Highlights

  • So What? It is too soon to adopt a cyclical overweight position on Chinese equities. Remain overweight only tactically.
  • Why?
    • China is still maintaining a disciplined approach to economic stimulus.
    • The US-China trade talks are making tentative progress, but there is still a 30% chance of tariff rate hikes this year.
    • The House Democrats show that the US’s tougher approach to China is a bipartisan policy consensus.

Feature

China released preliminary 2018 GDP data on January 21. The annual real growth rate was recorded at 6.6%, a fall from the 6.9% of 2017, although the latter has now been revised down to 6.8% (Chart 1). The big picture in 2018 is the slowest credit growth on record, the slowest retail sales growth since 2003, the weakest manufacturing output since 2014, and a negative export shock due to trade war (Chart 2).

Chart 1
China’s Slowdown In Perspective
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Chart 2
A Rocky Road For Beijing
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The immediate question for investors in 2019 is whether the downside risk has become so pressing that President Xi will shift the policy gear from growth stabilization to total reflation.

So far the evidence suggests that the policy stance has not changed from last July. Official rhetoric continues to eschew opening the stimulus floodgates. This disciplined approach is clear when examining the most recent reflationary actions:

  • Fiscal Easing: Local governments are allowed to start issuing 1.39 trillion RMB in new bonds from the beginning of the year, rather than waiting until April or May like usual (Chart 3). This will create a substantial new fiscal boost in the first half of the year that could help stabilize the economy in the second half.1

This 1.39 trillion RMB is not the full-year quota (last year’s was 2.18 trillion RMB). If the government had wanted to create a “big bang” effect, it would have announced a very large new quota for the full year all at once – something approaching 3.4 trillion RMB. This is what the year’s total would be if new issuance grew at the average 55% growth rate since 2015 (Chart 4). But so far the government is focusing on “frontloading” rather than “expanding” the amount of new bonds allowed to be issued. The full-year quota is important to watch in March. Anything above 2.9 trillion RMB would mean a looser fiscal stance from last year.

Chart 3
Local Govt Bonds A Key Form Of Stimulus
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Chart 4
Uncertainty Over 2019 Allowance
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Otherwise, fiscal easing is focusing on tax cuts for households, small businesses, and consumers rather than new loans to SOEs as in the past. The new tax cuts in 2019, for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), amount to about 200 billion RMB, according to government statements. This comes on top of a 1.3 trillion RMB tax cut that took effect at the end of last year. Therefore the minimum tax relief in 2019 is 1.5 trillion RMB or 2% of GDP.

The impact is positive for consumer demand but unlikely to produce a rapid V-shaped turnaround in the growth rate, as was once the case with huge bursts of new loans to the corporate sector.

Finally, depending on monetary policy, increases to fiscal spending will mostly serve to offset weak credit growth and the resulting drag on economic activity.

  • Monetary Easing: The People’s Bank of China is, on balance, injecting liquidity into the system (net negative sterilization). Injections via the medium-term lending facility are also growing (Chart 5).

However, the interbank rate had increased recently, so that recent central bank injections are mostly maintaining the easy conditions of H2 2018 (Chart 6). The extraordinary liquidity injections of January are preemptive attempts to ensure ample liquidity ahead of the Lunar New Year, when funds are tight.

Chart 5
PBoC Remains Supportive
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Chart 6
Interbank Rates Pushed Back Down
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Cuts in banks’ required reserve ratios (RRRs) have not yet triggered a clear revival in credit growth. The twelve-month credit impulse has not yet bottomed, even though broad money impulses are positive or moving into positive territory (Chart 7).

Shadow financing remains weak. Regulatory tightening is suppressing non-bank lenders while private business sentiment remains troubled (Chart 8).

Chart 7
No Clear Bottom In Credit Impulse Yet
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Chart 8
Shadow Financing Still Under Pressure
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Once the credit impulse bottoms and turns upward, there will likely be a 6-9 month lag before it lifts overall economic activity.

