China Not So Bullish About the Year of the Ox

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Nir Elias / Reuters

Workers unload a decoration in the shape of an ox for the Chinese New Year festival in Shanghai

Monday sees the arrival of the Chinese lunar New Year and the onset of the Year of the Ox. But Shanghai residents who had been counting on the bovine astrological sign to usher in a bull market are likely to be disappointed. Contrary to its placid and solid reputation, this year's ox is an altogether different beast, say soothsayers in China's financial capital.

A bit of background: there are 12 Chinese zodiac animals, each of which is subdivided by five elements signaling different qualities — wood, earth, water, fire and metal. This year's ox is an earth ox. That may sound innocuous enough, but according to one astrological interpretation, financial markets are in dire need of a spark from the fire element to set stocks blazing. For other fortune tellers, the worry is absence of metal, an element with which they make a simple astrological connection to money. A metal year, they say, brings plenty of gold. An earth year buries all that lucre under piles of dirt. All in all, a buffalo wallowing in mud doesn't exactly portend a get-up-and-go kind of year.

Befitting the grim economic climate, Shanghai newspapers are predicting that celebrations of the lunar New Year will be more muted than the lavish outlays of previous years. Local department stores have been slashing prices, and malls are less crowded than usual, with few heeding the promises of Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng that 2009 will bring 9% GDP growth for the city. Another gloomy indicator: Year of the Ox stamps issued by the Shanghai post office haven't been selling as well as their Year of the Rat predecessors. Even worse, the meteorological bureau predicts that the days on which the lunar New Year celebrations will fall may be some of the coldest in recent Shanghai memory — a bone-chilling 15.8 degrees in a city where most homes lack central heating. (See pictures of the global financial crisis.)

Market sentiment during the last few Years of the Ox has, in fact, been more bearish than bovine. In 1997, Asia suffered a financial meltdown, while in 1973 the world was ravaged by oil shocks. Year of the Ox almanacs sold in Shanghai subways counsel patience and hard work in order to overcome 2009's potential market woes. Both virtues are considered attributes of those people born under its symbol. In fact, one of the leaders on whom the fate of the global financial system may well depend was born in a Year of the Ox: Barack Obama.

Outside of the economy, there are a handful of potentially tricky anniversaries for China in the coming year: the 20th anniversary of the crushed Tiananmen movement, the 50th of the failed Tibetan uprising and the 10th of the banning of the Falun Gong spiritual sect.

Still, some politically savvy Shanghai astrologers are taking heart from history, even if the markets haven't performed well in previous cow cycles. One almanac available at a local bookstore lists the geopolitical glories associated with previous oxen years, chief among them 1949 — the last time the Ox that came stomping through town was an earth creature. That, of course, was the year China's Communist Party triumphed over its enemies and founded the People's Republic.

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