China in 2019 - headwinds and opportunity abound: Westpac

China in 2019 - headwinds and opportunity abound: Westpac
China in 2019 - headwinds and opportunity abound: Westpac


Through 2018, annual growth in China continued to decelerate, from 6.8% at March to 6.4% in December. The annualised pace in the December quarter was weaker still, circa 6.0%. These are outcomes reminiscent of the GFC low of March 2009, so it is not surprising that many in financial markets are concerned about 2019 and beyond. From the official PMI’s, a broad-based slowdown is evident across manufacturing and, to a lesser extent, services, led by a deterioration in external demand.

Regarding trade, it is important to note that the shock being experienced by China currently is having flow-on effects for the rest of Asia, especially the north-east Asia block. Taiwan and Korea have high exposure to China demand, shipping 31% and 27% of their exports respectively to China in 2018. A large bulk (45-57%) of Korea, Taiwan and Japan’s exports to China are machineries, reflecting these economies’ involvement in China’s production chain. These economies’ exports of machineries have been weakening since November, particularly Korea and Japan which saw their exports of machineries to China plunge by 15%yr and 14%yr respectively in December. Weak imports of upstream goods by China do not bode well for China’s export outlook in the months ahead. The impact from weakening external demand is also being felt in domestic production across the region, given the high correlation between production and exports in a number of Asian economies. More than half of the Asian economies we monitor registered manufacturing PMIs below 50 in January.

Although the market’s focus remains on the effect of the global slowdown and US/China tensions on trade, the key determinant of China’s softer growth in 2018 was actually structural change, planned and managed by China’s central government. Put simply, in pursuit of long–term financial stability and sustainable growth, 2017 and 2018 saw China’s economic authorities focus on the quality of growth, particularly its longevity; equitable distribution; and environmental impact, with far ranging implications.

While we cannot ignore the risks apparent in China’s external position, that the pursuit of ‘quality growth’ is at the core of this slowdown and given Chinese authorities’ capacity and willingness to aid momentum, we look to 2019 and 2020 first and foremost with optimism rather than concern, anticipating growth will be sustained around 6%. Below we outline the key effects of the pursuit of ‘quality growth’ across three sectors (trade; investment; and the consumer), and also assess recent changes to market policy to facilitate it.

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China in 2019 - headwinds and opportunity abound: Westpac

Source: Westpac

The outlook for trade: opportunity close to home

The immediate threat to China from US trade policy is real and pressing. Following the pull-forward of activity to front-run the tariffs’ introduction, export growth is set to weaken in 2019. However, taking a longer view (2020 and beyond), it is important to remember that any negative shock can be offset in time.

The US only receives about 20% of China’s total exports. China therefore has considerable opportunity to grow total exports even if US trade remains under pressure. Further, the Belt and Road initiative provides scope for assembly and low-value-add parts production to be moved to neighbouring economies, where US tariffs do not apply. With these factories still owned by Chinese firms, US’ tariffs can be bypassed while preserving China’s profits. Doing so would have the additional benefit of making room within China’s borders for manufacturing to shift up the technology spectrum, to the nation’s long-term benefit.

This development path should, in time, facilitate the building-up of wealth and consequently discretionary consumption. Regarding consumption, higher demand for overseas travel (tourism and education) will remain a negative for China’s trade position. However, there is prospect for some of this drag to be offset.

As China’s domestic service industries continue to develop and Belt and Road linkages grow, opportunity to diversify China’s export base across services will multiply. Construction, financial services and in-bound travel are all good sectoral examples.

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China in 2019 - headwinds and opportunity abound: Westpac

Source: Westpac

The outlook for investment: quality to remain key

The shift in policy in favour of quality growth was most clearly evident in the investment detail, as historically-troublesome forms of investment such as poorly-planned infrastructure investment by local government authorities was sharply curtailed. As a consequence, growth in fixed asset investment across the economy slowed to historically weak levels: a low of 5.3%ytd at August and 5.9%yr for 2018 overall, as investment by State-owned Enterprises effectively stalled at 1.9%yr.