In March at the National People’s Congress session, Premier Li Keqiang is expected to set the official GDP growth target at a range of 6%-6.5% for 2019, lower than 2018’s “around 6.5%.” Several of China’s provinces are downgrading their growth targets for this year (Chart 9). The various stimulus measures are apparently seen as limiting downside risks rather than creating a new upside risk.

Chart 9
China’s Provinces Are Revising Down Growth Targets This Year
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As a result of the policy easing that is taking place, our Global Investment Strategy expects Chinese growth to stabilize and global growth to recover after H1.2

Bottom Line: The clear implication is that the Xi administration remains disciplined in its use of macroeconomic tools to ease fiscal and monetary conditions. We have not yet seen a “whatever it takes” moment. Nevertheless, the accumulation of easing measures suggests that the economy could stabilize by mid-year.

A Sign Of Progress In The Trade Talks

The most likely basis for a “whatever it takes” moment is either a sudden and sharp deterioration in the economy despite the various easing measures, or a renewed escalation of the trade war. For the moment we will assume that the economy will respond to stimulus measures, albeit with a lag, which would be conducive to a bottoming in mid-2019.

In this case, what is the likelihood that the trade war will escalate again, with President Trump increasing the Section 301 tariffs from their current level of 10% on $200 billion worth of imports?

We maintain that the odds of the two sides agreeing to a framework trade deal by the March 1 negotiation deadline are about 45%. We upgraded the odds of a deal in December given the tariff ceasefire reached on December 1. Since then the news flow has generally suggested that the two sides are making progress in the 90-day talks: a US delegation in Beijing went into an extra day of talks, and was attended by Vice Premier Liu He, the top economics adviser of President Xi Jinping.

However, given the difficulty of the negotiations – the thorny issues like forced tech transfer – we also give 25% odds to an extension of negotiations, prolonging the tariff ceasefire beyond March 1. This adds up to a 70% chance that tariffs will not increase this year. The remaining 30% is the chance that the trade war escalates again (Table 1).

Table 1
Updated Trade War Probabilities
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The key question going forward: How pragmatic are Donald Trump and Xi Jinping?

We have evidence that President Trump is pragmatic. He rapidly shifted his approach to Iran, by issuing the waivers on oil sanctions in November, and to China, by agreeing to the tariff ceasefire. He softened his stance to avoid an oil price shock and equity bear market in Q4 last year. Equity bear markets tend to coincide with recessions (Chart 10). And a recession would dramatically reduce Trump’s chances of reelection in November 2020 (Chart 11). Hence Trump is pushing for a short-term trade deal. He is now reportedly even considering a rollback of some tariffs in return for Chinese concessions.3

Chart 10
Trump Fears Bear Markets Because They Tend To Coincide With Recessions …
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Chart 11
… And Presidents Lose Reelection Amid Recession
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What about Xi? We have argued that Xi is somewhat pragmatic – at least, more so than the consensus holds.

It is undeniable that Xi is a hardliner who has reasserted his personal control, and Communist Party dominance, to a degree not seen in recent memory. He is also aggressive on foreign policy, unlike his predecessors. These trends are deeply concerning both for China’s governance and for relations with the West. They help to support our view that US-China relations are worsening on a secular basis.

Nevertheless, as things currently stand, the weak domestic economy and negative sentiment seem to be encouraging Xi to play for time – which is, after all, the traditional Chinese play in trade tensions with the United States. His administration has offered a handful of concessions – on soybeans, auto tariffs, and goods imports – in order to push the negotiations along.

The most important potential concession, however, is the new draft law on foreign investment. This is the one concession so far that addresses the US’s structural demands on technology transfer and intellectual property (the grievances that motivate the tariffs). China has one of the most restrictive environments for foreign investment in the world (Chart 12) and this is one of the US’s chief complaints: both because of the inherent denial of market access and because FDI restrictions are used as leverage to extract technology.

