suffered from a lack of competitiveness whilst other Eurozone countries benefitted from the introduction of the Euro. Between 2003 and 2005 Germany introduced the Hartz labour reforms. Whilst average earnings in Germany remained stagnant its economic competitiveness dramatically improved.

During the same period Greek wages increased substantially, the Greek government issued a vast swathe of debt and unemployment fell marginally – until the 2008 crisis. Since 2013 the adjustment process has begun to reduce unemployment, yet, with youth unemployment (see chart below) still above 50% and migrants arriving by the thousands, this summer, it appears as though the economic adjustment process has barely begun:-

greece-german youth-unemployment-rate

Source: Trading Economics

Japan – has Abenomics failed?

Japanese Q2 GDP was -1.6% y/y, Q1 was revised to an annualised +4.5% from 3.9% – itself a revision from 2.4%, so there may be room for some improvement in subsequent revisions. The weakness was blamed on lower exports to the US and China – despite policies designed to depreciate the JYP – and a weather related lack of domestic demand. The IMF – Conference Call from 23rd July urged greater efforts to stimulate growth by means of “third arrow” structural reform:-

In terms of the outlook for growth, we project growth at 0.8 percent in 2015 and 1.2 percent in 2016, and potential growth over the medium term under current policies we estimate to be about 0.6 percent. Although this near-term growth forecast looks modest, we would like to emphasize that it is above potential and, therefore, we think that the output gap will be closing by early 2017.

Still, we need to emphasize that the risks are on the downside, including from external developments, weaker growth in the United States and China, and global financial turbulence that could lead to safe haven appreciation of the yen, which would take the wind out of the recovery to some degree.

The key domestic risks include weaker than expected real wage growth in the short term and weak domestic demand and incomplete fiscal and structural reforms over the medium term. These scenarios could result in stagnation or stagflation and trigger a jump in JGB yields.


Conclusions and investment opportunities

I want to start by reviewing the markets; here are three charts comparing equities vs 10yr government bonds – for the Eurozone I’ve used German Bunds as a surrogate:-

Dow - T-Bond 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

Eurostoxx - Bunds - 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

Nikkei - JGB 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

With the exception of the Dow – and its pattern is similar on the S&P500 – the uptrend in stocks hasn’t been broken, nonetheless, a significant stock market correction is overdue. Below is a 10 year monthly chart for the S&P500:-

S&P500 10yr


US Stocks

Looking at the chart above, a retest of the November 2007 highs (1545) would not be unreasonable – I would certainly view this as a buying opportunity from a shorter term trading perspective. A break of the October 2014 low (1821) may presage a move towards this level, but for the moment I remain neutral. This is a change to my position earlier this year, when I had become more positive on the prospects for US stocks – earnings may have improved, but the recent price action suggests doubts are growing about the ability of US corporates to deliver sufficient multi-year growth to justify the current price-multiples in the face of potential central bank rate increases.

US Bonds

T-Bonds have been a short term beneficiary of “flight to quality” flows. A more gradual move lower in stocks will favour Treasuries but FOMC rate increases will lead to curve-flattening and may completely counter this effect. Should the FOMC relent – and the markets may well test their mettle – it will be a reactive, rather than a proactive move. The market will perceive the rate increases as merely postponed. Longer duration bonds will be less susceptible to the vagaries of the stock market and will offer a more attractive yield by way of recompense when a new tightening cycle begin in earnest.

Europe and Japan – stocks and bonds

Since the recent stock market decline and bond market rally are a reaction to the exogenous impact of China’s economic fortunes, I expect correlation between the major markets to increase – whither the US so goes the world.

