From time to time, coverage of China rises to a crescendo in the popular media. China coverage reflects some of the same schizophrenia that afflicts much of the media’s output. At many points in the past several years, accord-ing to the media, China has been a tot-tering giant whose economy is a bubble fantasy that threatens to pop and take the rest of the world with it. At other points, China has been an unstoppable economic powerhouse with ravenous geopolitical appetites, ready to take down the current global hegemons, fill Africa with military bases, conquer the South China Sea, and topple the dollar from its throne, elevating the yuan as a new world reserve currency. Some-times we just wish financial media would make up their minds!
Don’t Hold Your
navigate the investment landscape effec-tively.
So what knowledge about China is critical?
In a nutshell, our favorite China ana-lysts — those who we have seen to have the best analytical track records — say this: probably, there are no radical changes coming in the next five years, whether internal or exter-nal. And further, most predictions of imminent collapse in China are based on outright misunderstand-ing of the current Chinese eco-nomic situation. Much of our analysis below follows that of Jonathan Ander-son of Emerging Advisors Group.
In all seriousness, though, there is a lesson for investors here: most media, especially financial media, sell fear and hype in an effort to attract readers and viewers. As we see it, our job in this newsletter is to point out what’s actu-ally worth paying attention to, and sub-ject it to some careful critical analysis — so that investors will not be swayed to irrational fear or irrational exuberance.
This means that investors can put aside their fears — first, that necessary reforms will be neglected, and second, that one or more commonly promoted boogeymen will tank the Chinese econ-omy, and through it, the economy of the developed world, which depends on it as the engine for its growth. With those fears aside, investors can make tactical or strategic decisions about investing in China. (We think Chinese stocks look technically favorable at the present junc-
We don’t want to oversimplify; China is a subject of inexhaustible complexity even just from an investment perspec-tive, never mind history or geopolitics. But in a world of overwhelming com-plexity, our approach has always been to follow the most insightful analysts as proven by a long track record, and to use their analysis to identify the critical elements of any subject. If we have a grasp of the critical elements, we don’t need exhaustive analysis to be able to
ture, as we’ll describe below.)
China and Reform: “Zombie Com-panies”
What about reform? The received wisdom is that the Chinese economy is doomed to a “hard landing” — a dis-ruptive collapse in growth — unless re-forms are enacted. These supposedly necessary reforms include internal mea-
sures; one that’s mentioned often is the reining-in of inefficient, unproductive, debt-strapped state-owned enterprises (SOEs) which are supposedly dragging down growth in the economy as a whole. The trou-ble with this claim is that while there are inefficient SOEs in China, they are not a significant problem for the Chinese economy. First, look at net profit margins for China as a whole versus other emerg-ing-market economies since 2002 in the graph above.
Overall, the profitability of Chinese companies is in line with their emerging-market peers and follow similar macro trends — that is, there’s nothing specif-ically “Chinese” to worry about here.
But do loss-making “zombie” firms comprise a large part of the Chinese economy? Again, the answer is no. When you add together outright loss-making firms and firms that are at risk (with low and fall-ing margins), the U.S. itself actually ends up looking worse off (see chart on next page to illustrate this point).
Source: Emerging Advisors Group
Further, it isn’t the state-owned enterprises as such that are the problem; the loss-makers in China are simply companies in capital-intensive heavy indus-tries, regardless of whether they’re state-owned or not. And the profitability of all such companies across the entire emerging-market world has been falling over the past decade. It’s not a specifically Chinese problem.
If the Chinese government implemented stringent reforms that pushed all of these companies into profitability or out of business; it would kill 1.2 mil-lion jobs and add just 0.3% to overall industrial profit margins in China. In short, it wouldn’t be worth-while, and the government won’t do it… because it just isn’t that much of a problem. So as an inves-tor, you don’t need to sit by the sidelines if the Chinese market starts to look attractive just because you’re waiting for reforms that will tackle “zombie companies” and “loss-making state-owned enterprises.”
China and Reform: Domestic and Interna-tional Finance
Another area where media may encourage investors to “wait for reform” is in China’s domestic financial system and in its relationship to the global financial system. Here again, the waited-for reforms either (1) have already happened, or (2) will never happen.
On a domestic level, China since 2009 has seen the most rapid and unconstrained financial liberalization in world history. Large state banks have faded into the background, replaced by a bewildering welter of new asset and wealth management products. The “big four” state-run banks have seen their share of financial assets fall from 40% to 20% over the past decade. The financial system in proportion to GDP has doubled in that time. Assets held in non-bank financial institutions have expanded tenfold. China’s domestic financial system is not repressed by totalitarian control; on the contrary, it’s the Wild East. The effects of this liberalization have not been outstanding — domestic financial fragility has increased with relatively little to be shown in boosted GDP growth. But again, this is par for the course for emerging markets that have liberalized their domestic financial sectors in an overly rapid and rel-
Source: Emerging Advisors Group
atively uncontrolled fashion.
And on the international front, despite faltering and largely symbolic steps, China remains very closed. And it’s going to stay that way. Some of the fearmongering around China’s rise to global power focuses on this point: a claim that China will open its financial system, that the yuan will become a world reserve currency and dethrone the dollar.
But this can’t and won’t happen. China is currently experiencing a massive domestic credit boom, as noted above. In such a situation, having an open financial system is the last thing any emerging-market economy wants, since being open would expose it to the vicious effects of external capital flows and cripple any effort the government could make towards managing its domestic credit cycle.