With the initial re-orientation of the economy towards quality growth achieved, authorities are increasingly acting to boost momentum. This is happening on two fronts. First, local government authorities are being encouraged to borrow directly from the market to fund new infrastructure – here, a brief RMB1.3trn surge of issuance seen in the September quarter 2018 and the issuance pipeline for 2019 provides a basis for cautious optimism. Secondly, the reserves of banks are being released by cuts to the Reserve Requirement Ratio, –350bps over the past year.

Regarding bank lending, authorities are encouraging banks to focus on up-and-coming industries, where there is maximum long-term benefit for China. However, loan availability for established businesses and the household sector is also being supported.

In stark contrast, opaque elements of the non-bank sector (trust and entrusted loans) remain under pressure from new regulation. Most notably, trust funding from banks has been curtailed by their need to report trust asset exposures. Non-bank funding has also been severely reduced by the banning of guarantees on Wealth Management Products (WMPs) and a need to specify where funds raised from households via WMPs will be invested.

One element of the non-bank sector that is showing promise however is capital market issuance, particularly debt markets, with authorities looking to encourage large firms to preference market issuance over bank loans to fund their capital needs. It should be noted though that many banks are investing in debt market instruments rather than new loans – hence the desire to free-up bank lending for smaller businesses and households has not been a complete success.

In 2019, our core expectation is that growth in fixed asset investment will stabilise at or a little above its end-2018 level. This is low by historical standards, but as the average quality of projects developed should be materially higher than in the past, the dividend to growth should be much improved. Key to investment’s overall performance will be investment by the private sector.

In the near-term, stronger growth in the private sector will require continued active promotion by authorities. Looking further out to 2020 and beyond however, market forces should increasingly take over from the government as the driver and assessor of investment projects. For China and its business community, increased economic and political engagement within Asia offers open–ended opportunity that will drive successive waves of investment on and offshore. As above, both forms of investment hold opportunity for China’s long-term growth and wealth.

The outlook for the consumer: income distribution crucial

In 2018, consumption (by both households and government) was the primary driver of aggregate growth. This result was a continuation of a long-standing trend, although the scale of the acceleration in 2018 was atypical. If 2019’s contribution is to match that of 2018, then the consumer must be on a sure footing.

The cyclical downswing in external demand makes this difficult. Employment growth across both manufacturing and services has clearly been affected by weaker external demand which seems unlikely to improve quickly. There is therefore a pressing need for investment in the domestic economy to spur offsetting growth, and with it job and income creation.

This highlights the need for a further easing of financial conditions, to make funds available to private and public enterprise at low cost, as well as continued encouragement of infrastructure investment by local authorities. Greater education attainment and entrepreneurialism also needs to be fostered, to make ready the workforce for the opportunities to come, while long-term household wealth needs shepherding.

On wealth, housing remains the sector’s primary asset. To preserve affordability and opportunity, house price growth needs to spread across the tiers and be aligned to income growth. To do so, a tight rein over investors will remain necessary to avoid the wealthy profiting from households down the income spectrum.

Further progress is also needed in the management of wealth ex-housing. The changes made to WMPs are a start, but new well-structured product now needs to be developed by the industry and invested in by households for the long term.

Policy and markets

Access to credit the priority

Recent monetary policy easing has had two inter-related targets, promoting lending to small enterprise and reducing funding costs.

Monetary policy has been eased since late last year, with the TMLF (targeted medium-term lending facility) launched on 19 December (with the first auction on 23 January) and given additional re-lending of funds. At the turn of the year, there was also a relaxation of the criteria for banks to enjoy lower reserve ratios (referring to the targeted reserve ratio cut announced back in January 2018). The eligibility for access to various liquidity facilities is mainly linked to the amount of loans extended to small enterprises. These policies apparently aim to encourage and support lending to small enterprises, and are in line with the policy direction expressed in the earlier economic work conference, which continued to use “prudent” to describe monetary policy but dropped “neutral”.

Another policy aim is to reduce funding costs. Most of the liquidity released via the 100bp cut in the Required Reserve Ratio (RRR) in January was to cover maturing MLF (medium-term lending facility) in Q1. Liquidity via a lower RRR is longer lasting, and the cost of funding much lower. Consider the 1yr MLF rate at 3.3% versus the 1.62% interest rate on required reserves; for the CNY1.2trn of MLF replaced, interest cost is reduced by CNY20bn. Provision of more long-term and low-cost liquidity is warranted to encourage lending to support constructive economic activities – in line with the official stance of adopting more counter-cyclical measures to promote growth.

