Chinese stocks—and related ETFs

I got home late last night and flipped on the TV to watch baseball.  What came on first was Bloomberg TV, where reporters in London (?) and Hong Kong were exchanging near-hysterical comments about the declining Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets.

The facts couldn’t have been much more at odds with their dire pronouncements.  Yes, the markets were down by 2% – 3%.  Yes, a small number of stocks were limit down.  But the markets were relatively stable and trading was orderly.  Given, however, that the main concern for global investors, as well as Chinese participants in the domestic stock markets, is to have China shrink the still-large amount of margin debt outstanding without a market collapse, overnight market action in Shanghai and Shenzhen  was a very positive development.  As it turns out, although the markets closed down slightly for the day, they were even up at one point.  Volumes were reasonable, too.  Let’s hope this continues.

(An aside:  the Bloomberg TV spectacle I witnessed is one more illustration, if anyone needed it, that the recent shakeup of the Bloomberg news organization is taking it further down the road toward infotainment and away from analysis.)

 

I came across a Factset article this morning discussing the performance of ETFs that specialize in small-cap Chinese stocks.  These have been the center of speculative activity in China over the past year.  But they have also been an area subject at times to protracted trading suspensions for some stocks and to days where some have been limit-up or limit-down with no trade.  The short story is that thanks to fair value pricing the ETFs themselves have experienced no problems.  More on this tomorrow.

Chinese stock markets

After recently stabilizing and then rising by about 15%, Chinese stock markets gave up half their gains overnight, causing worry in global financial markets.

For what it’s worth, given that I don’t follow the mainland Chinese stock markets carefully, this is what I think is going on.

Three important factors:

–a government crackdown on real estate speculation has shunted tons of “hot” money into stocks

–Beijing didn’t pay much attention to direct and indirect margin trading ( indirect meaning commercial loans collateralized by stocks bought with loan proceeds, which avoid the letter of the law), thereby allowing speculators to leverage themselves very highly

–stock market rules set limits on the daily movement in individual stocks to + / – 10%.  The way this works is that the exchange attempts to set an opening price at the start of the day.   Let’s say yesterday’s close was 100.  The exchange sees there are sellers at 100 but no buyers.  So it waits a little while and then moves the proposed opening to 99.50. Again sellers but no buyers.  So it moves the proposed opening to 99.  Same thing.  So the proposed opening price continues to ratchet down either until buyers emerge or the proposed price reaches 90.  In the latter case, the price remains at 90 until either buyers appear or the trading day closes.  The same process happens the following day.  (Of course, there might be overwhelming upward pressure as well, in which case the price ratchets up without trade, or stocks might trade–as appears was the case overnight–for part of the day before reaching the daily limit price.)

snowballing downward pressure

A big problem with the daily limit system is that in times of stress often no selling gets done.  For speculators who get margin calls, this means that each day the amount they owe their broker rises (as the market falls) and they can’t take any action to stop the bleeding.  So a horrible sense of panic comes into the market.

The resulting downward spiral is what Beijing was trying to fix when it initiated extraordinary market stabilization measures a short while ago.

The first step in recovery is to stop the market decline.

The second–which is where we are now, I think–is to begin to unwind the enormous margin position that Beijing inadvertently allowed to develop.  The only way to do this is to gradually withdraw the official props under the market, not enough to have the market freeze up again but enough to allow selling to happen.  My guess is that this is what is starting to go on now.  The keys to watch are volume figures and the total value of transactions–the higher, the better.  Unfortunately, I can’t volume figures for today’s trade anywhere.

effects?

In my experience, most emerging stock markets have problems like this in their early days.  Once the crisis is over, authorities usually pay better attention to margin debt.  Invariably, they effectively dismantle the daily limit rule.

Typically, stock market problems have no overall negative effects on the economy.

In the short term, however, margin or redemption selling can create perverse market signals.  Forced sellers liquidate what they can, not necessarily what they want to.  This means, for example, that Hong Kong stocks can come under pressure.  It also suggests that smaller, low-quality stocks may outperform blue chips–the former will be suspended while the latter go down.

This can be a real disaster for margin speculators, who may be left with an account that technically has equity in it but is filled with unsalable junk.  On the other hand, the forced nature of a margin-related selloff can give new entrants a chance to buy high-quality stocks at distressed prices.

