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Chinese money trends signalling still-worsening prospects

18 janvier 2024 par Simon Ward

China’s economic woes partly reflect restrictive monetary policy. The latest money numbers suggest still-deteriorating prospects and urgent need for a policy reversal. It is unclear whether such a pivot is under way.

Two-quarter growth of nominal GDP (own seasonal adjustment) remained historically weak at 2.7% annualised in Q4, after 2.6% in Q3. Official real GDP numbers show a recovery in two-quarter growth from 3.6% annualised to 4.7%, so the implication is that GDP prices fell at a faster rate (1.9% annualised versus 1.0%) – see chart 1.

Chart 1

Chart 1 showing China Nominal & Real GDP (% 2q annualised)

The stabilisation of two-quarter nominal GDP growth in H2 2023 mirrors sideways movement of six-month narrow and broad money growth during H1. Money trends, however, weakened sharply during H2, suggesting a further slowdown in nominal / real GDP in H1 2024 – chart 2.

Chart 2

Chart 2 showing China Nominal GDP & Narrow / Broad Money (% 6m)

Six-month narrow money momentum turned negative in late 2023 and is challenging the record low reached at end-2014. Weakness then rang policy alarm bells, contributing to an aggressive easing shift in 2015 that succeeded in reflating the economy and stocks.

Monetary optimists note that broad money growth is above the level reached then and in the middle of its range in recent years. A widening narrow / broad money divergence, however, suggests a faster rate of decline of broad money velocity, plausibly related to structural weakness in real estate and lack of confidence in policy.

Will the economy and markets be rescued by 2015-style easing? Developments in 2023 don’t inspire hope. The PBoC loosened policy during H1 but a new upswing in term money rates began soon after the appointment of new Governor Pan Gongsheng in July, with three-month SHIBOR closing 2023 at a 32-month high – chart 3.

Chart 3

Chart 3 showing China Interest Rates

Another change under Governor Pan has been the suspension of publication of the PBoC’s informative quarterly surveys of entrepreneurs, consumers and bankers – the Q3 surveys were never released and Q4 results would normally have appeared by now.

A possible interpretation is that the PBoC has switched to prioritising currency stability, managing rates higher to discourage capital outflows while passing the baton of economic support to fiscal policy (and withdrawing from providing information on economic developments).

Foreign exchange reserves were boosted by valuation effects in late 2023 (weaker US dollar, rally in Treasuries) but settlements data suggest sustained intervention to support the currency during H2, consistent with a persistent sizeable forward discount on the offshore RMB – chart 4.

Chart 4

Chart 4 showing China Foreign Currency Reserves (mom change, $ bn)

Fiscal stimulus focused on government-directed investment is unlikely to be sufficient to reverse economic weakness without accompanying monetary accommodation to lift private sector confidence and broad money velocity.

Are there any signs of the PBoC pivoting back to easing? One glimmer is that its lending to the banking system continued to expand rapidly in late 2023, which, together with a slower rise in government deposits at the PBoC, resulted in the second-largest quarterly rise in bank reserves on record – chart 5.

Chart 5

Chart 5 showing China PBoC Balance Sheet (RMB trn, 3m change)

The PBoC’s injections, however, may have been intended to moderate rather than reverse the rise in money rates. Three-month SHIBOR eased in early January but has stalled since – chart 3. Recent renewed US dollar strength may bolster the hard-liners.

Groupe financier Connor, Clark & Lunn Ltée
janvier 18th, 2024