Until about a month ago, Chinese stocks were soaring. Over the prior year the main indices in both Shanghai and Shenzhen were up by about 150%.
Since then, however, both markets have been in a continuous tailspin, dropping a quarter of their value.
Beijing has just announced emergency stock market stabilization measures aimed at halting the fall, on the idea that swooning stocks will hurt capital formation (duh!) and clip a percentage point or more from economic growth–at a time when China doesn’t have that many points to spare.
What’s going on?
As part of its plan to gradually modernize its equity markets and ultimately open them to the outside world, China introduced margin trading (as well as stock index futures and short-selling) domestically in 2010. China is now going through what all emerging markets eventually do–its first full-blown margin trading crisis.
There are lots of ins and outs to margin trading, but it’s basically using the stocks you own as collateral for loans to buy more shares. It can be very seductive when stocks are going up. And it’s immensely profitable for brokers. So it’s not surprising that margin loans are easily available to lots of customers. Also, in many emerging markets, China included, it’s relatively easy to circumvent restrictions on margin lending by arranging bank loans collateralized by stocks that may not technically be margin borrowing, but effectively are the same thing.
The key aspect of margin trading is that the value of the securities in the account must exceed the margin loan total by a certain safety amount. If prices fall to the extent that the safety amount shrinks, or is wiped out, the broker has the right to sell enough securities from the account to restore it. He may call the client and give him the opportunity to add more money to the account …or he may just sell.
However, this selling itself depresses prices further–eroding the value of the remaining securities in the account as well as any safety amount that may be built up.
Also, margin traders around the world tend to be both the ultimate dumb money and the ultimate herd animals. They all but the same speculative stocks and they (almost) all leverage themselves to the eyeballs. Even if customer A is initially in fine shape, the selling in the accounts of customers B,C and D will pressure the margin balance of A as well as their own.
The first selling, then, tends to create an accelerating cascade of more selling that’s extremely hard to stop.
This is what China is experiencing now. This is also why the government has stepped in with a massive market support operation to try to staunch the flow.
effect on the rest of the world? …especially you and me
The Stock Connect linking mechanism between Shanghai and Hong Kong–aimed a diverting funds away from soaring mainland stocks–is now exporting the mainland weakness in much milder form to the Hang Seng.
Beijing has a ton of money and its stock markets are, realistically speaking, still not very open to the outside world. As the current anticorruption campaign shows, the CCP has lots of ways to punish people who do stuff it doesn’t want. So I imagine that the government will stop the downward stock market momentum. The big questions are:
–how long will it take, and
–how large an unwanted portfolio of stocks (which will act as an overhang on the market) will Beijing have to purchase in order to achieve the stabilization it wants.
My answers are:
–I don’t know, but probably not more than a couple of weeks, and
–I don’t care, because I think the way to play a potential rebound from oversold levels is through the Hong Kong stocks now being sold by mainlanders.