The US$ – conundrum

Finally, I feel compelled to mention the recent price action of the US$ Index:-

US Dollar Index


Having been the beneficiary of significant inflows over the past two years, the US$ has weakened versus its main trading partners since the beginning of 2015, however, the value of the US$ has been artificially reduced over multiple years by the pegging of emerging market currencies to the world’s reserve currency – especially the Chinese RMB. The initial reaction to the RMB devaluation on 12th August was a weakening of the US$ as “risk” trades were unwound. The market correction this week has seen a continuation of this process. Once the deleveraging and risk-off phase has run its course – which may take some weeks – fundamental factors should favour the US$. The FOMC is still more likely to raise rates before other major central banks, whilst concern about the relative fragility of the economies of emerging markets, Japan and Europe all favour a renewed strengthening of the US$.

China versus India – Currencies, Reform and Growth


Macro Letter – No 31 – 06-03-2015

China versus India – Currencies, Reform and Growth

  • India announced a reformist budget, short on detail but market friendly
  • The PBoC cut interest rates again but are still behind the curve
  • Chinese and Indian Real-Estate prices continue to decline in real terms
  • INR/CNY exchange rate will move higher

Last month PWC – The World in 2050 – produced a long-term forecast for economic growth in which they predicted that India could become the second largest economy in the world by 2050 in purchasing power parity (PPP) and third largest in market exchange rate (MER) terms. Putting the scale of world economies in to perspective they say:-

China has already overtaken the US for the number one spot, and will remain as the world’s largest economy in 2050. India could narrowly overtake the US for the number two spot by 2050. However, the gap between the third largest economy and the fourth largest economy will widen considerably. In 2014, the third biggest economy (India) is around 50% larger than the fourth biggest economy (Japan). In 2050, the third biggest economy (the US) is projected to be approximately 240% larger than the fourth biggest economy (Indonesia).

The prospects from the BRIC economies are mixed. Russia is entangled in the geo-politics of the Ukraine and its economy has suffered from falling energy prices as this article from Chatham House – Troubled Times: Stagnation, Sanctions and the Prospects for Economic Reform in Russia explains. Meanwhile Brazil, still reeling from the stagnation of 2013, looks set to head into a fully-fledged recession exacerbated by high, wage-squeezing, inflation resulting from the near 30% decline in its currency. The prospects for India and China are much better.


Last week Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister, announced a budget which he described as “a quantum jump”. Among other things, he intends to:-

  • Implement an RBI inflation target
  • Maintain a national government budget deficit of 4.1% of GDP in cash terms
  • Target a budget reduction to 3% of GDP in 2017-2018
  • Increase Spending on road construction and power generation
  • Streamline subsidies and accelerate the de-nationalization of state industries
  • Introduce a harmonised goods and sales tax, by April 2016, to replace state and federal levies – potentially adding 2% to GDP by creating an India-wide “common market”
  • Rationalise direct-taxation – cutting corporation tax but closing loopholes, abolishing a wealth tax in favour of an income tax surcharge on higher earners

This amounts to a decidedly reformist agenda, although the speech was light on detail. It removes several barriers to investment in India, although the issue of reform of land laws remains unresolved.


Meanwhile, last Saturday, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) cut interest rates. This is the third accommodative move in as many months. Their motivation appears to be three-fold:-

  • Stimulate Credit Growth.
  • The fall in credit as measured by “total social financing” -13.5% y/y in January 2015 versus a +17.5% in January 2014. This may also allow SOEs and SMEs to service existing debt acquired during the indiscriminate credit expansion of 2009.
  • Alleviate Falling inflation.
  • The inflation rate has declined by 1.7% since Q4 2014. Lending rates are only 20bp lower over the same period. In other word a “real” tightening of 1.5% has occurred.
  • Stem Capital Outflows.
  • The capital and financial account deficit hit a decade high of $91.2bln in Q4 2014. This is a sharp deterioration, in 2013 the capital account surplus for the year was $326.2bln

This action may still not be sufficient to re-invigorate the Chinese economy. It fuels hopes for further accommodation later this year. This could take the form of lower interest rates, additional liquidity, reduction in bank reserve requirements or some form of fiscal stimulus. Last year the Chinese government budget deficit was 2.1% of GDP, there is plenty of room for manoeuver.

