Is China Collapsing? Muddling Through Shanghai by John Mauldin, Mauldin Economics
“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.”
– Sun Tzu
A couple of weeks ago I was complaining about 47,000 China reports clogging my e-mail. The number now feels like it is well into six figures (perhaps a slight exaggeration). Maybe my memory is going, but there wasn’t nearly as much China talk on the way up. Funny how that works.
Is China collapsing? I think parts of China are under severe pressure if not outright recession, and clearly the stock market is a disaster. Anyone who bought Shanghai or Shenzhen stocks on margin this year is probably on the brink.
That said, China itself is not collapsing. There are parts of China that are doing just fine, thank you very much. It does have serious problems, though. The Pollyannas and the Cassandras are both wrong. The change in tone in the Financial Times is quite amusing. Their recent hyperbolic, bearish section called “ China Tremors” is a case in point. Of the last 30 articles on China on their website, I found less than a handful that were positive on China. My take? China will muddle through, at least for the near term.
China is in transition, a transition that was clearly telegraphed if you have been paying attention. Our recent book on China (A Great Leap Forward?) clearly laid out this new path. Today we are going to talk about this precarious, difficult transition, which may impose profound impacts on much of the rest of the world. This transition is going to change the way global trade has worked in the past. There will be winners and losers.
But first, a brief comment on today’s employment report and how it impacts the need for a rate hike by the Federal Reserve in September. I offer a little different perspective on the coming decision.
To Hike or Not To Hike – That Is the Question
Today’s unemployment report was lackluster, as has been the case for the initial reporting for the last two Augusts. Both were revised significantly upward – August 2012 was eventually revised up 96,000 jobs, while August 2013 saw a final revision upward of 69,000 jobs, and August 2014 saw a final count of +213,000 jobs. Part of the reason for the major revisions is that only some 70% of the potential survey participants actually responded (hat tip Joan McCullough). Evidently the United States is becoming like Europe, and we are all going on vacation in August. Or at least the department personnel responsible for handling employment figures are. Expect to see significant upward revisions in the coming months, just as July saw another 30,000 added and June saw a plus 14,000.
This report was not so ugly that it would take the breath away from hawks wanting to raise rates or force doves into agreeing to a rate increase. Nothing changed, really. That is illustrated by the two articles below that were side-by-side on the New York Times website within an hour of the release of the report (hat tip Brent Donnelly). Everybody got to see what they wanted to see.
I can’t remember a time when there was such serious disagreement over what the Federal Reserve should do regarding a rate hike. I have been in several groups of analysts and economists in the last few months, and I must confess to being surprised at the split in opinions.
Upon reflection, I think I can actually understand both positions. First, the Fed keeps reiterating that they are “data-dependent” – thus the focus on every little bit of data, no matter how trivial. Let me see if I can explain why both sides can feel they are right and then why, to my way of thinking, they are missing the point.
On the side of those who feel that a rate hike should be postponed at the September meeting, it must be remembered that most rate hikes are in anticipation of an economy beginning to pick up speed. The Fed has said they want to see low unemployment, and under the leadership of Bernanke and now Yellen, they have a 2% inflation target. Remember, their congressional mandate is to promote stable prices and full employment.
While unemployment did drop to 5.1%, that is a “soft” unemployment figure. The participation rate is down. The number of part-time workers wanting full-time jobs is still high. And the new employment trend is not encouraging.
August's gains were well below trend. The average of the previous five months is 211,000; for the previous six before that it was 282,000. The yearly employment gain, 2.1%, is off 0.2 point from the late 2014/early 2015 rate. The private sector gain is 60,000 below the average of the previous six months. (The Liscio Report)
We are not close to 2% inflation; and, frankly, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get there for a while. The economy is, at best, stuck in a low, Muddle Through gear (as I predicted years ago); and getting back to a stable 3% growth rate, let alone the occasional 4–5% that we used to see, seems out of reach. The dollar is strong and getting stronger and is not only holding down inflation but also, anecdotal evidence suggests, slowing down exports in various sectors of the economy. There were those who argued that a bubble was developing in the stock market, but it appears the stock market is taking care of itself to make sure it doesn’t become overheated. There is no need to pile on to see if we can drive asset prices even lower. Further, we are just in the beginning of a housing recovery. Why raise mortgage rates, etc., at the beginning?
In such an environment, why would you raise rates in order to keep the economy from overheating? The last thing we seem to be doing is overheating, let alone even getting to a slow boil. Instead, we may already be cooling down. If the economy does start to pick up and inflation becomes an issue, we could raise rates then as fast as we would need to. Or so Kocherlakota and his friends on the FOMC say. And thus we should postpone a rate increase until we see a reason for it. Kind of like, don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes.
Those who think we should raise rates likewise have an array of data to support their case. GDP grew 3.7% in the second quarter. If you take out the weather-related first-quarter 2015 GDP figure, GDP growth is running well over 3%. Given the global headwinds currently buffeting economies, that’s about as good as it’s going to get. This economy has weathered tax increases and the abrupt changes of Obamacare, as well as a significant drop in capital spending related to oil production and has “kept on ticking.” If there is a recession in our near