Run for the exits — China’s talking up stocks again

By Shuli Ren / BLOOMBERG

Talk is cheap. Whenever China’s top banking regulators come out to calm the markets, you know their options are dwindling.

We are seeing a repeat of 2015. Stock market valuations are near historical lows, and seriously out of sync with the country’s sound economic fundamentals, People’s Bank of China (PBoC) governor Yi Gang said last Friday.

Chinese stocks are among the world’s worst performers this year.

The Shenzhen Composite Index, which is dominated by private enterprises, has tumbled 35%.

China’s central bank was unable to stem the stock market’s decline in 2015 despite cutting interest rates multiple times.

How strong is China’s economy really? In the third quarter, GDP growth slowed to 6.5%, the weakest pace since the great financial crisis.

Call it a double whammy. While topline growth slows, China Inc has also seen a sharp uptick in operating costs this year. From raw materials such as oil and steel to rental expenses, private enterprises are feeling squeezed.

And they’re now expected to shoulder onerous social-security contributions — as much as 30% of an employee’s wages for pension and healthcare funds. Corporate fundamentals are anything but sound.

China’s industrial enterprise profit growth started to tumble in June.

The central bank said it would explore ways to help private companies sell bonds, while the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission urged lenders to refrain from selling pledged shares even when they sink to a stop-loss limit. Major shareholders of private businesses routinely use their stock holdings as collateral for advances loans.

In the first half (1H), 22% of listed companies pledged at least 30% of their shares for such financing. After this year’s decline, many are close to facing margin calls.

This is all just grandstanding. When an economy is slowing, it’s good risk management for lenders to cut exposure to less creditworthy businesses.

In China’s case, this mostly means private enterprises; state-owned entities at least have the backing of Beijing.

In the 2H, a staggering one trillion yuan (RM600 billion) of sharepledged loans will be due, Moody’s Investors Service estimates.

Liquidity usually tightens at year-end, so banks that don’t sell stock now may be faced with worse conditions later.

In China, 22% of listed companies have at least 30% of their shares pledged for short-term loans.

By now, investors have realised there’s little the banking regulators can do.

Case in point: The central bank has cut lenders’ reserve ratios four times since September 2017, yet it’s been unable to prevent the stock rout.

Banks are no longer required to park as much cash with the PBoC, but if the economic outlook is bleak, they’ll just put that money away as excess reserves rather than lending it.

Meanwhile, the PBoC is winding down a three trillion yuan “helicopter money” programme to aid China’s poor through shanty-town redevelopments.

Residents of smaller cities, who were the engine of consumption last year, may start to feel pinched too.

China’s central bank has handed out more than three trillion yuan of cash for shanty-town redevelopments in the past three years.

Chinese officials and state-owned media have repeatedly trumpeted messages of reassurance as stocks extended their slide this year.

They may have arrested the decline for now, with the Shanghai and Shenzhen indexes recovering their morning losses as of the midday break last Friday, but don’t expect it to last. This is a flashing red ‘Sell’ signal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its