China and India as economic dynamos

Before delving into the details of monetary policy in each country, it is worth taking a broad overview of the Chinese and Indian economies from a global perspective.

The table below shows the major economic regions of the world ranked by population: –

Country GDP-YOY Interest Rate Inflation Rate Jobless Rate Debt/GDP C/A Population
China 7.30% 5.35% 0.80% 4.10% 22.40% 2 1360.72
India 7.50% 7.75% 5.11% 5.20% 67.72% -1.7 1238.89
EA 0.90% 0.05% -0.30% 11.20% 90.90% 2.4 334.57
USA 2.40% 0.25% -0.10% 5.70% 101.53% -2.3 318.86
Brazil -0.20% 12.25% 7.14% 5.30% 56.80% -4.17 202.77
Russia 0.70% 15.00% 15.00% 5.50% 13.41% 1.56 143.7
Japan -0.50% 0.00% 2.40% 3.60% 227.20% 0.7 127.02


Source: Trading Economics

India and China stand out as the engines of economic growth. They have a combined population of more than 3.5bln. On a GDP per capita basis both countries have far to go. Indian GDP/Capita is $1,165 and China $3,583, compared to Euro Area $31,807 and USA $45,863. However, as PWC say in their report, the gap between the rich and these relatively poor countries is likely to narrow in percentage terms significantly by 2050.

Here are some more statistics which help to show the similarities and differences between the two economies:-

Criteria China India
Age structure 0-14 years: 17.1% 0-14 years: 28.5%
15-24 years: 14.7% 15-24 years: 18.1%
25-54 years: 47.2% 25-54 years: 40.6%
55-64 years: 11.3% 55-64 years: 7%
65 years and over: 9.6%(2014 est.) 65 years and over: 5.8%(2014 est.)
Median age total: 36.7 years total: 27 years
male: 35.8 years male: 26.4 years
female: 37.5 years (2014 est.) female: 27.7 years (2014 est.)
Population growth rate 0.44% (2014 est.) 1.25% (2014 est.)
Birth rate 12.17 births/1,000 (2014 est.) 19.89 births/1,000 (2014 est.)
Death rate 7.44 deaths/1,000 (2014 est.) 7.35 deaths/1,000 (2014 est.)
Net migration rate -0.32 migrant(s)/1,000 (2014 est.) -0.05 migrant(s)/1,000 (2014 est.)
Urbanization – Urban 50.6% of total population (2011) 31.3% of total population (2011)
Rate of Urbanization 2.85% annual (2010-15 est.) 2.47% annual (2010-15 est.)
Major cities – population Shanghai 20.2mln                                                            BEIJING (capital) 15.6mln (2011) NEW DELHI (capital) 22.6mln                                        Mumbai 19.7mln (2011)
Infant mortality rate 14.79 deaths/1,000 live births 43.19 deaths/1,000 live births
Life expectancy at birth 75.15 years 67.8 years
Total fertility rate 1.55 children born/woman (2014 est.) 2.51 children born/woman (2014 est.)
Infectious diseases degree of risk: intermediate degree of risk: very high
Literacy – age 15 (can read and write) total population: 95.1% total population: 62.8%
male: 97.5% male: 75.2%
female: 92.7% (2010 est.) female: 50.8% (2006 est.)
School life expectancy 13 years 12 years
Education expenditures NA 3.2% of GDP (2011)
Maternal mortality rate 37 deaths/100,000 live births (2010) 200 deaths/100,000 live births (2010)
Children under weight <5yrs 3.4% (2010) 43.5% (2006)
Health expenditures 5.2% of GDP (2011) 3.9% of GDP (2011)
Physicians density 1.46 physicians/1,000 population (2010) 0.65 physicians/1,000 population (2009)
Hospital bed density 3.8 beds/1,000 population (2011) 0.9 beds/1,000 population (2005)
Adult Obesity 5.7% (2008) 1.9% (2008)


Source: Index Mundi

From a Chinese perspective the main elements which stand out in the table above are:-

  • Slower birth rate, aging population and lower fertility rate – according to the UN China’s working age population will decline by 16% between now and 2050
  • Higher literacy, especially female literacy
  • Lower mortality rate and higher health expenditure

For India, improvements in education, sanitation and healthcare are key factors.

