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Conclusion: The quantitative setup in Chinese equities reveals a lot about the current state of the Chinese economy and its lack of clarity surrounding the magnitude of any potential economic slowdown. Additionally, China’s January inflation data reveals a few incrementally bearish nuggets regarding the slope of global growth.

Position: Long Chinese yuan via the etf CYB.

Looking at a chart of Chinese equities, we see that it’s very indicative of China’s current economic backdrop: binary with a lack of clear direction. Trading between its bullish TRADE line of support and its bearish TREND line of resistance, Chinese equities are trapped in between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” and we’d like to see a decisive move beyond either of those lines to solidify our view on Chinese assets and Chinese growth:

China: Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place - 1

Looking at today’s inflation data, we see that today’s +30bps acceleration in headline CPI to +4.9% YoY and the +70bps acceleration in headline PPI to +6.6% YoY brings with it a slew of changes and meaningful incremental data points.

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China adjusted both the weightings and composition of both its CPI and PPI baskets. Thought it did not show the full updated breakout, China did provide the following re-weightings: 

  • Rent and utility costs increased +422bps;
  • Food and beverage decreased (-221bps);
  • Alcohol and tobacco decreased (-51bps);
  • Clothing decreased (-49bps);
  • Household equipment and services decreased (-36bps);
  • Health care and personal products decreased (-36bps);
  • Educational products and services decreased (-25bps); and
  • Transportation and communication decreased (-5bps). 

All told, the re-weighting ended up being largely benign (adding only +2bps to the YoY rate of +4.9% and +4bps to the MoM rate of +1%) and generally reflects current consumer sentiment around exorbitant and largely unaffordable housing prices – so much so that the central government plans to increase its development of low-cost homes over +72% YoY in 2011.

Unofficially, Chinese Property Prices posted the largest MoM gain in six months in January (+1%), according to SouFun Holdings Ltd. – the nation’s largest property website. The government’s unofficial report is due out later this month; it will be interesting to see if the slope of the YoY growth in Chinese property prices reflects this unofficial re-acceleration.

Diving more deeply into the components of China’s January CPI report, we see that: 

  • Residence-related price growth accelerated to a 29-month high of +6.8% YoY;
  • Food price growth accelerated to +10.3% YoY; and
  • Non-Food CPI accelerated to at least a six-year high of +2.6% YoY; this reading is +174bps above the average for the data series, which begins in January 2005. 

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The +50bps sequential change in the YoY growth rate of Chinese Consumer Prices ex-Food confirms exactly what we’d been fearing over the past few months: food and energy inflation is spilling over into the broader economy. This officially means two things: Chinese consumers will start demanding (and receiving) higher wages and the PBOC has to tighten more aggressively on the margin to bring inflation back towards the government’s +4% YoY target for 2011.

YTD, we’ve already seen signs of wage growth throughout China: 

  • Beijing plans to raise its minimum wage +20.8% by the end of this year;
  • Tianjin plans to raise its minimum wage +150 yuan per month;
  • Shanghai plans to raise its minimum wage over +10% from the current 1,120 yuan per month by April 1;
  • Jiangsu plans to raise its minimum wage +15%; and
  • Guangdong plans to raise its minimum wage +19% by March to 1,300 yuan per month – currently the country’s highest. 

Combined, these cities and provinces have a population roughly equal to 220 million people – equivalent to the fifth largest population in the world after Indonesia. While not all of their respective citizens are earning the minimum wage, we are willing to bet the slope of broader wage growth throughout these areas and the Chinese economy at large continues to trend positive, adding to already robust demand-side inflationary pressures and compounding the central bank’s fight with accelerating inflation, on both a reported and expectations basis.

Hidden beneath this trend of labor cost inflation is the margin compression by Chinese corporations who are having to deal with the ill-effects of rising input prices on the gross margins (Chinese Import growth accelerated to +51% YoY on rising raw materials costs), as well as the pinching effect of rising wages on their operating margins.

China: Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place - 4

 

China: Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place - 5

 

To compound the issues facing Chinese manufacturers, a rapidly growing labor movement in Southern China has the makings of a large cultural shift in China’s employee-to-employer relationship. According to Longguan Human Resources in Shenzhen, one of the largest recruiters of inland labor for China’s coastal factories in the Pearl and Yangtze River deltas, millions of workers are refusing to return to factories until their wage demands are met – in many cases in excess of what we detailed above.

