Sunday, August 26, 2007

Chinese market keeps making new highs

I watched quite a bit of CNBC last week. Among other things, I caught the interview with Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo who called for a recession in no uncertain terms. This of course, is the man who had steadfastly defended CFC’s business while cashing out some $250 million of options in the past year. Nonetheless, the CNBC anchors all went ga ga over this comment and actually put up several economists/strategists of the more pessimistic bend. Long time readers know that I have long held the same view; however, the very fact that the “R” word is mentioned on CNBC about once every 10 minutes may well mean that a short term bottom is in. Sure enough, Friday saw some nice upside action following a strong durable goods report.

While I remain suspicious American consumer’s continuing willingness/ability to pile on debt, I give more credence to the other leg the bulls stand on: strong global growth. Nowhere is this more evident than in China. The Shanghai stock market made consecutive new highs last week to end at 5108. Again recall that not too long ago the ubiquitous worry was for an implosion in the China to bring down global markets. The fact is, since the July 19th peak in US and the rest of world markets, SSEC has gained over 25%. On Friday, FXI, the FTSE/Xinhua 25 ETF, also made a new high, finally confirming the move in Shanghai.

Let me clarify my view on the Chinese market. Many have compared it to the Nasdaq bubble based on price trajectory alone. I will not debate that point. I will even grant that the Chinese market is in a bubble. But in my opinion, that misses the point entirely. Bubbles are grand money making opportunities, during both the expansion and implosion phases if you know which side of the market you’re on! So let’s put emotions aside and look at some relevant recent developments.

First of all, let’s look at some negative factors.

  • Chinese exporters enjoy a rebate of value added tax. On June 20, China announced that it will reduce tax rebates on exports of high energy-consuming, resource-intensive and environmentally-harmful products. The measure will take effect around September/October. Given that Chinese exports amounts to 30-40% of its GDP, lowering the rebate is a far more effective way to slow down its red-hot economy than raising interest rates.
  • Of course, they can do both at the same time! Chinese CPI was a blistering 5.6% for the month of July. The index was paced by food, especially pork , prices. In response, the PBoC (People’s Bank of China) raised deposit rates by 0.27% to 3.6%, and lending rates by 0.18% to 7.02%. It was the fourth raise this year.
  • I’ve always held the non-convertibility of the Yuan as a positive since the individual investor has few choices besides the domestic stocks. For example, some key state owned enterprises have listing in both Hong Kong (H shares, aka red chips) and Shanghai (A shares). But the A shares are far more expensive than H shares because there is too much money chasing the same shares. Two weeks ago I would have said that the day that the Yuan becomes fully convertible would be the top in the Chinese stock market as individual investors diversify out of the country en masse. In a surprise move last week, China declared it would allow individual investors investing abroad, starting with Hong Kong. The news sent the Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index up 10% last week with broader Asian markets following suite. Of course, some capital will be diverted away from the A shares market; on the other hand, this is gradual approach eliminates future shocks. It cools down the domestic market and relieves some exchange rate pressure at the same time – a stroke of genius really.
  • The Bank of China (BOC, not to be confused with PBoC, the central bank) and its Hong Kong arm disclosed that they hold $11.25 bn of CDO’s based on US subprime mortgages. The Industrial and Commercial Bank is on the hook for $1.23 bn.
  • Recalls of Chinese products, from tooth paste to sea food to toys with lead paints, are grabbing headlines everywhere.

The intriguing thing is that all these happened prior to last week where the Shanghai market had five consecutive up days. You can chalk it up to irrationality but the price action is to be respected nonetheless. In a way, it shows the power of liquidity since Chinese citizens are still pouring money stocks. Let’s now look a few positive factors.

  • One of the signs of excess that bears love to point to was the number of new stock trading accounts opened daily. It was somewhere around 100k before the last correction in May. Well, with the market at new highs, that number has increased to 150k or so – TDAmeritrade/eTrade, take that! Anyway, I never understood that logic behind that particular argument in the first place. Common sense says that the flow of money should peak well after the peak of number of accounts open. Besides, while 100k or 150k per day is a huge number, the number of potential investors in China is, well, huger!
  • If you’re wondering where all the juice in the Chinese market is from, just look at how fast Chinese wages are growing:
    Combined annual wages reached 2.34 trillion yuan ($308 billion) at the end of last year, up from 1.32 trillion ($173 billion) in 2002, representing an average annual rate of increase of 13.5% after inflation, according to a report from state-owned Chinanews.com.cn on official figures released at a meeting put on recently by the China Association for Labor Studies.
    Note this double digit increase is after inflation has been taken factored in. In coastal cities, annual wage increase in the high teens for the college-educated, 25-35 crowd is common. This increased wealth fuels the equity market both by fattening companies’ bottom line from increased consumption, and by channeling disposable income into the stock market.
  • Finally, while the health of the export sector may give investors doubts, recent advances in SSEC have been lead by RE developers/construction companies.

Despite new highs in SSEC as well as a clear non-correlation between Shanghai and the rest of global markets investor continue to shun Chinese stocks as indicated by the growing discount in the MS A shares closed-end fund (CAF) that now stands at 20%. For whatever it's worth, my own view is that aside from the threat of a weak Christmas shopping season in the US, the prospects remain rosy until the Olympics next August.

Disclosure: I own FXI and CAF.