Indian Monetary Policy

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) cut their key Repo Rate in December 2014. Despite falling oil prices they have left this rate unchanged as the effects of the currency devaluation of 2013 work their way through the economy. This is an extract from the RBI Bulletin – February 2015:-

On the basis of an assessment of the current and evolving macroeconomic situation, it has been decided to:-

  • keep the policy repo rate under the liquidity adjustment facility (LAF) unchanged at 7.75 per cent;
  • keep the cash reserve ratio (CRR) of scheduled banks unchanged at 4.0 per cent of net demand and time liabilities (NDTL);
  • reduce the statutory liquidity ratio (SLR) of scheduled commercial banks by 50 basis points from 22.0 per cent to 21.5 per cent of their NDTL with effect from the fortnight beginning February 7, 2015;
  • replace the export credit refinance (ECR) facility with the provision of system level liquidity with effect from February 7, 2015;
  • continue to provide liquidity under overnight repos of 0.25 per cent of bank-wise NDTL at the LAF repo rate and liquidity under 7-day and 14-day term repos of up to 0.75 per cent of NDTL of the banking system through auctions; and
  • continue with daily variable rate term repo and reverse repo auctions to smooth liquidity

They go on to defend their hawkish stance on inflation:-

The upside risks to inflation stem from the unlikely possibility of significant fiscal slippage, uncertainty on the spatial and temporal distribution of the monsoon during 2015 as also the low probability but highly influential risks of reversal of international crude prices due to geo-political events. Heightened volatility in global financial markets, including through the exchange rate channel, also constitute a significant risk to the inflation assessment. Looking ahead, inflation is likely to be around the target level of 6 per cent by January 2016.

Their growth forecasts are also cautious:-

The outlook for growth has improved modestly on the back of disinflation, real income gains from decline in oil prices, easier financing conditions and some progress on stalled projects. These conditions should augur well for a reinvigoration of private consumption demand, but the overall impact on growth could be partly offset by the weaker global growth outlook and short-run fiscal drag due to likely compression in plan expenditure in order to meet consolidation targets set for the year. Accordingly, the baseline projection for growth using the old GDP base has been retained at 5.5 per cent for 2014-15. For 2015-16, projections are inherently contingent upon the outlook for the south-west monsoon and the balance of risks around the global outlook. Domestically, conditions for growth are slowly improving with easing input cost pressures, supportive monetary conditions and recent measures relating to project approvals, land acquisition, mining, and infrastructure. Accordingly, the central estimate for real GDP growth in 2015-16 is expected to rise to 6.5 per cent with risks broadly balanced at this point.

Since this report GDP data has surprised on the upside and the Indian Finance Ministry even suggested their own forecast could be revised to 8.5% – this is how the Wall Street Journal reported it, last week:-

India is in a “sweet spot,” the report said: Inflation has eased, international investors are bullish on India and the government in New Delhi has a strong mandate for change.

If the Modi administration continues improving the business environment and reducing government interference in the prices of food, fuel and other basic goods, the survey said, India’s GDP eventually could experience double-digit growth. That would give the country more resources to help its poor and provide opportunities for its young, growing middle class.

The combination of a relatively weak currency, declining inflation, accelerating growth and a structural reform package, from a government with a strong mandate from its electorate, are a heady cocktail. The RBI underpins these developments by holding back on interest rate cuts. The INR has taken this to heart as the chart below shows. It is still dangerous for the RBI to aggressively cut interest rates – the moderation in inflation needs to feed through to inflation expectations – but inward foreign direct investment could lead to a steady appreciation in the INR over the next couple of years. I wait for technical confirmation of this trend which could see at least a 61.8% correction of the 2011/2013 range (44-68) around USDINR 53:-