One seemingly odd sign that the worst is over will be a collapse in smaller stocks as larger ones are beginning to rise again.  This means that buyer interest is returning to the smaller ones and they’ve resumed trading, which is a much better state than they’re in today.

Another, perhaps lagging, indicator that the worst is over would be Beijing ending the daily trading limit rule.

How long will the cleansing process take?

I don’t know enough detail to have an educated guess.  A couple of months would be my initial estimate.

 

 

 

the impact of daily price fluctuation limits on Chinese stock trading

As I’ve said in prior posts, I have no desire to buy shares on mainland China’s stock exchanges.  Hong Kong is fine enough for me.

This has led me to not pay enough attention to what may be a key feature of trading there–daily price fluctuation limits of +/ – 10% per day.  What this means in the current context is that a given stock can trade down until it has fallen by the maximum 10%.  Unless/until there are buyers at the -10% level or better, there is no more trade in the stock that day.

While this was common practice in stock markets around the world several decades ago, and is the norm in commodities trading, it is no longer the case in most stock markets.

The reason is that it prevents markets from clearing quickly in times of stress.  It tends instead to increase investor fears and to deepen stock market losses, as well as lengthen the selloff period.  I first saw this very clearly in the cases of Mexico, Spain and Thailand during the market downturn of October 1987.  All three countries had daily fluctuation limits.  After a number of days of limit-down-no-trade, Mexican authorities loosened the bands and the market began to clear.  Spain and Thailand didn’t.  Both markets suffered severe selloffs that lasted for months.

 

Press reports on China have alluded to the daily price fluctuation rule there.  But the authors haven’t a clue as to its significance; they provide no useful information about how it is impacting trading.  They do indicate that many small caps aren’t trading, but that would likely be the case whether price limits were in effect or not.  (Typically, one of the early signs of market recovery is that small caps go down.  The positive signal is that buyers–at any price–have reemerged.)

The 10% rule may be having negative effects on Chinese stock markets. The way to tell would be to examine the most liquid stocks and see if they are closing on the lows, with the last trades significantly before the market close.  Given the behavior of the overall indices and the overall trading volumes, I don’t think this is the case to a crucial degree.  But at this point I’m not curious enough to check.

Even so, it seems to me that Beijing could shorten the period of margin-selling downward pressure on the market if it were to modify or eliminate its old-fashioned daily limit rules.

(a little) more on the Chinese margin crisis

Chinese stocks closed lower by about 5% overnight, as the margin selling spiral continues downward.

My thoughts:

–this very strongly suggests that some margin accounts that have enough equity in them a day ago are under water now.  So Shanghai and Shenzhen will likely open tonight to more selling.

–to be clear, I don’t know exactly how Chinese margin works.  And, because I have no intention of buying A shares, I have no desire to find out.  A logical step for authorities to stop forced selling would be to loosen margin collateral requirements.  It may be, however, that the government has decided that the best course is to wring speculation out of the market as quickly as possible.  In other words, despite its rhetoric, it’s content to see the selling play itself out fully.

–margin players tend to be their own worst enemies.  Taking both their margin and cash accounts into consideration, they tend to have a mishmash of high quality stocks and speculative junk.  Their margin accounts tend to be heavily weighted toward trash.  The junk is what’s most vulnerable to price declines, since it has little, if any, intrinsic merit.  The logical response to a margin call is to sell the trash and keep the quality names.  Margin players, in my experience, invariably do the opposite.  They sell their winners and keep their losers, exposing themselves to continuing margin calls and prolonging the overall market agony beyond what it should be.

–I’m still guessing that the current selling will exhaust itself within two weeks.

the Chinese stock market now

declining stocks

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.

margin trading

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.

cooling the Chinese stock market fever

In the 1990s, Alan Greenspan, the head of the Fed back then, famously warned against “irrational exuberance” in the US stock market, but did nothing to stop it   …this even though he had the ability to cool the market down by tightening the rules on margin lending.  This is the stock market  analogue to raising or lowering the Fed Funds rate to influence the price of credit, but has never been used seriously in the US during my working life.

