Economics

Hope springs eternal

The minor uptick in China’s ‘flash’ PMI estimate for October – from 47.9 to 49.1 – has sparked the usual explosion of uncritical hopefulness (on the part of those who, by and large, thought there never could be a slowdown under the aegis of the all-powerful CCP to begin with,) that this finally marks a bottom in that country’s economic cycle.

In giving vent to such optimism, the Sinomaniacs conveniently overlooked the fact that much of the improvement was down to the fact that it was the price indices, rather than those relating to output or employment, which struggled back above the expansion/contraction threshold of 50 – a circumstance which might just temper their extend-and-pretend expectations of an ever-imminent monetary relaxation, were they to reflect on it for a moment between jubilations.

Worse still, the Pollyannas appear to have forgotten that the PMI simply gauges whether things are generally better or worse than they were last month – and that in a non-quantitative manner, to boot. The unequivocal answer is worse (if marginally so, this time) for the twelfth consecutive month and for the fifteenth out of the last sixteen occasions. Thus, it may be true that the rate of decline seems to have slowed – how enduringly, only time will tell – but the fact of that ongoing decline itself remains, even after so many uninterrupted months of economic deterioration.

China bulls and the other assorted, ‘next quarter’ blue-skyers may have either venal or psychological reasons to puff this one reading up as a sign of a coming (and oft-postponed) dawn, but the test of an analyst who knows his stuff – and who is not afraid to be honest with you – is whether he makes this simple, but crucial, distinction in his commentary.

Of course, such an outpouring of positive sentiment will be very much to the taste of those in Beijing who have managed the seemingly miraculous feat of going into the Party Congress to the glowing accompaniment of an official GDP series which has been accelerating all year, quickening from a 6.1% annualized pace in the first quarter to 8.2% in the second and a resounding 9.1% in the third.

The fact that those same quarters have seen rail freight traffic slow from 3.7% YOY to 0.8% and on to a contraction of 5.8%; or have witnessed Shanghai port container throughput reverse from an expansion of 3.5% YOY to a shrinkage of 1.2% is, apparently, not to be invested with any significance.

Nor is the fact that while industrial production is officially up 10% YTD, those same industries have managed to consume smaller and smaller marginal increments of electrical power along the way; sliding, month by month, from a 4.1% YOY gain in March to a 3.2% one in June and on to a paltry 0.9% increase in September (which slender, overall uptick was comprised of an actual fall in heavy industrial usage).

In much the same manner, apparent consumption of refined oil products was up only 3.4% YTD, with diesel barely ahead at +1.1%. Again, not much evidence of a robust economy, there.

As the slowdown progresses, everywhere but in the reports of the authorities and the minds of their cheerleaders, profits have collapsed in their turn. So far this year, the chemical industry has seen earnings decline 18.1%; cement makers returned 53% less than in 2011; flat glass makers swung to a loss equivalent to around one-third of last year’s reported profits. Miners – whether ferrous or non-ferrous – saw income slip by around 5%, while that accruing to smelters/processors in the first group slumped by no less than 81%, flattering the performance of companies in the second category, even though they themselves booked 30% less.

The other side to this has been a surge in the debts companies owe to one another. As Caixin reported, the China Iron & Steel Association said that, at the end of July, the amount of net receivables and net payables of the 81 steel companies it monitored were up 17.8% and 10.6% respectively from the same month the previous year.

In even worse straits, the 90 enterprises monitored by the China National Coal Association reported an increase of 48.7% in  net receivables from 2011, while the China Machinery Industry Federation said those for its members were up 16.9% YOY to a monster CNY 2.5 trillion. No wonder Caterpillar announced it was ‘ramping down’ production in the country.

To see these trends in a little more detail, let us examine those cosseted children of the latest economic cycle, the SOEs. These reported 9-month revenues of CNY 31 trillion which represented a relatively anaemic 9.5% gain from the like period in 2011 when sales had stormed ahead by almost a quarter from 2010. Costs were up 11.1% and hence profits fell a sharp 11.4% to CNY1.6 tln.

That represented a nominal ROE of 5.1% overall, split as to 5.5% for the centrally-controlled firms and a bare 2.9% for their local peers – which latter therefore made a big fat zero in real terms after accounting for the concurrent rise in consumer prices.

Even that does not tell the full horror of the troubles afflicting them, for the simultaneous rise in the tally of accounts receivable amounted to 1/3 of those ostensible ‘profits’ (the overall stock of receivables now stretches to 1.7 times annualised earnings), while inventories swelled by an amount equivalent to the whole of reported income. Days’ sales of inventory rose from 83 to 94.4, while days of receivables climbed to 31.8 from 28.8, putting their combined drain on working capital up to a whopping 126 days-equivalent!

So, here we have a bleak vista of mounting credit, declining margins, unpaid bills, underemployed capacity – even the rare earth market has swung so far from dearth to glut that plant is now being mothballed! – and there also remains precious little hope for making non-operating gains by diverting preferentially-granted credit into a bubbling property market. A clear indicator of this stress is that credit (deferred payment) is rising much faster than money (immediate payment).

