Tuesday, March 22, 2011

China Watch: Is Goldilocks Waking Up?

Almost a year has passed since we issued a blog “International Stock Markets: Searching for Goldilocks” (May 12, 2010). Here we pointed out that recent steps taken by the Chinese government and central bank to cool their economy and tame inflation had halted the sharp advance of Chinese stocks in 2009. Some investors feared that the policy makers’ initiatives would prove to be too little and too late, resulting in an inflation spike and asset bubbles. Others were concerned that the government and the central bank would become excessively restrictive and cripple economic growth. We offered three views:

  • Chinese stocks would continue to languish (at best) as long as inflation continued to rise and policy makers continued to impose additional restrictive measures.
  • Eventually the government and the central bank would be successful in piloting a “soft landing,” i.e. they would slow the economy and usher in a period of healthy and sustainable growth with reduced and controlled inflation.
  • The “soft landing” would spark a strong stock market rally. 

Since our “Goldilocks” blog, Chinese inflation has continued its ascent from 2.8% last May to its current 4.9%. In response, the Chinese government has responded with a succession of interest rate hikes and bank loan restrictions, and Premier Wen Jiabao announced recently that the highest priority of government was to reduce inflation. Our forecast for Chinese stocks was lamentably correct: since the end of 2009, the Shanghai Composite Stock Index (CSEX) has retreated -11.3% and the exchange traded fund for Chinese stocks traded in Hong Kong (FXI) is off -1.4%. For the same period, the S&P 500 Index has risen 14.7%.

We think the Chinese policy makers are making progress and will be able to pilot successfully a soft landing. We also continue to expect this soft landing to renew the bull market in stocks dating back to March of 2009. We are not alone in these forecasts. In a March 15 report issued by Deutsche Bank titled “Turning Bullish on China,” Chief Economist Jun Ma argues that “recent developments are increasingly supportive of our view that year-over-year CPI inflation will likely peak in June at around 5.8%, then fall to around 4% in December.” He expects the policy makers to take their foot off the brake and considers the risk of a hard landing to be minimal. He concludes with the prediction that in the next twelve months the Chinese stock market will “rise about 25% from its current level.”

If Chinese inflation peaks in June, will the Chinese stock market anticipate this development and rally before the data confirms the fact? Is this already happening? Since January 25, the Shanghai market (CSEX) has gained 8.6%, whereas the S&P 500 Index has slumped -0.9%. We are very aware that anticipating events that do not materialize, or are delayed, can be very painful, but is it better to be too early than too late?

We are continuously reviewing Chinese stocks to identify the most attractive candidates to participate in a renewed stock market advance. Our focus is on companies that would benefit from the government’s massive infrastructure projects and/or would prosper from the rapidly rising demand for goods and services by the mushrooming middle class.

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