MacroScope

China bear Pettis says world coming around to his view

Few mainstream economists have been quite as downbeat on China as Peking University professor and noted China watcher Michael Pettis. Pettis has long held that the world’s No. 2 economy will grow at a maximum of 3.5 percent a year for the rest of the decade, well below a consensus call that appears to have settled into the 5-7 percent range. “And honestly, I think if I’m wrong, it will be to the downside rather than the upside,” he told Reuters.

Lately, though, Pettis says that many people inside China and in some of the countries whose fortunes are tightly tied to its economy are starting to come around to his point of view. At a recent lunch with visiting European Union officials, Pettis said the mood among the attending Chinese economists, academics, think-tankers and policy advisors was universally gloomy. “I’m used to being the most pessimistic guy in the room, but in this case, they were much worse than I.”

Pettis says that’s because the Chinese understand, far better than the average Western investor or economist, just how tough it’s going to be to rebalance from investment to consumption and shift wealth from the state to Chinese households.

There are many ways China can rebalance, but none is without difficulty. A steady, gradual rise in the exchange rate, interest rates and wages would help enrich households and wean exporters off their generous state subsidies but could also stoke inflation. Moving more swiftly could sink the economy as exporters go out of business and people lose their jobs.

Mass privatization, Pettis said, would help revitalize the economy but would likely face stiff political resistance.

Euro zone hopes for funds from the Fund

Focus for the euro zone is firmly on Washington with G20 policymakers gathering ahead of the IMF spring meeting. The Fund is seeking an extra $400 billion-plus in crisis-fighting funds which, tallied with the $500 billion euro zone rescue fund about to be established, adds up to a meaningful firewall for the markets to ponder before they consider pushing Spain and Italy to the edge.

But as many sage minds are saying – U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner among them – a firewall does not solve the root problems of the euro zone debt crisis. As our very own Alan Wheatley puts it, “It is not obvious why a stronger firewall should encourage anyone to enter a burning house”. Nonetheless, Reuters polling yesterday ascribed only a 25% and 13% chance respectively to Spain and Italy needing an international bailout.

If the IMF falls short, given the jittery mood in financial markets, that could be cue for a further sell-off. The IMF has pledges of $320 billion so far. The Chinese and British have yet to show their hands and the BRICS led by Brazil are demanding more power at the Fund before handing over extra cash. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told us earlier in the week that conflating those two issues was not acceptable so there is potential for a rift. The U.S. and Canada have already said they will provide no more funding. Finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies had dinner on Thursday night, ahead of a longer session on Friday.

Foreign investors still buying American

Overseas investors have yet to sour towards U.S. assets despite high government debt levels, according the latest figures on capital flows.

Including short-dated assets such as bills, foreigners snapped up $107.7 billion in U.S. securities in February, following a downwardly revised $3.1 billion inflow for January. At the same time, the United States attracted a net long-term capital inflow of just $10.1 billion in February after drawing an upwardly revised $102.4 billion in the first month of 2012.

The data showed China boosted purchases of U.S. government debt for a second month in February, but also some waning of demand for longer-dated securities.

Biggest indicator of the week: China GDP

It wasn’t very long ago that economic numbers out of Asia would barely register a blip on Wall Street’s radar screen. That’s not the case anymore. Commerzbank touts Chinese gross domestic product figures due out on Friday as the most important gauge of global economic health following last week’s disappointing U.S. employment report.

Writes economist Jörg Krämer in a research note:

China’s economy has continued to slow into 2012 largely on the back of deliberate policy measures. We expect growth of 8% year-on-year in Q1, down from 8.9% in the final quarter of 2011 (consensus 8.3%), which is consistent with our call for full-year growth of 7.5% in 2012.

Fixed investment in particular has slowed recently, to its weakest year-on-year rate since 2002 and will be the primary driver of the slowdown in GDP growth. Net exports also deteriorated in the quarter, with China recording a very large trade deficit of US$31bn in February.

Euro zone perspective – nowhere near out of the woods

After the Easter break, a bit of perspective — to paraphrase the immortal Spinal Tap, maybe too much perspective.

Over the past two weeks, Spanish and Italian borrowing costs have continued to rise – in the former’s case they have now relinquished more than half their fall since December and are heading back into the danger zone. Stocks have also appeared to have given up on their first quarter rally, presumably testament to the realization that the ECB and other top central banks are unlikely to be writing any more blank cheques for banks to reinvest.