This is an ugly constellation indeed, especially since it is giving rise to official concerns about the state of local government finances. Faced with slowing – even falling – tax revenues, these latter are squeezing already pincered companies by demanding advance payment of taxes, as well as by organizing sweeps whose aim is the mass-levying of ‘fines’ for alleged regulatory violations (presumably something of a shock after all these years of turning a blind eye in the pursuit of growth at all costs). These are also, of course, the very same local authorities who are nursing the sickliest of the SOEs and they are the same institutions who will supposedly be riding to the rescue by showering  trillions of yuan on even more infrastructure and real estate developments of dubious commercial worth.

According to a report issued by the Development Research Centre of the State Council, the final months of this year will be critical to the pretence of providing ‘stimulus’ via this medium as something of the order of two-fifths of all local government debts fall due by the end of this year, with another 10% or so scheduled to mature by the close of 2013.

Having all but tripled in the last six years, something in excess of CNY11 trillion is now owed by such entities – largely through the conduits offered by the infamous ‘financing vehicles’ – leaving Wei Jianing, deputy director of the Macroeconomy Department at the DRCSC, to fret that: “There are worries over whether local governments could pay off the principal and interests when the repayment hike comes.”

Presumably Mr Wei will be taking little comfort from the happenstance of a nugatory uptick in the Purchasing Managers’ Index!

Far across the Senkaku Islands, Japanese money supply has been decelerating from its recent impressive lick, while small business confidence has plummeted below even the post-Fukushima trough. Meanwhile, the nation’s exports languish at levels first seen in 2004, thanks to the toxic mix of the fallout from the territorial spat with the Chinese and the general Asian weakness – also evident this week in Singapore (IP -2.5% YOY), Thailand (manufacturing output off 13.7% YOY to rest where it was in 2007), and the Philippines (exports off 9% YOY to stand no higher than in 2005).

All this sufficed to bring about a record trade deficit of close to Y1 trillion in Japan itself last month, at which point it was threatening to swallow the large monthly investment income component whole and, hence, to restrict the growth of the capital pool on which the country so heavily relies.

Nothing daunted, after two decades of bluebottle-against-a-windowpane policy-making, the country is again to be dosed with the same old, ineffective, patent medicine as the BoJ prepares to increase its version of QE by a cool Y10 trillion ($125 billion), some of which will help fund the already over-indebted government’s imminent Y700 billion fiscal injection.

You would think they would long since have have learned the futility of what they are about; the fact that this has eluded them for all these years should worry us greatly about our own masters’ willingness to draw the correct lessons on that grim tomorrow when their own programmes are undeniably seen to have failed. Can we not admit it is folly always to resort to the crude economics of a Krugman – the macroeconomic equivalent of the château generalship of the Somme – and to whine that we have only failed because we have not thrown enough money or lives into the fray.

In Europe meanwhile, the gaudy circus of summitry has again rolled through town to little effect. Greece seems to be back to playing brinkmanship with the Troika. ‘Two more Years of Foot-dragging’ was the headline in one German newspaper as it was rumoured that our inveterate Hellenic hand-out seekers were about to pouch another €20 billion, together with extended payment terms and a reduced coupon on their Pelion upon Ossa of existing loans. Talk about creating financial zombies!!!

Draghi bearded the lions in their den when he dissembled before the Bundestag, giving them his earnest that he would never exceed his mandate; that it was simply inconceivable that his unlimited bond purchases could be construed as monetizing state debt, or that it could in any way turn out to be inflationary.

No-one asked the obvious question that if all this was true, and if the OMTs were to exert such a subtle influence on the economy, why he felt compelled to ride roughshod over the (adopted) traditions of the institution he heads in order to implement them.

Among the few dissenting voices was that of the president of the German Savings Bank Association, Georg Fahrenschon, who declared that: “Private savings should not be further penalised. The ECB should not direct itself to minimizing the outlays of the debtor countries, but to ensuring monetary stability, today, tomorrow, and the day after that” 

At the same press conference, however, he revealed the schizophrenia which Draghi’s actions have induced. German savers prefer to hold their wealth in the form of savings accounts – out of distrust and uncertainty – yet half of them see a house as the best guarantee for their old age and a third of them intend to buy one now.

If the former impulse gives way only a little in favour of the latter, that double-digit rate of increase in the local money supply will soon deliver the thrifty German burgers, almost the last of their breed, into that vortex of balance sheet ruination which is widely seen (if less openly articulated) as the real key to solving Europe’s otherwise intractable debt crisis.

Before then, however, it would seem that the country might be in for more testing times than has been the case to date. Certainly the decline in the IfO index this past six months – registered despite a rising stock market and a diminution of the sense of crisis in the Zone – is of a magnitude which has typically accompanied significant downturns in activity. With monetary creation running so hot in Germany, it would be unusual, to say the least, for revenues and profits to fall sufficiently far to trigger a serious setback – which is essentially what the IfO index is telling us is expected to occur – but nevertheless this does bear close attention.

Finally, there are one or two hints that the US is starting to sputter. Certainly, the rapid decline in core (ex-defence and aircraft) capital goods numbers tells us so. At -10% YOY, orders are now falling at the sorts of rates experienced in both the Tech bust and the GFC itself. In the past three months, nominal levels have come to rest where they were in the late 1990s while, in real terms, the series has not been this depressed since it was first compiled in the current form, two decades ago.

Those, like us, who have tended to regard the States as the best of a bad bunch, will have to hope this is nothing more than a little pre-election caution and that it will be accordingly reversed in a month or two’s time.

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