The  Bank of Japan has no such compunctions.  It has been very willing to chasten/encourage speculatively minded retail investors by tightening/loosening the criteria for borrowing money to buy stocks.

 

We have no real history to generalize from in the case of China.  But moves in recent weeks by the Chinese securities markets regulator seem to indicate that Beijing will fall into the stomp-on-the-brakes camp.

Specifically,

–at the end of last month, the regulator allowed (ordered?) domestic mutual funds to invest in shares in Hong Kong, where mainland-listed firms’ shares are trading at hefty discounts to their prices in Shanghai

–highly leveraged “umbrella trusts” cooked up by Chinese banks to circumvent margin eligibility requirements have been banned,

–a new futures product, based on small and mid-cap stocks, has been created, offering speculators the opportunity to short this highly heated sector for the first time, and

–effective today, institutional investors in China are being allowed to lend out their holdings–providing short-sellers with the wherewithal to ply their trade (although legal, short-selling hasn’t been a big feature of domestic Chinese markets until now, because there wasn’t any easy way to obtain share to sell short).

What does all this mean?

The simplest conclusion is that Beijing wants to pop what it sees as a speculative stock market bubble on the mainland.  It is possible, however, that more monetary stimulus–to prop up rickety state-owned enterprises or loony regional government-sponsored real estate projects–is in the pipeline and Beijing simply wants to dampen the potential future effects on stocks.

I have no idea which view is correct.

It’s clear, however, that Hong Kong is going to be a port in any storm, and that it is going to be increasingly used as a safety valve to absorb upward market pressure from the mainland.  So relative gains vs. Shanghai seem assured.  Whether that means absolute gains remains to be seen, although I personally have no inclination to trim my HK holdings.

 

 

speculation: stabilizing or destabilizing?

In the Panglossian world of academic finance, all markets are self-regulating and all participants are rational economic agents with the same information and motivations.

Commodity trading, where there are two different classes of market participant, with different knowledge levels and goals, really doesn’t fit in this model,.  On the one hand, farmers and miners, who are typically large corporations, want to guarantee a minimum level of cash flow for their operations.  They do so by selling a certain portion of their output for future delivery through any of a variety of kinds of commodity contracts.  The firms are deeply knowledgeable about the products they produce and sell, and they employ highly paid professional traders to do their commodity trading.  These are the hedgers.

And then there’s everyone else.

An obvious question is why someone would take the other side of the hedgers’ trades, given their superior information and high degree of trading skill.  Clearly, however, someone does, since we know that companies are routinely able to hedge their output.  Academics call these counterparties speculators.

To the academic world, it follows that speculators are a stabilizing influence.  They help to regularize the cash flows of potentially highly cyclical companies; commodities futures/forwards prices would also be higher than they are if speculators didn’t step in to take the other side of the hedgers’ trades.

In its most basic form, that’s the academic theory.

One trouble with the theory is that it’s just a generalization of the way commodities markets worked a generation ago, mixed in with the semi-religious belief in an “invisible hand” that ensures a favorable outcome in economic affairs. Worse, the basic metaphor no longer fits the facts–if it ever did.  Two examples:

1.  the silver market.  The broadening of commodities trading access to large numbers of private individuals, and the rise of commodities-oriented ETFs that give indirect access to a larger, less-affluent group, mean that some commodities markets are no longer dominated by hedgers. The “other guys” are now running the show.  And their recent behavior in silver is, to my eye, anything but stabilizing.

2.  the oil market.  Oil is an extremely economically important commodity.  Demand is highly inflexible.  Supply and demand are finely balanced.  As a result, it’s possible for speculators–whether private individuals, hedge funds or the commodity trading arms of commercial and investment banks–to be only a small fraction of all trading but still exert enough upward pressure on prices to make them, say, 10% higher (or lower) than they otherwise would be.  Prices might be stable in the sense that they don’t fluctuate much.  But a movement of this size means a major redistribution of wealth around the world.  Great for oil-producing countries, not so hot for everyone else.

In these instances, at least, speculators are a destabilizing force.

The recent ad hoc action of commodities exchanges in raising margin requirements appears to have pricked speculative bubbles in a number of commodities.  But I think it would be better for all of us if we had better regulation and a coherent framework for action.