The Chinese influenza can be catching

Stop blaming China; we taught them how to do what they are doing. – Tom Galey, Professor of Business and Economics and China expert

The Chinese influenza can be catching

The Equity markets often trade as much according to sentiment as to Logic. These markets have seen a mood of near, if not actual, panic in the last few days. This has little or nothing to do with Greece, or indeed with the Federal Reserve’s impending interest rate increase, far rather the Chinese government triggered emotions that were wholly unexpected and unintended.

The Chinese central bank, with the encouragement of the International Monetary Fund and by extension the US government, has begun a free float of the Chinese currency – the Renmimbi Yuan, or RMBY. Inevitably this has meant an initial reduction in the value of the RMBY compared to other world currencies, something which has caused much anxiety. The Chinese want the RMBY to be a reserve currency, akin to the US Dollar, the Swiss Franc and (in part) the Euro. This desire has, in my opinion, more to do with prestige than logic.

At the same time, the shares traded in the Chinese domestic stock exchanges, based in Shanghai and Shenzhen, (the ‘A ’shares) have suffered large falls. Domestic Chinese investors, the only ones allowed to invest in these shares, had often bought shares on margins with the remainder of the price taken up as loans. In a rising market this can be good news, when markets fall however it is disastrous. The Chinese central bank has moved to reduce the extravagant lending by Chinese Banks to their domestic clients, but has now been forced to lower interest rates as a sign that it will support the domestic economy. This move is also designed to offset the news that the Chinese economy is expected ‘only’ to grow by about 6% in 2015.

Even such reduced growth would under any other circumstances be regarded as good; but a jittery market, lacking even a minimal appreciation of the changes happening within China decided to get cold feet.

The International Chinese Equity market (the ‘H’ shares) traded in Hong Kong, has suffered losses by extension, all too often from panicked overseas investors not understanding the difference between the two markets.

China is deliberately moving from an investment driven economy to a consumer driven footing. This is understandable and correct, but the change will in itself result in a different economic growth pattern before it is over.

The stresses coming from China have affected the international equity markets too. There is a fear that those exporters from the west and from the emerging markets who have built up large sales in China will suffer, as indeed will their suppliers. The reality is however likely to be the opposite in the medium and long term, as Chinese consumers will gain even more opportunity to make purchases of international or domestic goods of their own choice. Much the same is true of energy, industrial and soft commodities. Let’s be clear, Chinese industry will continue to need to import.

To add to the tale of woe, interest rates in most of the western world have reached levels of nearly zero. This is wonderful for borrowers who will try to borrow as much cheap money as they can, not realizing that such high levels of debt will prove hard to service when interest rates rise.

The United States Federal Reserve has signaled its intention to raise interest rates by a small amount in September 2015. The caveat being that there are no disasters which might cause them to delay. The attention was initially on the US employment markets, but these seem stable enough. The question is whether turmoil in the international equity markets could cause a delay. Past experience suggests not, but there is a new hand at the helm.

Attention has drifted away from Greece, which is a shame, because nothing there has been settled and much could still go wrong. The Tsipras government has resigned and called an election in an attempt to gain more support in the Greek parliament. 30 left wing party members of parliament promptly left the party to form their own break away movement. The end result is anyone’s guess. I still believe that Greece will attempt to gain a reduction in its disastrously high levels of debt by leaving the Euro and demanding a debt reduction (by way of a ‘haircut’ of 50% or more). This is speculation, but another way out is difficult to envisage.

Now is the time to invest in the major Equity markets while levels are so artificially low. It is perhaps a counterintuitive step, but not necessarily an unduly risky one.

Past performance is no guarantee of future profitability.

John Townsend advises clients on their investment portfolios for Matz-Townsend Finanzplanung. He is a fellow of the Chartered Institute for securities and investment in London (