China: Is It Really The Bear Stearns Moment?

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Should Investors Turn Their Gaze To China? By benzinga

For the past week or so, the market has been focused on Crimea — and what could happen if the geopolitical tensions there continued to mount.

Would the referendum take place? Would Russia decide to expand into eastern Ukraine? Would the West do anything besides raise a stink? Was there really any risk to the global economy here? Because of these questions and more, traders decided to avoid the potential weekend headline risk, and spent the vast majority of last week getting out of the way — presumably just in case the tanks started to roll.

Well, despite all the sternly worded warnings from the U.S., the UK  and the Eurozone, the Sunday vote in Crimea took place. If the poll results there are to be accepted as fact, then Crimea’s citizens made it very clear (96 percent clear) they wanted to secede from Ukraine and join Mother Russia. Apparently that 23-year experiment is over — but then again, maybe not.

Related: Should Traders Be Worried About Crimea?

In response, all those fast-money types, who had been busy putting on short positions late last week, scrambled for cover on Monday. Within minutes of the opening bell, the S&P 500 (NYSE: SPY [FREE Stock Trend Analysis]) had leapt 18 points, as the algos fell all over themselves getting back to the long side. And while the S&P remains about one percent from its recent high, the bottom line is Crimea does not appear to be the stuff that real crises are made of.

What’s Next?

Does this mean that it’s going to be up, up, and away from here on? Maybe. But also, maybe not. You see, although the trend has been the bulls’ best friend for the better part of the last 18 months, there has been an awful lot of intraday selling pressure happening this year.

Of the 51 trading days so far in 2014, only nine have been lopsidedly positive. In other words, the vast majority of sessions this year have experienced heavy intraday selling. And while that selling hasn’t amounted to much (the S&P 500 is up 0.5 percent this year), the market has certainly “felt” heavy on most days.

Although there is a certain amount of tea-reading and/or voodoo involved here, it certainly seems/feels like there is something bothering this late-stage bull market.

Is China The Cause?

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you likely already know that China’s growth rate has been slumping. And while most countries would kill for 7.5 percent economic growth on an annual basis, this is China we’re talking about.

iShares China Large Cap (FXI) Weekly

The real key here is that the #growthslowing theme in China isn’t exactly news, as investors have been fretting about the slowdown for a couple years now. (The chart above makes this argument pretty clear.)

iPath Copper (JJC) Weekly

Another tell-tale sign, suggesting that all is not well in China, is the chart of copper (NYSE: JJC). The story here is simple. When China is booming, copper booms with it. And vice versa.

S&P 500 Weekly

Now compare the chart of the China ETF to that of the S&P 500 over the exact same time frame. In short, China’s economy may be growing, but it has been a lousy place to invest for quite some time. And investors have obviously preferred the U.S. So, what gives?

Bubbles in China

The bears argue that China has at least a couple of asset bubbles that could prove disastrous if they were to burst. One area of concern is real estate, as prices for both commercial and residential real estate have skyrocketed over the past several years.

In an effort to avoid the mess that occurred in the U.S., Ireland, the UK and the Eurozone, in response to real estate prices getting out of control, Chinese authorities have been taking steps to curb lending in the real estate markets. So far at least, the efforts appear to be working to some degree. But time will obviously tell.

The Bear Stearns Moment?

The other bubbly problem in China is said to be in the credit markets. Those seeing the glass as half-empty argue that there is simply too much debt, that the levels are unsustainable, and that a crisis is just around the corner.

In fact, China recorded its first domestic bond default earlier this month — when solar equipment producer Chaori Solar missed an interest payment. At issue here is the fact that, in recent years, local Chinese governments had always stepped in to bail out such firms. And there’s been some suggestion this default is the tip of the iceberg in China.

Some are calling the Chaori default the “Bear Stearns moment” in China. The key here is whether the precedent-setting event means credit risk may need to be repriced across China. This means that a liquidity crunch is possible and that the banks could be at risk. And we all know what happened to the banks when credit risk in the mortgage market was repriced a few years back, right?

Others suggest such an idea is pure folly. However, lest we forget, it took quite some time for the U.S. to reach the tipping point after Bear Stearns and the collapse of Lehman. And with the U.S. market feeling more than a little “heavy” these days, the situation in China’s credit markets may bear watching (pun intended).

© 2014 Benzinga does not provide investment advice. All rights reserved.


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