Late last year, it was Italy that seemed to have the power to drag Spain into the debt crisis mire. Now, it’s the other way round and after the ECB anaesthesia  wears off, it’s clear the euro zone patient is still sickly.

from Breakingviews:

China’s trade deficit is sign of things to come

By Wei Gu and Edward Hadas
The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions expressed are their own.

China will have to get used to monthly trade deficits. Special factors contributed to the $4.2 billion negative number for the first two months of 2012, but something fundamental is changing. A smaller portion of China’s imports are of goods which will be processed for export, and a higher portion is going straight into domestic consumption.

A 13 percent volume increase in soybean imports may be partly due to precautionary purchase after drought losses in South America. And the 50 percent year-on-year increase in copper imports is suspicious. Copper can be used a wheeze to circumvent tight monetary policy. Importers get a letter of credit for commodity imports, sell the commodity quickly and keep the credit until maturity.

China renminbi as reserve currency: yuan a bet?

China’s importance to the global economy makes it difficult to believe the role of the yuan in foreign exchange will not continue to expand. Will that dominance advance sufficiently to make the Chinese renminbi one of the world’s reserve currencies? A new study from the Brookings Institution suggests that in the long run, the ascendance of the yuan to reserve-currency standing is likely. It notes that of the six largest economies in the world, China is the only one whose currency does not have reserve status. But the road to getting there will be long and tortuous, the study warns, and there will be plenty of potholes.

Getting there will require overcoming two main challenges, according to Eswar Prasad and Lei Ye, who authored the report:

Sequencing of capital account opening with other policies, such as exchange rate flexibility and financial market development, to improve the cost/benefit trade-off.

from Global Investing:

January in the rearview mirror

As January 2012 drifts into the rearview mirror as a bumper month for world markets, one way to capture the year so far is in pictures - thanks to Scott Barber and our graphics team.

The driving force behind the market surge was clearly the latest liquidity/monetary stimuli from the world's central banks.

The ECB's near half trillion euros of 3-year loans  has stabilised Europe's ailing banks by flooding them with cheap cash for much lower quality collateral. In the process, it's also opened up critical funding windows for the banks and allowed some reinvestment of the ECB loans into cash-strapped euro zone goverments. That in turn has seen most euro government borrowing rates fall. It's also allowed other corporates to come to the capital markets and JP Morgan estimates that euro zone corporate bond sales in January totalled 46 billion euros, the same last year and split equally between financials and non-financials..

from Global Investing:

EM growth is passport out of West’s mess but has a price, says “Mr BRIC”

Anyone worried about Greece and the potential impact of the euro debt crisis on the world economy should have a chat with Jim O'Neill. O'Neill, the head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management ten years ago coined the BRIC acronym to describe the four biggest emerging economies and perhaps understandably, he is not too perturbed by the outcome of the Greek crisis. Speaking at a recent conference, the man who is often called Mr BRIC, pointed out that China's economy is growing by $1 trillion a year  and that means it is adding the equivalent of a Greece every 4 months. And what if the market turns its guns on Italy, a far larger economy than Greece?  Italy's economy was surpassed in size last year by Brazil, another of the BRICs, O'Neill counters, adding:

"How Italy plays out will be important but people should not exaggerate its global importance.  In the next 12 months the four BRICs will create the equivalent of another Italy."

Emerging economies are cooling now after years of turbo-charged growth. But according to O'Neill, even then they are growing enough to allow the global economy to expand at 4-4.5 percent,  a faster clip than much of the past 30 years. Trade data for last year will soon show that Germany for the first time exported more goods to the four BRICs than to neighbouring France, he said.

from Global Investing:

Home is where the heartache is…

On a recent trip home to Singapore, I was startled to learn just how much housing prices in the city-state have risen in my absence.

A cousin said he had recently paid over S$600,000 -- about US$465,000 -- for a yet-to-be-built 99-year-lease flat. Such numbers are hardly out of place in any major metropolis but this was for a state-subsidised three-bedroom apartment.

Soaring housing prices have fueled popular discontent -- little wonder as median monthly household incomes have stagnated at around S$5,000.