Chinese Monetary Policy

The Peoples Bank of China (PBoC) announced an interest rate cut last Saturday, lowering the one year rate to 5.35% from 5.6% previously. A PBoC official stated Deflationary risk and the property market slowdown are two main reasons for the rate cut this time,” The PBoC press release was somewhat drier:-

The one-year RMB benchmark loan interest rate and deposit interest rate will both be lowered by 0.25 percentage points, to 5.35 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively. At the same time, the upper limit of the floating range for deposit interest rates will be raised from 1.2 to 1.3 times the benchmark level in support of market-oriented interest rate reform. Adjustments are made correspondingly to benchmark interest rates on deposits and loans of other maturities, and to deposit and loan interest rates on personal housing provident fund.

This is the second rate cut in four months. They also introduced a Standing Lending Facility to create better liquidity:-

To implement the decisions adopted at the Central Economic Work Conference as well as the requirements of the 2015 PBC Work Conference and PBC Money, Credit and Financial Market Work Meeting, to improve the central bank’s liquidity support channels for small and medium-sized financial institutions, to address seasonal liquidity fluctuations in the run-up to Spring Festival, and to promote stable functioning of the money market, the PBC has decided, based on the reproducible experience from the pilot Standing lending Facility (SLF) program participated by the branch offices in ten provinces (and municipalities), to introduce SLF operations in branch offices nationwide. As a result, the PBC branch offices will provide SLF on collaterals to four categories of local legal-entity financial institutions, i.e., the city commercial banks, rural commercial banks, rural cooperative banks, and rural credit cooperatives.

This followed on from a cut to Bank Reserve Requirements announced on February 5th:-

The PBC has decided to cut the RMB deposit required reserve ratio for financial institutions by 0.5 percentage points, effective from February 5, 2015. Furthermore, in order to enhance the capacity of financial institutions to support structural adjustment, and to beef up support to small and micro enterprises, the agricultural sector, rural area and farmer, and major water conservancy projects, the PBC has decided to cut the RMB deposit required reserve ratio for city commercial banks and non-county level rural commercial banks that have met the standards of targeted required reserve reduction by an additional 0.5 percentage points, and cut the required reserve ratio for the Agricultural Development Bank of China by an additional 4 percentage points.

The continued pegging of the RMB – within tight parameters – to the US$ means that China is a beneficiary of the rising US$, but this is something of a double-edged sword since the currency appreciation has been damaging for Chinese exporters. The slowing of the Chinese economy over the last few months and PBoC action has heralded a much needed weakening of the CNY rate as this chart shows:-

USDCNH Oct 2012-March 2015


The PBoC rate cut will probably not be the last action to stimulate economic activity, being pegged to a currency which has been steadily rising on a trade-weighted basis whilst maintaining a substantial interest rate differential is a difficult long-term operation even for an economy as closed to international capital flows as China. The BIS – Assessing the CNH-CNY pricing differential: role of fundamentals, contagion and policy released this week, discusses some of these issues in greater detail, here is the abstract:-

Renminbi internationalisation has brought about an active offshore market where the exchange rate frequently diverges from the onshore market. Using extended GARCH models, we explore the role of fundamentals, global factors and policies related to renminbi internationalisation in driving the pricing differential between the onshore and offshore exchange rates. Differences in the liquidity of the two markets play an important role in explaining the level of the differential, while rises in global risk aversion tend to increase the differential’s volatility. On the policy front, measures permitting cross-border renminbi outflows have a particularly discernible impact in reducing the volatility of the pricing gap between the two markets.

A weaker RMB would help China more than devaluations have aided other emerging market countries since most of China’s debt is denominated in their own currency, however, a major factor acting as a drag on economic growth is over-investment. At more than 50%, China has the highest level of investment as a percentage of GDP of any major economy – in the UK, by contrast, investment amounts to less than 20%.

