As Americans guzzled and gulped their way through the 238th annual celebration of the Declaration of Independence, China’s financial markets writhed in what some analysts warned could be the Big One—the long-expected bust that would end the world’s longest economic boom.
Those analysts won’t be writing from China; the government is cracking down on economic doomsayers, short sellers, and all the other scapegoats that quaking politicians and CEOs blame when stock markets tank—and tanking China’s stock markets definitely are. The widely watched Shanghai and Shenzen indices are down 30 percent in two weeks.
You don’t need to be Warren Buffet to see that China’s high flying stocks were due for a hefty correction. The Shanghai market rose 80 percent between Halloween 2014 and April 15 of this year even as China’s economic growth continued to slow. A rational market would never have shot up this far, this fast, but all markets get irrational from time to time and China’s are particularly volatile.
There are lots of reasons to think that China’s long-term growth prospects (and, therefore, its geopolitical prospects) have been oversold. Population and labor force growth is slowing; competition in the global manufacturing sector is heating up. The mix of heavy handed state control over much of the economy (including the financial sector) and the wild west spirit of Chinese private business is explosive, and both China’s regulators and its private market participants are relatively inexperienced when it comes to grasping and responding to the vagaries of business and speculative cycles. Serial bubbles in real estate and stocks and the inability of the government to wean the economy away from the need for massive infrastructure spending suggest a shortage of attractive private sector investment opportunities. Meanwhile, the population wants higher living standards, including much cleaner air, water, and food— and the pension and health care systems are woefully out of whack.
That said, China’s communist technocrats have a pretty successful track record. For at least twenty years, foreign experts have made sophisticated arguments about why the Chinese economic miracle wouldn’t last, and for twenty years China has gone on booming. Here at the American Interest, we don’t think trees grow to the sky, but we also think trying to time the Chinese market is a mug’s game that we would rather not play.
This time, however, there are some ominous signs that the people who know China best are more worried than usual, as are the technocrats who run the country. As the Wall Street Journal reports, seven of China’s top officials huddled Saturday (China is 12 time zones ahead of the U.S. East Coast) to come up with plans to stop the stock meltdown before it spreads panic to the rest of the economy. New IPOs will be banned and it appears that a stabilization fund will be set up to support stock prices by buying up stocks that are falling ‘too fast’. These measures come after earlier steps (like easing interest rates and making it easier to buy stocks on margin) failed to calm panicky investors.
The trouble is that after a while an accumulation of measures intended to be comforting can no longer reassure. People start to think that the government wouldn’t be going to all this trouble unless the managers were deeply worried. The more people feel it necessary to tell you not to panic, the more you start to wonder if panicking might not be a bad idea.
Some commentators are calling the Chinese stock meltdown a bigger problem than the Greek crisis, and in some ways they are right. More than $2 trillion disappeared from Chinese asset portfolios as the markets tanked. That’s roughly ten times the GDP of Greece. A serious disruption of China’s economy would send ripples across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the West. The loss of export markets in China would mean much more to the German economy than, say, a total collapse of purchasing power in Greece.
The month of July will be an interesting one in world markets. Technocrats can manage economies and control market fluctuations until, often quite suddenly, they can’t. China’s managers most probably have a few more tricks up their sleeves, but their juggling act (to mix metaphors) no longer looks effortless. China’s economic mandarins seem to be breaking a sweat and the rest of us should take note.