Outright rate cuts?

There is an opinion in the market that the PBoC may need to cut interest rates. At this stage, we still believe that quantitative tools are more likely to be deployed. If there is an interest rate cut, it is more likely to be in bank lending rates than OMO (open market operation) reverse repo rates. First, funding costs can be effectively lowered through the use of different liquidity facilities, without an outright interest rate cut. Second, when it comes to getting OMO rates and bank lending/deposit rates more in line with each other, our interpretation is that the higher bank rates ought to be brought nearer OMO rates. That said, if the benchmark 7-day repo rate falls near the 2% level and stays there sustainably, then the PBoC may need to adjust OMO rates to play catch-up.

De-leveraging goes slow

While the de-leveraging campaign may still be on the agenda, it has been progressing less aggressively since Q4-2018. The shadow banking sector – proxied by the three off-balance sheet items under aggregate financing – shrank at a less rapid pace during Q4-2018 than in earlier quarters, and rebounded in January. The growth in RMB loans has not been quick enough to absorb the loan demand diverted from the shadow banking sector. This may justify a less aggressive de-leveraging campaign as a transitory solution, before credit accessibility is further enhanced via both bank loans and the capital market.

Bond supply versus inflows

An easing monetary policy backdrop and sustained bond inflows are supportive of the bond market. We expect bond yields to consolidate around current levels towards end-Q1 amid potentially heavier supply before facing renewed downward pressure later in the year. There may be heavier cash bond supply in Q1 than usual. First, the special LGB (local government bond) issuance quota for 2019 has been front-loaded, and the full-year quota is also touted to be a 60% increase over last year’s. Gross issuance of special LGB totalled CNY76.9bn in Q1-2018, representing a meagre 4% of 2018 full-year gross issuance. This amount can be easily surpassed in Q1-2019 if primary market activity starts to pick up in late February/early March. Second, the implication from the Central Bank Bills Swap (CBS) is a combination of neutral liquidity impact but with potentially more cash bond supply – though these bonds do not directly compete with CGBs (China Government Bonds).

There is likely to be a further easing in liquidity and credit through the year. We have pencilled in a 100bp RRR cut in each of the quarters from Q2 to Q4 this year. After cash bond supply is absorbed, we expect renewed downward pressure on yields and rates. In addition, bond index inclusion could mean sustained bond inflows. The confirmation of inclusion of Chinese bonds into the Bloomberg Barclays index had been well anticipated. Assuming a total of USD2.5trn of funds track the index, we believe index inclusion will lead to up to USD150bn of potential inflows over a 20-month period, or CNY50bn per month. This equates roughly to the average monthly inflow into CNY bonds in 2018.

CNY: no obvious outflow pressure

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China in 2019 - headwinds and opportunity abound: Westpac


Source: Westpac

We now expect the next US rate hike to come in June instead of March. Hence upward pressure on USD/CNY triggered by USD strength is likely to be delayed. That said, trade relations remain a swing factor, while the impact of tariffs on the regional supply-chain is already evident and the outlook subdued. On balance, USD/CNY is likely to trade in ranges with mild upside risk.

USD/CNY should face strong resistance at the 6.85-6.90 area. Indicators including banks’ FX sales and settlement, PBoC forex purchase, and foreign reserves do not point to obvious outflow pressure. The potential bond inflows triggered by index inclusion is significant compared with other BoP items, and should present a key support to the CNY in the face of our expected USD strength going into the second half of the year.

The USD/CNY forward points have been falling until recently, as US-China interest rates differentials were compressed. The offshore USD/CNH forward points fell alongside, closing the gap with onshore. We view the movement in offshore points as primarily driven by onshore, while there has been a minimal addition to offshore CNH liquidity through the two main channels – stock flows and trade flows. As the onshore-offshore forward point differentials have narrowed and with CNH liquidity limited, CNH forward points may become more sensitive to any change in liquidity condition onshore or offshore.

ELLIOT CLARKE is a senior economist at Westpac and can be contacted here.

Frances Cheung is the Head of Macro Strategy Asia at Westpac. 

China Westpac

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