Asset Markets

Indian Real-Estate

With relatively high short-term interest rates and uncertainty still hanging over the market due to the currency devaluation of 2013, Indian Real-Estate transactions have been sluggish. In 2014 residential sales were down 30% y/y across India’s seven major cities. A growing inventory of unsold properties is weighing on the domestic banks. Real-Estate accounts for around 13% of Indian bank lending. With non-performing loans on the rise, lower interest rates would be very welcome for the banking sector. The chart below shows the age of property for sale and the length of time these properties are taking to sell in the major cities – a region which accounts for around 70% of India’s property development:-

Unsold Indian Property - Frank Knight

Source: Knight Frank

The National Housing Bank – a subsidiary of the RBI – publishes an index of prices. With an inverted government bond yield curve (1yr 7.83% vs 10yr 7.68% – 4-3-2015) and a substantial over-hang of inventory, it is not surprising that prices are struggling to make much real upside even in the best areas:-

NHB - Price Data

Source: National Housing Bank

A new government initiative called the Smart Cities Project was launched last year with $1.2bln of funding for 2015. Long-term, this will help to deliver the housing and infrastructure India needs, but, near-term, Real-Estate is an asset class which remains supressed. Many apartment buildings stand empty and whilst real prices have not declined significantly, market activity remains very subdued. I do see value developing; there will be an opportunity to invest over the next couple of years as the economy responds to structural reforms.

Demand will emanate from urbanisation and an increase in high and middle income workers returning to India – after all, the “quality of life” for skilled workers returning home is compelling. A working paper from the Peterson Institute – The Economic Scope and Future of US-India Labor Migration Issues looks at the positive impact of both temporary and permanent Indian labour on US markets, they go on to raise concerns about recent US immigration policy:-

…but US immigration data show that India is by far the most important partner country for both permanent and temporary US employment-based migration: Indian nationals account for about half of all US employment-based permanent migration (e.g., green cards) in recent years.

…The prospects of a US-India totalization agreement for social contributions/taxation as part of an FTA are evaluated. A TA is likely to result in indirect economic losses to the United States from the loss of payroll taxes paid but never claimed by temporary Indian workers in the United States. The substantial political and economic quid pro quo that India would have to commit to in order to incentivize the United States to negotiate a TA would be daunting and seems likely to diminish the attractiveness of an FTA to India.

This 2012 paper from the Institute for European Studies – India’s Returning Elite Knowledge Workers is an excellent insight into the inward migration of skilled workers to the major cities of India’s North East. Here is a summary of the “Brain-Gain”:-

India’s rising independence in the last decade as an economic actor constitutes new issues in global governance for a large skilled workforce. What once constituted a ‘brain-drain’ for Indian actors that emigrated to the Global North (EU and US economic powers), is now resulting in a ‘brain-gain’ for the sending countries. India, as a representative power of the emerging Global South, has been a leader in creating cross-border social networks for entrepreneurship through ties between the Indian expatriate community and local entrepreneurs in industries that are enticing Western agents. 

This dissertation project investigates how the ‘brain gain’ of high-skilled entrepreneurs of Indian origin has transformed the landscape of infrastructure and social relations within emergent Global South cities in India based upon elite trans-migrant imaginaries of home. India’s growth as a global power attributed to cross border diasporic networks of Indian transnationals has given rise to a generation of permanently returning migrants to India’s cosmopolitan cities. This paper explores the movement of transnational Indian elites returning from the United States and Europe to postcolonial India. Through ethnographic interviews in Silicon Valley, California, I attempt to understand why social and technological entrepreneurs of Indian origin, those who see their return as a new venture or idea, are returning to accommodate a hybridized Western lifestyle within an Indian socio-cultural context. These entrepreneurs are transforming the peripheries of the cosmopolitan global city through the gated communities where they reside and Special Economic Zones where they work toward developing new business and change in India. By examining the narratives and everyday life of elite diasporic returners in their newfound ‘home’ spaces, I question (a) what are the principle motivations that guide entrepreneurs to return to India (b) whether the cosmopolitan Global South city can function as a hybrid ‘home’ and (c) in locating ‘home’ by transforming their spatial and temporal relationships, how are power relations constituted.

