China’s Uncertain Currency Situation
Featuring Russell Clark
Published on: September 18th, 2019 • Duration: 15 minutesRussell Clark of Horseman Capital explains to Roger Hirst why the Chinese are in a sticky currency situation. Clark argues that as the global economy sputters and the trade war rages on, there is a risk that the Chinese authorities will be pushed to further devalue the renminbi. This clip is excerpted from a video published on Real Vision on July 11, 2019 entitled “Will Chinese Devaluation Be the Black Swan.”
RUSSELL CLARK: What's interesting to China, and it's something we've seen replicated across the entire world is when growth is good, what we've seen is central banks or governments try and win us off this QE model. Well, so unlimited credit to try and get growth going, same was in China, they crack down on P2P lending, they try and reduce steel production to rebalance. Because if you want to be a modern economy, your steel industry should be shrinking, not growing. Does that make sense? I know, it's always hard for people who worked in coal mines or steel factories, but actually, modern economies are not built on the back of endless steel production growth.
The problem is, because we have so much credit around that whenever any government or central bank has looked to move away from stimulation, you always see a big slowdown and lower asset prices about six months to a year later. They realize excess to steel production was bad, that excess of house speculations is bad and P2P lending was bad. They did crack down P2P lending, but when you look at like debt to GDP, which is beginning to flatline for a couple years, it started to accelerate up again.
This basically being the model of growth for last 15 to 20 years is that growth, it costs regardless a long term consequences. The model of that is the Japanese experience just doesn't work. There are differences in different countries, but just doesn't work, in my experience.
ROGER HIRST: With China, it's been interesting, because we-- I don't know, how many China bears has been over the time. It's always a feeling that they have this access in pretty much every area, but I guess to the things they've been able to-- not so much control, they're always worried about is obviously the FX reserves, as long as that's stable, which has been at 3 trillion for a while. Inflation is the other one in a semi-closed economy because of stuffing in liquidity. You're worried about inflation, but there's been no inflation.
Can't China, in a way, continue to transition if we're going to call it that? Stuffing loads of liquidity as long as they keep one eye on that inflation figure, as long as inflation is relatively static, and they're not pushing the yields down so low that it causes more money to want to get out of the country? Are they going to confound us? It goes back to scenario where China within the global system is a big worry, because it's changing. We're feeling that. You can see it in Germany. You can see it in Taiwan.
China itself might manage its way through this. What is it that's in there that's-- what worries you is the stuff that you can see in some of the data, or was it some of the externalities because you've seen a few currency pairs, things like that, and were going there's clearly some problems here?
RUSSELL CLARK: Now, the numbers of lead indicators on China back in the '14-'15 period got very, very weak and the market was still believing in the China story. Market still believe in the China story, evaporated through late '15, early '16. And then the Chinese changed policy, a number of indicators turned positive again. Now, what's happened this year, probably around when Raoul got very, very bearish was you start to see strange movements in the currency markets, which is always what I like to keep a close eye on.
You've had a lot of very strange moves. This time, with more interesting, obvious ones, for probably for most reviewers, is the Australian dollar has continued to be weak, even as iron ore prices have gone to five-year highs. Australia is now running like the largest current account surplus ever, which historically is a very bullish signal and yet the Aussie dollar continues to be weak. I think in a way because it's a lead indicator on what the renminbi is doing.
When you look into the guts of like iron ore and the steel industry, what you're seeing is almost the Aussie dollar's falling steel prices, which are generally falling more than iron ore prices are coming up. Which makes sense to me, because the market's looking through the current strength in iron ore and going, you know what, actually, it's not real. It's a supply issue but it's not being driven by demand. When something is not driven by demand, it's very hard to be bullish, because supply issues get resolved.
ROGER HIRST: People, I think, at the beginning of the year, where everyone's looked at that massive injection and reflation to the big story in January, everyone's, oh, China is doing it again. As you said, the Aussie dollar didn't really react to it not like 2016, mining stocks didn't. If you look at things like copper, sitting on this quite a technical level, a big neckline looks like it's going to break down. The market's believe in copper not iron ore. What was it that was wrong about the reflation? If you haven't looked that liquidity and position for reductive 2016, and we didn't get anything close to it?
RUSSELL CLARK: Yeah. Look, like I said, if you're in classic emerging markets-- so Turkey is a good example. Like if you push through the liquidity, and people don't believe in the economy, liquidity just goes out the other side. Just talking currency depreciation, and which creates more inflation, but it's deflationary for your trade policies if that makes sense. Even like Turkey has been putting liquidity into the system, it doesn't actually benefit anyone, just currency weakness.
In a way, I think that's what-- if you look at what the Aussie dollar is doing and so the other currencies are tightly traded with the renminbi which is Korean won and Taiwan dollar, both suddenly have been weakening. Again, the signal that the money is just flowing out, which makes sense, because you have a very different attitude towards trade out of US, much more than to use tariffs, you had some very, very high interesting trade policy out of Japan, with Korea, I'm not sure if has been widely followed. The Japanese banned the export of some semiconductor materials to Korea as part of like a trade war. They did just after the G20. When people went talking about that it could be a quite significant issue. Who knows?
