Why China's Stock Market Bubble Is Fizzling

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An investor looks at indexes at a brokerage house in Shanghai on Aug. 31, 2009

Talk about déjà vu. On July 29, the Shanghai Composite Index fell 5%, setting off panic selling in Hong Kong and dinging even the Dow. But Chinese stocks rebounded 2.7% the next trading day, the steepest rise in two months. Fast forward to Aug. 31. The Shanghai index dropped 6.7% that day, causing panic around Asia and even in distant markets like the U.S.

That's where the similarity ends. The index is not likely to return to its previous lofty perch anytime soon. Following a miserable performance in August — Chinese stocks fell nearly 22% last month — Shanghai's 81% Great Leap Forward from January to July has now been pared to 42% as of Aug. 31. That's still a hefty advance, but it's looking like the long march backward will continue for some time.

Technically, what happens in the Shanghai bourse should not matter outside China. Only locals can trade in Chinese A shares, which comprise the composite index. But markets are supposed to anticipate the economy's health, so the fall in the index could possibly signal a relapse in the world's third largest economy. The jitters in Asia and the rest of the world are rooted in the fear that China will not be able to help pull the global economy from recession, a big blow to recovery hopes given the inability of the U.S., Europe and Japan to play that role at this time.

But is the slump in the stock market really a reflection of rot in the wider economy? Not necessarily. Unlike the NYSE or the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, where institutional investors react as much to fundamentals as to greed and fear, the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges are dominated by retail investors driven to frenzy by speculation and sentiment.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng China Enterprises Index is probably a more realistic reflection of expectations about the direction of China's economy. It advanced only 45.8% from January to July this year. The sell-off in Shanghai trimmed that gain to 35.6% as of Aug. 31 — a strong gain, but hardly the stuff of bubbles.

The question on investors' minds is whether the recovery is for real. While China's GDP growth was better than expected, at 7.1% year on year in the six months to June, part of that expansion was fueled by an astounding 201% increase in bank lending. The central bank started tightening in July, when new loans totaled just $52 billion — down sharply from $224 billion in June. The August number may come in at an even lower $36 billion or so.

The aim is to purge the asset markets of speculators, which is clearly working given the deflation of the stocks bubble in Shanghai. The danger is that policymakers may tighten too much, discouraging not only speculation but also business growth and consumer spending, which could precipitate a hard landing for the economy. So far, there's scant evidence for collapse. The latest Purchasing Managers Index numbers, released Sept. 1, show China's manufacturers are continuing to rally. The index rose to 54.0 from 53.3 in July, marking the sixth consecutive month the index has been in expansion territory (over 50.0).

Some argue that overtightening is not the fundamental problem, however. Former Morgan Stanley star analyst Andy Xie, now an independent economist, questions the quality of China's recent growth. "The present economic 'recovery' began in February as inventories were restocked and was pushed up by the spillover from the asset-market revival," he contends in a recent opinion piece in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper. "These two factors cannot be sustained beyond the third quarter."

"When the market sees the second dip looming, panic will be more intense and thorough," he warns. Xie expects this economic slowdown to gather force in the fourth quarter, coinciding with a second-dip recession in the U.S. as inventory restocking and fiscal stimulus there, which are driving today's recovery, peter out. "By the middle of the second quarter next year, most of the world will have entered the second dip," he concludes. "By then, financial markets will have collapsed."

But Xie is definitely in the minority. Discounting the stock market's fall, Goldman Sachs has just boosted its growth forecast for China to 9.4% this year from 8.3% previously, and to 11.9% in 2010, from 10.9%. Bank of America Merrill Lynch is sticking to its forecast of 8.7% growth in 2009 and 10.1% in 2010.

Praising China's use of moral suasion to persuade the banks to cut back on lending instead of resorting to the blunt instrument of raising interest rates, ING sees GDP returning to its trend growth of 10% next year. The Shanghai index now "rests two standard deviations below the trend line that starts in early November 2008, which we consider strong support," says ING chief economist Tim Condon. "We do not expect the support to be broken."

Who is right? Only time will tell, of course. But China's economic policymakers have been performing admirably since they wisely held the line on devaluing the renminbi in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Their decisive action on a massive fiscal spending program this time around has helped the economy bounce back strongly.

With luck, the doomsday scenario may not come to pass. Xie will no doubt be happy to be proved wrong, along with the rest of the world.