The End Game
In short, the story on China remains the same as we’ve been describing to you for the past several years. The government wants to maintain stability and its own hold on power by ensuring that growth continues and brings more of China’s poor into its
growing middle class. The problem isn’t “zombie companies,” so there won’t be any significant efforts to rein them in. If there is a problem, it’s an ongoing struggle with the risk of financial instability that has arisen over the past decade with the government’s effort to support growth through radical domestic financial liberalization. That risk, in turn, means that there’s no reason to fear a rising China as a global financial superpower: they are not opening their
Investment implications: When it comes to investment in China, here are the prin-ciples we use. First, use sober analysis to judge macro conditions; as we outlined above, we think such an analysis today is favorable. With that hurdle cleared, remember that the Chinese stock market is small and underdeveloped compared to developed-world stock markets; the total capitalization of the Chinese stock market at the end of 2016 was about 48% of GDP, versus nearly 150% for the U.S. This means that it is a market driven by the sentiment of retail investors; therefore we like to wait for a bull market to be confirmed before we seek exposure to Chinese shares. (The Shanghai Composite Index is currently up 24% from
financial system to the world any time in the fore-seeable future, and the yuan will not become the new world reserve currency. Rather, the next five years, like the last five years, will see slowly declining growth and slowly rising risks of domestic financial instability. While there is a reckoning ahead, and in coming years China will likely suffer a domestic financial crisis, that crisis is not yet imminent.
its 2016 low.) While Chinese stocks are not driven by fundamentals in the same way that developed-market stocks are, when they are in a bull market, fundamentals can become relevant as they affect the psychology of retail investors. In this preeminently sen-timent-driven market, at this juncture we prefer the shares of China’s rapidly growing disruptive technology companies. Investors should bear in mind that accounting prac-tices in China are often lax and financial reporting can be untrustworthy for other than the largest firms; therefore we recom-mend that outside those large firms, inves-tors diversify by using one of the many sec-tor-specific China ETFs that are available.
The U.S. and Global Economy and Markets
U.S. and global stocks are entering the seasonal time when they often have one or more short correc-tions, and occasionally a bigger correction. That time frame is late August through mid-October. How-ever, counterbalancing that tendency is the proven durability of the 2017 market. This year global and domestic political bad news has been met with indifference by the U.S. and global markets. (Any dra-matic escalation of tensions in the Korean peninsula, let alone the outbreak of war, could create a violent correction in global stocks — especially the U.S., Chi-nese, and other Asian markets. The “high flyers” in all
markets would of course be the hardest hit.)
Global markets have been buoyed in 2017 by very strong corporate profits in the U.S. and in much of the world, as global GDP has strengthened through-out the second and so far in the third quarter of 2017. The outlook is for more good times ahead for global economic growth, led by strong growth in China, accelerating growth in India, and a resurgence of growth in the U.S. The initial report for U.S. GDP growth in Q2 was 2.6%; we anticipate that it will be revised upward.
We also anticipate that GDP growth will be higher
in Q3, probably closer to 3%. This flies in the face of the arguments that the rate of growth is 1.5–2%. In the U.S., much of the slow growth of recent years has been caused by increased government regulations, which have stifled job creation, wage increases, and the overall economic well-being of the public. The curtailing of some regulations so far in 2017 has been the reason for the growth surge. We believe that 3–4% growth with higher national income, higher wages, and higher employment is possible over the longer term if government overreach is dialed back.
Stronger GDP growth is the impetus for stronger corporate profits, and they are the impetus for higher stock prices.
Use dips to add to technology stocks. A few of our favorites in the U.S. and in China include Apple [NAS-DAQ: AAPL], FB [NASDAQ: FB], Alibaba [NASDAQ: BABA], Krane Shares China Internet Fund [NYSE: KWEB], and Alphabet [NASDAQ: GOOG], among others.
We are also bullish on the use of plastic and elec-tronic payments in the world as they take market share from cash. This makes us interested in credit card and electronic finance intermediaries, including Visa [NYSE: V] and American Express [NYSE: AXP], which we might buy on market weakness.
Further areas of interest include processors who turn newly mined lithium into battery-grade lithium; and travel, especially cruise lines, vacation rentals, and business travel accommodations. We are watching the development of autonomous vehicles, but pros-pects for this nascent industry to generate returns for investors are farther into the future.
We are attracted to emerging markets where man-ufacturing is the focus; we do not favor emerging
markets where commodities are the main export. One reason for favoring manufacturing economies is strong growth of demand for their inexpensive manufactured products, and a second is the falling U.S. dollar, which makes it easier for investments in emerging markets to provide profits in U.S.-dollar terms. We are more bullish on emerging markets, and less on the European industrialized markets, due to the soft European work ethic and stronger euro.
Oil and Gold
Oil is slightly bullish, and could rally a bit further. Gold is in a technically strong pattern, and could rally toward $1280. However, the failure of gold to rally more on the crisis in North Korea is a sign of only limited gold demand. We expect gold to rally into September, when many cycle theorists predict weaker gold. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies may already be starting to be a headwind for gold, and this trend could continue in the future.
Please note that principals of Guild Invest-ment Management, Inc. (“Guild”) and/or Guild’s clients may at any time own any of the stocks mentioned in this article, and may sell them at any time. Currently, Guild’s princi-pals and clients own AAPL, FB, BABA, KWEB, and GOOG. In addition, for investment advi-sory clients of Guild, please check with Guild prior to taking positions in any of the compa-nies mentioned in this article since Guild may not believe that particular stock is right for the client, either because Guild has already taken a position in that stock for the client or for other reasons.
Thanks for listening; we welcome your calls and questions.