Lui Hong, manager at Longguan had this to say regarding the recent trend: “I'm 1,000 percent sure the factories won't be able to find enough workers… there will be a shortage of millions.”

It’s worth noting that the recent costs pressures facing Chinese manufacturers will have to be passed through to global brands like COH, VFC, and JNY or they will be forced reduce production and/or move it abroad, curbing both Chinese growth and any potential near-term topline growth for such brands with a Chinese production footprint. On the topic of shifting growth to other “low(er)-cost” regions like Vietnam or India, we caution that: 

  1. Shifting production into new factories in new countries is not an overnight process and could take as many as 2-5 years to complete the desired shift (four years in COH’s case);
  2. Inflation is dragging up wages throughout the region – particularly in India, which is the only other country in the Asia with enough bodies to make up for a meaningful loss of Chinese labor headcount; and
  3. The infrastructure throughout Asia in potential “low(er) cost” regions like India is notoriously shotty and far from developed enough to prevent massive bottlenecks and delays in both production and shipping. 

The crux of this is that: 

  1. Growth is slowing: Inflation is starting to meaningfully slow unit production growth in China’s factories;
  2. Inflation is accelerating: Global brands and retailers with a Chinese production footprint will be increasingly forced to either take the price increases offered by Chinese manufacturers or reduce unit demand for new inventory; and
  3. Interconnected risk is compounding: Sneakily, rising costs and/or a declining labor pool will continue to make investment in China’s manufacturing and export sector less attractive on the margin. 

To point #2 specifically, we’re already seeing that with China’s YoY Export growth accelerating +1,980bps sequentially in January to +37.7%. China is exporting inflation. This trend will be increasingly compounded if and when the yuan appreciates meaningfully (+1-3%) in the coming quarters.

China: Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place - 6

It’s not uncommon for consensus to misinterpret economic data points like the jump in China’s Import/Export growth because they lack a Global Macro Process to properly contextualize the relevant changes on the margin; an example of this is was the recent bullish mosaic painted around China’s January Crude Oil Imports, which accelerated to +27.4% - a four-month high.

Careful analysis reveals that much of the demand increase is fueled by speculation that China may soon increase retail gasoline and diesel costs throughout the country, which is bullish for Chinese refiner’s margins – all things being equal (Shanghai Daily, Feb. 11). To the aforementioned trade data specifically, China’s Trade Balance contraction accelerated in Jan (-$7.71B) YoY vs. (-$5.35B) in Dec – an explicitly bearish YoY and QoQ growth data point for China’s 1Q11 GDP.

China: Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place - 7

Unfortunately, with the current inflationary headwinds, all things are not equal. As we have maintained since October, we see Chinese growth slowing for at least the duration of 1H11 – and perhaps more (time and data will tell).

A further look at today’s data reveals additional headwinds to China’s intermediate term growth momentum. New Loan growth accelerated in January as it typically does at the start of each year to +1.04T yuan, an increase of +559.2B yuan over December’s reading. While it fell short of consensus expectations of a +1.2T yuan increase, it was high enough to give China bulls some confirmation that China isn’t headed for a near-term crash after aggressively hiking reserve requirements and interest rates over the past 3-4 months.

Analyzing the loan growth on a YoY basis tells a more daunting tale for the slope of Chinese growth. The amount of New Loans extended in January fell (-25.4%) YoY – a large sequential deceleration from December’s +26.6% YoY growth rate and an even more precipitous drop from November’s +91.3% YoY growth rate. Money Supply (M2) growth confirmed this trend, falling to levels not seen since its July ’10 and December ’08 lows at +17.2% YoY.

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At the end of the day, the slope of China’s economic growth may or may not matter at all to the direction of Chinese stock prices. It’s important to remember that mainland Chinese investors have an incredibly limited selection of investment opportunities and the bulk of them have been weak in recent weeks/months: 

  • Savings deposit accounts – the returns of which are being completely eroded by inflation;
  • Gold – which just had its worst January in over 20 years;
  • Real Estate – both the Chinese premier and the PBOC leadership have pledged to crack down on property speculation in 2011, starting with the long-awaited implementation of a nationwide property tax trial;
  • Chinese equities – which are sneakily up +3.2% YTD. 

In China’s case, this time the “flows” could trump the fundamentals. For now, however, China remains stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Darius Dale

Analyst