Danger spots beyond the eurozone

Events in China, Iran, Mid-East, and the US presidential polls could eclipse the EU crisis

Source: Business Times, Singapore

GLOBAL market participants have become so euro-centric that broader economic and geopolitical risks have been placed on the back burner. Despite the seriousness of a Europe in disarray, policy-makers, bankers and investors appear to have failed to broaden their risk/ reward horizons.

There are events in China, Iran and the Middle East, and the 2012 US presidential elections that could change everything.

Policy-makers, business people, bankers and investors need to think of emergency measures and strategies in case China’s leaders and the Bank of China (BOC) fail to prevent a serious implosion of the nation’s credit bubble. To be sure, China could be a more serious problem than Europe.

Japan, other Asian countries and emerging nations are especially at risk. The focus has been on falling exports to Europe, but China’s internal economic and social problems are even more worrying.

After trying to curb monetary excess, inflation and wild speculation in property, gold and commodities, the authorities have become concerned that the inevitable downturn is too rapid. The BOC has begun to ease money. The big question is whether the authorities will succeed in preventing a steep slide.

A Standard Chartered survey of 30 residential real-estate developers across eight of China’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities (Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Xi’an, Shijiazhuang, Zhongshan and Zhaoqing) shows why the authorities are beginning to reverse anti-inflation policies.

Interviewed in October and November, all the developer respondents expected prices to fall further. They believe that construction activity will weaken in the coming months.

Developers’ finances are being squeezed and growing numbers are finding it difficult to pay for land. The average land price has fallen by 35 per cent from the 2010 peak, according to the survey.

Large cities are suffering most, with land sales revenues of developers down by 20 per cent or more since 2010. Indeed, Standard Chartered estimates that Beijing’s land sales revenues have slumped by 45 per cent from the top.

Japanese banks are scrutinising loans to China and loan losses in Europe have made Japan’s bankers all the more careful. US banks have also become watchful about lending to China and Asian businesses.

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The slide in China’s share prices this year, opaque accounting and fears of fraud are discouraging foreign investment in the country.

In recent weeks, the market has rallied, but stale international bulls who have lost fortunes in China may well use the rally to cut losses.

Simon Hunt Strategic Services  and several other firms and economists believe that China’s published national statistics are as rigged as the figures of companies. They believe that ‘two sets of books are kept’; those for internal use and those for public consumption.

But even official figures illustrate that the economic slowdown in China has accelerated. China’s latest Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) in November fell 1.4 points to 49, the first decline in almost three years. A reading below 50 is a contraction signal and backs up HSBC’s manufacturing index’s decline to a 32-month low.

According to wire reports, hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses had to close in Wenzhou as they had to pay interest on loans that were way above the official rate. Some 450 factories closed in Guangdong province, according to reports.

China’s official PMI for its non-manufacturing sector fell to 49.7 in November from 57.7 in the previous month, according to the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing.

The BOC’s reduction in banks’ reserve requirements is thus not surprising; nor are banker predictions that more easing will follow in 2012.

The big question is whether China’s authorities will defy the global history of credit bubble implosions and prevent a sharp downturn in the economy. The social implications are disturbing as the nation’s unemployment levels are rising while inflation remains high.

Markets are also not focusing on the potential fallout from severe economic sanctions or a military attack against Iran over its alleged nuclear arms programme.

Indeed, oil prices have already risen by more than a third since October and are once again over US$100 a barrel. High energy prices will hurt a weak global economy. According to some reports, there has been sabotage in Teheran’s nuclear sites and Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated.

But an Israeli or a US military strike against Iran is very much possible. A debate is currently raging in Israel and two of the Republican US presidential candidates have openly discussed military attack.

Such a move would be exceedingly dangerous and the regime’s covert attack on the British embassy is a sign of what could happen. The invasion of Iraq turned out to be a failure, costing numerous soldier and civilian lives, maiming and destruction and costing the invaders multi-billions (some even estimate costs running to trillions) of dollars.

Other unknowns are conflagration in Syria, and foreign policies of future leaders in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. US and UK troops are beginning to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan with unforeseeable consequences and the failed states of Pakistan and North Korea are of great concern.

Future US economic and monetary policies depend on the outcome of the 2012 elections. The key is whether the Republicans come up with a credible presidential candidate against the increasingly unpopular incumbent.

For the moment, markets are rallying after unremitting gloom. Central bank action, a potential eurozone fudged agreement and China’s first move towards monetary easing caused a surge in stock and bond prices last week.

If market expectations come to fruition, the rally, helped by year-end window-dressing, could continue for a few weeks. Only super optimists, however, should expect a prolonged bull market.

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