Chart 12
China Is Highly Restrictive Toward Foreign Direct Investment
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The National People’s Congress released a new draft law on December 26, 2018, updating a draft law issued by the Ministry of Commerce in 2015 that was never passed.4 An extraordinary meeting of the Standing Committee occurred in January to speed this draft along. The law would ostensibly:

  • Protect intellectual property rights of foreign firms;
  • Prohibit forced technology transfers – including by replacing earlier laws that required companies to operate as “joint ventures,” often exposing them to forced tech transfer.
  • Grant equal treatment to foreign-invested enterprises within China, compared to state-owned and state-controlled enterprises;
  • Implement a negative investment list so that foreign investors could assume that they are free to invest in areas not explicitly proscribed;
  • Allow foreign firms to raise funds, including through initial public offerings on China’s domestic equity market.

This law confirms our view that the 90-day negotiation period is tied to the Trump administration’s emphasis on the implementation of any agreements: in early March, China’s National People’s Congress can enact new laws that will ostensibly address US concerns and thus put its concessions in ink.

On paper this law would go some way in assuaging US and other foreign investor concerns. However, without a strong central government commitment to enforce the law, it is doubtful that it would reduce the trade and investment practices in China that offend the United States. After all, China’s methods of tech transfer and IP theft are mostly executive rather than legislative in nature – they stem from positive actions by central and local governments, and state-controlled companies, rather than from gaps or loopholes in the legal framework.

Even taking the law at face value, its implementation – which is slated for a period of no fewer than five years – could be a mixed blessing for foreign investors.5 For instance, companies with a small foreign ownership stake will now be qualified as foreign-invested companies, which could bring difficulties if the new law is not implemented fairly or in good faith. Many foreign-invested enterprises would have to restructure their ownership and operations in order to fit into the new foreign investment framework (e.g. variable interest enterprises). While foreign enterprises are supposed to receive equal treatment even in government procurement, it is not clear whether they will in the quasi-government sector. Expropriation of foreign assets may still be justified very broadly. The law could also be used as a substitute for lifting the caps on foreign equity ownership in enterprises and for resolving problems with intellectual property licensing and payment of royalties.

Moreover, the law is likely to enshrine a tougher regime for national security risk reviews. The US has tightened scrutiny of Chinese investments through the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA) over the past year, and China may wish to toughen its own stance. Ultimately China does not need a law to strike down foreign investments that it believes jeopardize national security, but the law could provide justification for retaliation when the US strikes down Chinese investment on similar grounds.

Nevertheless, in general, this law is an example of the kind of concession that is necessary for Trump to save face if he is determined to agree to a short-term framework trade deal to help prevent a bear market.

Will the US accept this new law as a substantial concession, worthy of rolling back tariffs?

So far the feedback is not encouraging. The chief US negotiator, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, has reportedly told Senator Chuck Grassley that China has not made any “structural” concessions yet – which suggests that Lighthizer is not impressed by the mere rubber-stamping of a new law.6

Much will depend on the next round of negotiations, dated January 30-31, when Vice Premier Liu He will come to DC for the first time since his humiliation in May last year. At that time he negotiated a deal and the US and China released a joint statement, only to have Trump renege on it three days later. He would not be going back to the US if there were not a substantial commitment on both sides to seek progress.

Ultimately Trump, not Lighthizer, will determine whether to pause or roll back the tariff rates. Trump may decide he needs a deal and therefore accept the new law as a sufficient concession. He would still have the possibility of disputing its implementation (or lack thereof) at a later date – for instance, just before the 2020 election.

The durability of any framework deal will be measured in the irreversibility of China’s concessions and the extent to which Trump moderates the tariffs. At least some rollback would seem necessary to reciprocate China’s concessions if a framework deal is to be done. The tariffs were imposed in separate tranches with adjustable rates, so Trump can reduce the tariffs in various ways.

Bottom Line: There is room for a short-term, tactical trade deal that allows for some tariff rollback, given that China is tentatively making concessions on core US demands. Talks could also be extended, with tariff rates remaining at their current levels. These two possibilities mean that a hike in tariff rates is not the likeliest scenario for most of 2019.

However, the new law on foreign investment only tentatively answers what the US is really demanding. We continue to believe that US-China relations are getting worse on a secular basis and that improvements will be tactical (or at best cyclical) in nature.

