Internal and external factors look set to drive volatility in Chinese stocks this year. This will create market distortions and mispriced companies. At some point the government may renew fiscal stimulus to prop up GDP growth. Such boom-bust cycles have become common as policymakers transition the economy away from exports to domestic consumption.
We expect the yuan to weaken further despite dilution of the US dollar’s weighting in the basket of currencies used to determine its value. Beijing is already tightening capital controls as pressure on RMB outflows increases. Companies that have borrowed overseas will be hit hardest.
Moreover, China’s economy has yet to feel the effects of curbs to cool the property market. These measures will catch up with developers and the chain of businesses behind them. Banks could then feel the strain amid a tightening of financial conditions, raising the risk of blow-ups in wealth management products (WMPs) with developers as underlying investments.
As to external shocks, these are most likely to come in the form of trade barriers imposed on Chinese goods by president-elect Donald Trump. Faced with that, we can expect Beijing to stimulate its economy. Infrastructure spending is an option, with underground rail systems being approved in various cities.
Trying to maintain current growth levels without over-stimulating on the one hand or causing a hard landing on the one other is the balancing act that policymakers are trying to perform. Still, they have the resources and policy tools at their disposal to keep GDP growth within their mid-6% target range.
Stability will be their priority in the run-up to the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress this November. There we can anticipate a leadership transition, with five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee having reached customary retirement age.
We suspect Beijing’s hand will remain visible in the economy to ward off systemic risks in areas such as shadow banking and WMPs. Determination to keep GDP growth on track will likely see structural reforms and financial liberalisation slip down the agenda.
But instead of responding to each twist and turn, we take a long-term view. Policymakers are committed to transition the economy away from the old engine of growth – heavy industry. It was consumption that accounted for 71% of China’s economic growth in the first nine months of 2016. Regardless of what Trump does, we can see China’s consumption story remains intact.
Although protectionist trade policies may hurt companies’ performance in the short term, at least they might encourage Beijing to refocus on the structural reforms necessary to effect this transition: revamping inefficient state-owned sectors. If its worst anti-globalisation fears are realised, Beijing may need to accelerate its reform efforts.
We expect this long-term policy direction, in combination with China’s growing middle-income population, to drive demand for consumer goods. That is where we have concentrated our search for companies. Consumer areas, be these discretionary or durables, are among the least controlled. Hence that is where pricing signals work reasonably well.
Nick Yeo is head of Equities – China & Hong Kong at Aberdeen Asset Management