Chinese Real-Estate

Shanghai Real-Estate has risen by 650% since 2000 and by 85% since the last peak in 2007, although nationwide the increase in the period from 2008 to 2013 was a more moderate 20%. The driving force behind this price increase has been urbanisation. In the past 12 years 220mln people have move from rural to urban districts in China. A large number of these new, often unskilled, city dwellers have been employed in construction. It is estimated that 27% of urban Real-Estate is unoccupied. This explains the recent downturn in Chinese Real-Estate prices as this chart of newly built housing shows:-


Source: Trading Economics and National Bureau of Statistics of China

In January the decline was -5.1% versus -4.3% in December and -3.7% in November 2014. Price drops were recorded in 64 of the 70 major cities, compared to 66 in December. Declines are not evenly distributed: the average price of new homes in the country’s four first-tier cities rose for the second consecutive month. The existing housing market is also more buoyant for first-tier cities, rising for the fourth month in a row. In second and third-tier cities prices continue to decline.

Writing in the FT – How addiction to debt came even to China Martin Wolf describes the problem overhanging the Chinese property market:-

China’s huge credit boom has several disquieting features. Much of the rise in debt is concentrated in the property sector; “shadow banking” — that is lending outside the balance sheets of the formal financial institutions — accounts for 30 per cent of outstanding debt, according to McKinsey; much of the borrowing has been put on off-balance-sheet vehicles of local governments; and, above all, the surge in debt was not linked to a matching rise in trend growth, but rather to the opposite.

This does not mean China is likely to experience an unmanageable financial crisis. On the contrary, the Chinese government has all the tools it needs to contain a crisis. It does mean, however, that an engine of growth in demand is about to be switched off. As the economy slows, many investment plans will have to be reconsidered. That may start in the property sector. But it will not end there. In an economy in which investment is close to 50 per cent of GDP, the downturn in demand (and so output) might be far more severe than expected.

Despite this relatively sanguine appraisal of the prospects for the housing market it is worth pointing out that 75% of Chinese individual net worth is tied up in Real-Estate – by way of comparison, in the US the figure is 28%.

Chinese Real-Estate may recover at some point, probably in response to wage growth – currently running at around 8% in real terms, buoyed by state mandated minimum wage increases (13%) and strong growth in private manufacturing (12%). For the present I expect Real-Estate prices to continue to decline. This will eventually exert significant downward pressure on private domestic consumption – an impediment to the policy of “re-balancing”.

Indian Equities

Indian equities have performed strongly due to the currency devaluation, high inflation and relatively strong economic growth. Money supply has moderated in response to higher interest rates but is still sufficient to encourage asset market speculation. The chart below covers the period up to January 2014 but the double digit expansion has continued during the last year:-


Source: RBI

The currency devaluation of 2013 has fed through to higher inflation but the fall in oil prices has narrowed the current account deficit, whilst exports have held up well. This, among other factors, has supported a rise in stocks, despite the RBI’s hawkish stance:-



The SENSEX Index is trading on a current P/E ratio of 18.52. This is still in the lower half of the 5 year range (16.5 to 24). With growth prospects likely to be revised higher, I believe the market will continue to exhibit strong performance over the coming year.

Chinese Equities

The Shanghai Composite performed strongly in Q4 2014 as markets became cognizant of the PBoCs dovish policy shift. Government policy is also supportive, with the continued development of Free Trade Zones remaining high on their agenda. The Jamestown Foundation – “Hope” versus “Hype”: Reforms in China’s Free Trade Zones provides more detail and suggests they may fail to realize their early promise:-

After a year of the Shanghai pilot FTZ, three new FTZs are now being established in the major sea-port cities of Guangdong, Tianjin and Fujian (South China Morning Post, December 13, 2014). Fujian is the closest mainland province to Taiwan, Tianjin specializes in international shipping and related sectors and Guangdong is adjacent to Hong Kong and Macao and is close to Southeast Asia. However, the troubles of the Shanghai FTZ—despite the personal high-level support of Premier Li—suggest that these new FTZs will face an uphill battle in expanding the grounds of economic liberalization in China.