Democrats Are Not Pro-China

One of the main reasons for thinking that Xi may offer short-term concessions to get a deal with Trump is also one of the main reasons for thinking that long-term concessions are out of reach: there is an across-the-board policy consensus taking shape in Washington demanding tougher policy on China.

We have emphasized that this policy consensus is apparent not only from Trump’s election – as an avowed protectionist and China-basher within the Republican Party – but also from the hardening position of the US defense establishment, and the disillusionment of the corporate lobby, over the past decade (Chart 13).

Chart 13
China Lost Its Corporate Lobbyists In DC
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It is also a bipartisan consensus in Congress. For instance, last year, the House draft of the aforementioned FIRRMA Act, tightening foreign investment scrutiny on China, passed by a 398-vote margin in June. The final version passed by a large margin in the House (359-54) and Senate (87-10) in the form of the John S. McCain Defense Authorization Act. The Taiwan Travel Act and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which offended Beijing, both passed with unanimous consent in the Senate (and voice vote in the House).

Now the new Democrat majority in the House is confirming that tougher rules on China are something that everyone can agree on. For example, the new Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Representative Richard Neal (D, MA), has struck a hawkish tone on the 90-day trade talks. He has warned that the US Trade Representative has “an obligation to look beyond the political pressures of the moment and the easy, one-off transactions, and secure real and lasting change to China’s anti-competitive behavior.”7

Furthermore, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D, MD) and Representative Ruben Gallego (D, AZ) have joined with Republicans Tom Cotton (R, AR) and Mike Gallagher (R, WI) to propose legislation that would give “the death penalty” to Chinese tech companies such as Huawei and ZTE if they violate US sanctions laws or export controls.8 This is an extremely aggressive piece of legislation that President Trump will have to contain if he is to keep a deal with President Xi.

This bipartisan effort should come as no surprise. The Democrats were the more skeptical party about both global free trade and China in recent decades. This is because they positioned themselves as the defenders of workers, wages, and manufacturing, notably in the Midwestern Rustbelt States. Democrats have also always criticized China’s human rights record, with President Bill Clinton famously calling China’s leaders “the Butchers of Beijing” during the 1992 presidential campaign (Chart 14).

Chart 14
American Concerns About China Are Bipartisan
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In the post-Cold War context, this protectionist strain was subdued as the free market consensus prevailed across the political spectrum. It was President Clinton who negotiated for China to enter the World Trade Organization – despite the opposition of many within his party, including current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – in order to smooth the process of globalization underway.

This context began to change after the Great Recession, as the US debt supercycle ended, China emerged as a major competitor, and the Barack Obama administration attempted to develop a Democrat response to new challenges. President Obama supported “Buy America” provisions in the crisis-era stimulus package and engaged in tit-for-tat tariffs with China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade deal deliberately excluded China, particularly if it could not embrace the liberal reforms, and trade and cyber-security standards, included in the TPP’s provisions.

Finally, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initiated the “Pivot to Asia,” an attempt to reduce US military commitments in the Middle East and reposition for a long-term strategic competition with China in the Asia Pacific.

The Trump administration has continued the pivot to Asia in all but the TPP. Trump reportedly even considered naming Jim Webb, a Democratic former navy secretary and China hawk, as his new Secretary of Defense, to replace Secretary James Mattis. But the new policy consensus is best encapsulated by Mattis’s interim replacement, Pat Shanahan, who began his job as acting Defense Secretary this month by telling his staff to focus on “China, China, China.”9 Trump is now considering keeping Shanahan for a “long time.”

Now, with Democrats coming back into power in the House, it is becoming even clearer that China faces hawkish trade policies from the Left as well as the Right. This has important implications.

In the short term, this process suggests that President Xi may be incentivized to offer some concessions to President Trump, who wants to protect the business cycle and position himself as a successful dealmaker before 2020, rather than stonewalling and fueling the rise of the new anti-China consensus.

