China: It just got worse - more bad news and more policy mistakes
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Chinese authorities are mismanaging the economic and financial situation and the risk that the authorities will to cause something to blow increases day by day. First we had the ill-advised attempts to prop up the falling Chinese stock market by the Chinese authorities essentially buying stocks and by to some extent banning the selling of stocks. Now the Chinese authorities are trying something even more stupid - shooting the messenger:
Chinese authorities have arrested nearly 200 people for alleged online rumor-mongering about China's stock market turmoil and a recent, deadly chemical factory explosion in Tianjin. Among the arrested is Wang Xiaolu, a journalist for financial publication Caijing Magazine, "who has been placed under 'criminal compulsory measures' for suspected violations of colluding with others and fabricating and spreading fake information on securities and futures market," according to Chinese state media.This smells of desperation and signals to global investors that the Chinese authorities really are clueless about what is going on in the economy and in the markets. Obviously the Chinese stock markets are not falling because of "rumours", but this is the well-known behavior of many governments around the world - when the markets are going up it is because of the great policies of the government, but when they are going down it is because of the evil actions of "speculators". Meanwhile the Chinese authorities are continuing to claim that everything is fine and that real GDP is growing above 7%. However, looking at all other indicators of Chinese growth it is clear that the Chinese economy is slowing fast and is growing much less than 7%. Just take two sets of data published today. First of all, the final Caixin/Markit manufacturing purchasing managers' index (PMI) dropped to 47.3 in August - the lowest reading since March 2009 and down from 47.8 in July. Second and equally telling South Korean exports dropped as much as 14.7% y/y in August - much more than the consensus expectation of a 5.9% y/y drop. China of course is a key market for South Korean exports and South Korean export normally is a very good indicator of Chinese manufactoring activity. Given the kind of drop in the Chinese stock markets we have seen in August and what the commodity markets are telling us and given the macroeconomic data coming out it is pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that China was hit by a "sudden stop" in August as we saw a serious escalation of the currency and capital outflows. This is of course also what we have been seeing in the currency markets, where the Chinese authorities have been forced to allow the renminbi to weaken. The forward markets are telling us that more devaluations should be expected. To make things worse we today got yet another policy failure when the People's Bank of China (PBoC) in yet another attempt to make the problems go away announced that it will try to limit capital outflows by imposing a reserve requirement on financial institutions trading in foreign-exchange forwards for clients. This is essentially a form of currency controls. This is of course just another attempt of trying to shoot the messenger. The markets are telling us that more devaluations are coming. How do you manage that problem? Shot down the market. Again this smells of panic and the likely consequence is to further escalate the outflows rather than the opposite. But it not only smells of panic - it also is doing a lot of harm to the Chinese economy. Maybe paradoxically the small stepwise devaluations of the renminbi have signaled to the markets that more devaluations are coming and as a result this has escalated currency and capital outflows. As a result the PBoC has had to do even more intervention in the currency markets to prop up the renminbi. This of course is essentially monetary tightening and the consequence will be a further slowdown of the Chinese economy and likely also more financial distress. Let the RMB float! This is also an important lessons to other "peggers". There is no such thing as a small devaluation. Either you maintain your peg or you let you currency float. So to me there is really only one way out of this problem for the Chinese authorities - stop the shenanigans and let the renminbi float freely! This likely would lead to a major drop in the Chinese currency in the near-term, but the alternative is that the outflows continues and if the PBoC continues to intervene and continues to introduce draconian anti-market measures (such as jailing journalists and banding FX and equity selling) and then the crisis will just deepen. The developments in the past few weeks have reminded us all that China really still very much is an Emerging Markets and that the Chinese authorities are much less in control of events than many people believed. The Chinese authorities had it easy as long as the structural tailwinds kept the capital flows coming in and the US kept monetary policy easy. However, now we are seeing a sharp structural slowdown in the Chinese economy, currency outflows and an effective tightening of US monetary conditions. As a consequence it is becoming more and more evident that the Chinese authorities are not the supermen that they sometimes have been made up to be. As I argued in my previous blog post this is essentially the 'dollar bloc', which is falling apart. If the Chinese authorities continues to try to fight the inevitable - a fairly large renminbi depreciation - then a lot more harm will be done to the Chinese economy and the risk of full-scale financial crisis increases dramatically. We have it all here - monetary strangulation through a badly constructed monetary regime, political mismanagement and when the story of this crisis will be written I don't doubt there will be lots of talk of moral hazard and cronyism as well. In fact when I watch the actions of the Chinese authorities I am reminded of the way the Suharto regime in Indonesia (mis)handled the crisis in 1997-98. It was the same finger-pointing at "evil speculators" and the introduction of draconian and ill-advised methods to prop up the currency. In the end it all failed - the central bank was forced to allow a major devaluation, but only after an ill-fated attempt to prop up the currency more or less had blown up the financial system and caused a major contraction in the economy. And it was of course also an end of the Suharto regime (probably the most positive effect of the crisis). The Chinese Communist party today should remember how and why Suharto's regime fell apart. China can still avoid a Indonesian style crisis, but then the Chinese authorities should stop copying Suharto's policies.