Gary Shilling Op-Ed on China Hard Landing [Parts 4-5 of 5]

Gary Shilling, the author of The Age of Deleveraging, published the part 4 and part 5 of his Bloomberg Op-Ed on the Hard Landing of China. [Previous posts on parts 1-2-3]

Here are a few quotes...

Part 4:
[...] My firm’s research predicted then that the government would curb capital spending and excess liquidity just as exports weakened. Then, as excess capacity mounted, direct foreign investment would disappear and deflation would reign.

That’s essentially what happened in 2008 and 2009, as the effects of China’s fiscal and monetary restraint coincided with the worldwide economic slump. The growth rate dropped to 6 percent, which in China constituted a major recession.

Don’t be surprised if history repeats itself in the next few years.

This time around, some signs of cooling are already apparent. Besides dampened housing demand, the HSBC Flash China Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index in June fell to 50.1, its lowest level in 11 months. Passenger-vehicle sales grew 33 percent in 2010, when the government subsidized small-car purchases, but only 3 percent this April over a year earlier.

Growth in the broadest measure of China’s money supply has declined from 30 percent year-over-year in December 2009 to 15 percent year-over-year at the end of May. Bank loans fell 25 percent in May from April. Excavator sales fell 10 percent in May from a year earlier, possibly foreshadowing a construction bust. The 14.3 percent decline in the Shanghai Composite Index last year and the 10 percent drop since mid-April also don’t bode well for growth.

Despite all these negatives, with recent data showing first-quarter GDP expanding by a still-healthy 9.7 percent, and consumer inflation at its highest levels since July 2008, China has continued to tighten its economic policy. The government raised banks’ reserve requirements to 21.5 percent in June, the ninth such increase since November. And it will probably continue to tighten until it sees decisive results -- that is, a hard landing.
For one thing, even though a hard landing could cause hot money to flee the country and weaken the yuan, China will not float its currency. [...]

China also won’t be selling its $1 trillion in reserves of U.S. Treasuries in great amounts, as some have feared.[...]

Instead, China’s most likely reaction -- to focus still more on exports -- will exacerbate its hard landing. If consumer spending doesn’t increase substantially in the next few years, China will have a serious problem using all the industrial capacity it has built, partly to keep people employed. Capacity is mushrooming so rapidly that even in China’s booming economy, most manufacturers are still seeing flat or falling utilization rates.

This unused capacity portends weak profits and trouble for the loans that financed it. My judgment is that it will once again be used for exports aimed at the U.S. and Europe. And once again, this will add to global excess supply and put downward pressure on prices.

Then China, along with other export-dependent emerging economies, will be competing fiercely in a world of slow growth and deflation.
Part 5:
The hard landing that I foresee for China will probably prick the global commodity bubble, which is already showing signs of topping out.
But much of the leap in commodity prices was due to investors and other speculators. Exchange-traded funds had already tied up much of the physical supplies of gold and other precious metals. Futures contracts held by speculators were up 12 percent in 2010 through October, with sharp increases in bullish bets on crude oil, copper and silver. Volatility forced futures exchanges to raise margin requirements on a number of commodities.

The confidence that China would continue to buy huge quantities of almost all commodities has been the bedrock belief of speculators. For example, there were rumors that China was again building its emergency petroleum reserve in the first half of this year.

I’ve studied many bubbles over the years, and concentrated on predicting their demises. Commodities show every sign of being in one.
The bursting of the commodities bubble will be bad news for developing-country producers such as Brazil, which has thus far largely escaped recent global economic and financial woes but is a major exporter of iron ore and other commodities to China. Developed commodity exporters -- Canada, New Zealand and Australia -- as well as their currencies, may also suffer.

I’ve long believed that a hard landing in China would be preceded by a price collapse in copper and other industrial commodities. Copper prices peaked in February, and Barrick Gold Corp. (ABX)’s agreement on April 25 to acquire copper producer Equinox Minerals Ltd. to gain mineral resources outside its area of specialization is a classic sign of a peak.

Another classic sign of a speculative price peak was the sudden appearance of copper inventories where none were thought to exist. As prices start to break, hoarded commodities suddenly become available for sale by highly leveraged owners. Copper in China was so abundant that bonded warehouses were full. In January and February, extra copper was sold abroad as Chinese exports were eight times the year-earlier total.

London Metal Exchange bonded warehouses saw copper inventories leap 17 percent in the first quarter. Furthermore, to circumvent tight bank lending in China, borrowers are relying more on available letters of credit to finance copper arbitrage trading and otherwise have the use of the borrowed money with copper purchases as their collateral. If copper prices continue to fall, those borrowers will have to sell their copper on the market to prevent further losses, resulting in still-lower prices.

Meanwhile, sugar topped out in February, and cotton in March. I pointed this out in a speech to an investor conference in April, and several people in the audience questioned my facts. I compared those who hadn’t noticed this peak to Wile E. Coyote of the “Road Runner” cartoons, who runs off the cliff and finds himself suspended in air before dropping to the valley floor.

Further confirmation came May 2, when silver prices, which had skyrocketed earlier, started to collapse and virtually all other commodities followed: crude oil, cotton, copper, grains and even gold.

As I noted earlier, there is so much leverage money floating around the world that regardless of how it’s managed -- by fundamental, momentum or technical strategies -- it tends to end up on the same side of the same trades at the same time. So, when one of these positions reverses, the effects spread rapidly as speculators bail out of their positions to reduce risk and preserve their capital. Keep in mind that the prices of the wide variety of commodities continue to move in lockstep.

Many commodity bulls see this trend as a short-lived midcourse price correction and have maintained their long positions in copper, crude oil, corn and even silver. But markets anticipate, and it now appears the declines in commodities are foreshadowing a hard landing in China, with the effects spreading globally.

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