Most Promises Stand Unfulfilled

China’s slowing growth has led many foreign companies to consider scaling back their expansion plans, and the Shanghai FTZ has failed to deliver on the promises of reform that appear necessary to justify foreign companies’ high hopes for a better future business environment in China.

Bi-lateral Free Trade Agreements are also being contemplated. This paper from ECFR – The European interest in an investment treaty with China explores one with the EU:-

Like the EU, China is a global player. Trade and investment talks cannot be viewed in isolation of moves with third parties. Chinese economic agents – from SOEs turning into multilateral firms, to sovereign funds or more dispersed private actors – are in a decisive phase of capital internationalisation as China maintains a large current account surplus.

Recent trade data, however, paints a vulnerable picture in the near-term. This was the data for January, admittedly a notoriously volatile period as it precedes the Chinese New Year: –

  • Imports -19.9% – forecast -3.2%
  • Exports -3.3% – forecast +5.9%
  • Crude oil imports -41.8%
  • Iron ore imports -50.3%
  • Coal imports – 61.8%

Another factor impacting the stock market is credit and money supply growth, M2 grew 12.2% in December 2014 down from a high of 13.6% in 2013, however it has regained upward momentum in the last couple of months:-

China M2 - Cato

Source: Cato, John Hopkins University and PBoC


Unless it can be reversed, this declining trend will act as a drag on economic activity. Nonetheless, the stock market has surged ahead – note the dramatic increase in volume traded – anticipating the effect of the PBoC policy shift:-



A longer-term chart shows that the market has some distance to go until it reaches its old highs:-

china-stock-market 8yr

Source: Trading Economics

The Shanghai Composite is trading on a P/E ratio of 16.33. This is undemanding but the risk of China unpegging and devaluing their currency is a significant risk for the international investor.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities


I have not made much mention of the government bond markets in China or India: it is not because one cannot invest in these markets but due to the relative difficulty of accessing them and their uneven liquidity. They both offer a real yield – China 2.63% and India 2.57% for 10 year (4-3-2015). Both markets are attractive.


Both China and India are suffering from an overhang of unsold property but the overvaluation is more pronounced in China. India has the additional advantage that interest rates have more room to fall in the event of a sharp downturn in economic activity. India has a younger population and its skilled ex-patriot workers are returning in significant numbers. The Chinese market will take longer to clear. Neither market has finished correcting yet.


On a price to earnings basis the Shanghai Composite (16.33 times) offers better value than the Sensex (18.52 times) however there is a real risk that the “internationalisation” of the RMB leads to its decline against the US$. The Sensex is making new highs whilst the Shanghai Composite is trading higher after a major correction from the 2008 highs. This is not to suggest that India is trouble free, however, it has more room to grow given its per capita GDP, and less signs of over-investment. Corruption is an issue in both countries but the Chinese administration’s efforts to root out officials who have “feathered their nests” is likely to act as a drag on growth. Indian reform is principally concerned with reducing bureaucratic impediments to the functioning of free markets – closing tax loopholes, reducing state interference in competitive processes and so forth.

The key for growth in both China and India is the inward flow of foreign capital. On January 29th the UN – Global Investment Trends Monitor – announced that China had become the leading destination for FDI in 2014 ($128bln) for the first time since 2003, however, its growth rate was an incremental 3%. India, by contrast, saw FDI surge by more than 26% to $35bln – this follows a 17% rise in 2013. This trend will continue, accelerated by the reforming zeal of the incumbent regime.

Indian and Chinese interest rates will decline, but Indian rates have more room to fall. Chinese and Indian stocks will rise but, with the currency devaluation behind it, Indian stocks – despite their higher P/E ratio – look better placed to rise.


Risks for the RMB are on the downside whilst for the INR they are on the upside, the trend is underway:-

CNY-INR-2 yr