You've got a lot of very-- so, the currencies are saying deflation. The equities are saying inflation and the bond market is saying deflation. This the dichotomy you have is that which one of those is true.
ROGER HIRST: You talked about currencies, then one of the things that Raoul talks about is the second level on renminbi, and whether China will or won't-- not obviously devalue, but actually let its currency go because that has enormous implications. The Asian dollar index is basically renminbi, but the Hong Kong dollar looks like it could break down. It's related to emerging market equities. In some ways, the big arbiter for the global economy or potentially the touch point for something quite naughty happening in the global economy could be the Chinese go, okay, actually, we are going to let the renminbi go. What's your view because you've got some strong views on the renminbi and what they should be doing?
RUSSELL CLARK: Well, looking at, I think, since the financial crisis, China has been the rock around which everything's being built, because they've been willing to keep their exchange rate very strong, and do huge amounts of fiscal stimulus and push up property prices to act as like a consumption, source of consumption for the world. Their currency was actually very cheap in 2008, and then as a euro and then the yen fell against them and then emerging market currencies fell against the dollar. By definition, renminbi and Hong Kong has gotten very, very expensive.
The question you have to ask yourself is if you look at how the rich world works, everyone has devalued at some point. The yen went from 80 to 125, got from 160 down to one. This time, it's gone from 210 to 126, 127. Korean won did a very similar thing in '08. It went from 800 to 1600. You got this question of if everyone else can devalue, why can't China devalue? The reason why is because they've chosen not to, that's been their policy, they want to have a strong stable currency.
The problem is, is that, look, one of the things I try and do is when I travel, I try get an idea of where is cheap and where is expensive, it always more makes more sense to short or be bearish the currency that's expensive than the currency that's cheap. With China, so if you get like the two most expensive places these days for me is one is Hong Kong. The other one's probably San Francisco. And so, both of those are reflective of where the industries or the economies of both those places are.
Yeah, I would look to see, at some point, China says, well, look, if you're changing the trade rules, we're going to change the currency rules. The only issue with that is with something like the Trump administration never handle those guys. If China suddenly devalues, I can't help but feel the Trump administration goes fine, tariffs to 50% or something like that but then, you get a cascading bear market. We're in a very tricky point.
Like I said, the weird classic macro indicators are diverging radically from what equities are doing. That does happen sometimes. Usually, the macro indicators are right. The best example I can think of is commodities back in '08. Long time ago, for most people, but commodities went parabolic in the first half of '08, as we're getting into recession.
ROGER HIRST: August was the peak in oil, I think, Lehman happened a month and a half later.
RUSSELL CLARK: Yeah. Then suddenly, and it was very weird, didn't make a lot of sense. Then suddenly, it broke in way. That's typically how markets work. They force everyone into an asset at exactly the wrong time and then liquidity just disappears, and you are stuck in it. The weirdest thing about '08 is for the first half of '08, there are a lot of emerging market. Hedge funds are up 20%, 10%, 15% especially the Russia type guys, ends up being down 50 billion a year as reality kicked in.
ROGER HIRST: For China, wouldn't they think that-- it seems that what they've actually been doing is that they've let the currency drift lower with the tariffs. In 2018, tariffs going, currency moved towards seven, offset the tariffs. Then again, this time around a little bit less powerful a move, wouldn't be a thought for them maybe more sensible to say like, what we're going to do is we'll let our currency go in response to aggression, rather than be the aggressive because nowadays, they're importing more and more oil. They're becoming more of an importer than an exporter necessarily. Stable currency will be good for that because it reduces or doesn't-- it keeps a lid on inflation, which is another big bugbears.
Eventually, in a normal world, they probably want to open up the capital accounts and get foreign direct investment to buy the bonds and therefore, fund the deficits US-style, isn't it that they would probably like to keep the stability so they will keep the internal stability, but by doing that, it creates this externality which we're seeing in Australia, in Germany? Where the real fear here is that they've changed the direction of their liquidity, they've changed the direction of their growth, and the world hasn't really caught on to what they're doing yet. They're still thinking it's going to be-- or we were thinking until a few months ago that it was going to be China saves the day in the PBOC provides a liquidity?
RUSSELL CLARK: Yeah, look, the PBOC is quite transparent. While we look at-- you keep going the dollar-renminbi exchange rate, but the renminbi looks at basket of trade partners. The big issue for China has been places like Europe and Japan have constantly try to keep their exchange rate as weak as possible. The renminbi drifted up versus the dollar when the euro and the yen were drifting off against the dollar as well, which makes sense to me. You did see for a while, Asian currencies as well were drifting high versus the dollar. Intellectually still, it makes sense to me and US is running like a 4% fiscal deficit at the top of its equity and employment cycle.
If you normalize those numbers, you're getting to like a 7%, 8% deficit, which is wildly high. You've got this weird Jenga tower type thing, where Europe and Japan keep going more negative with their interest rates to keep the currencies weak versus the dollar, because that's the only way they can generate growth. The problem with that is that puts more pressure on the renminbi to devalue, which would then really crack open the entire egg if that makes sense. The renminbi is really the fulcrum around which everything is moving at the moment. Still keep a close eye on that.