In the long term, however, this process also suggests that Xi is unlikely to offer deep structural concessions, given that either Trump or a new Democratic administration could ultimately reject the terms of the deal.

After all, if the stock market avoids a bear market and the economy strengthens, Trump could turn his back on the deal. In particular, the fired-up US economy is likely to widen the deficit, forcing Trump to give an explanation on the campaign trail (Chart 15).10 But if the economy goes into recession, Trump may have no other policy option to rally voters other than aggressive foreign policy – which could mean aggressive trade policy against China.

Chart 15
Trump Will Have To Explain This In 2020
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Subsequent to 2020, Trump will either have a renewed election mandate to pursue trade war – in which he is less vulnerable to recession timing – or a new Democratic administration will pick up where President Obama left off, with the Pivot to Asia … including the TPP and other multilateral initiatives.

It is also entirely likely that the US and China could adhere to a framework trade deal and yet heighten their strategic standoff in other areas. First, the US is making progress in forming a coalition of nations against Huawei’s participation in 5G networks – China’s relations with Canada are deteriorating rapidly and now Germany, a critical swing player, is even considering a ban on Huawei.11

Second, Taiwan and the South China Sea could see more saber-rattling or incidents even as trade tensions stagnate. (North Korean diplomacy, by contrast, is continuing to progress as long as the US-China trade talks are progressing – Trump and Kim Jong Un are set to hold a second summit in late February.)

Bottom Line: The “anti-China” turn in US policy is not limited to Trump. Rather, Trump was the catalyst for a new policy consensus that was already emerging in the Obama years. Democrats will likely take a tough stance on China trade, including pressuring Trump if he strikes a deal with Xi Jinping, in order to woo voters in the Midwest. Any future Democratic White House should be expected to continue pressing China on issues ranging from national security to cyber-security to human rights, while likely pursuing a more multilateral diplomatic approach than the current White House.

Investment Implications

BCA’s Geopolitical Strategy is tactically overweight Chinese equities ex-tech relative to emerging markets. We are closing our short China-exposed US companies relative to the S&P 500 for a gain of 1.7%. Meanwhile China Investment Strategy is tactically overweight Chinese equities relative to the MSCI World index.

Tariffs remaining at their current level now appears to be the most likely scenario for this year. Holding all else constant, this scenario is positive for Chinese growth and China-related assets. But beyond a near-term pop for financial markets, we still need to see hard evidence that the accumulation of China’s easing measures will indeed stabilize its domestic economy. This suggests that it is too soon to give the “all clear” sign from a cyclical perspective.

On the other hand, a verified failure of the current, substantive US-China attempt to negotiate a truce would have a deeper negative impact on sentiment and trade than the original outbreak of trade war in 2018, as there will no longer be a basis for optimism. The market will have to price an ultimate 25% tariff on $500 billion worth of goods. This will likely cause the CNY-USD exchange rate to plummet (Chart 16). This would, at least at first, send a deflationary impact across emerging markets and the world, causing another negative hit to global trade and hence a flight to quality.

Chart 16
A Trade War Escalation Will Send The Yuan Reeling
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The PBoC would most likely have to stage a defense of the currency while the State Council, judging by its actions in July 2018, would likely launch a large stimulus package of the sort that it has thus far avoided for fear of credit excesses. This would come at the cost of a still larger debt burden and misallocation of capital – undoing overnight the work that President Xi has put into mitigating these structural imbalances – but it would prevent a precipitous slowdown for the time being.

A trade war-induced stimulus would ostensibly help reaccelerate the Chinese economy and global growth, but in our view financial markets would not respond all that happily to such a huge dose of volatility, trade uncertainty, and policy uncertainty at a time when the cycle will be very late anyway. The risk premium would go up sharply, at least for a time, raising the odds of a very sizeable earnings contraction before the economy begins to recover.

 

Matt Gertken, Vice President
Geopolitical Strategy
mattg@bcaresearch.com

 

Footnotes

  • 1 Please see BCA Emerging Markets Strategy Weekly Report, “Dissecting China’s Stimulus,” January 17, 2019, available at www.bcaresearch.com.