the Chinese currency and the Chinese stock market

Throughout my financial career I’ve found that in sizing up currency markets traders from the big banks have always been ten steps ahead of me.

I’ve hopefully learned to live with this–meaning that because I’m never going to outthink them I believe my best currency strategy should have two parts:

–to avoid making future currency movements a major element in constructing my portfolio, and

–to be a “fast follower” if I can–that is, to figure out from a trend change what the banks must be thinking and to consider getting on board if I think the trend is going to have legs.


China has moved the price at which it will buy and sell renminbi down by 1.9% yesterday and by another 1.6% today.  Informed market speculation seems to be that another couple of downward moves of the same magnitude are in the offing.

From a domestic policy perspective, China would prefer a strong currency to a weaker one.  As I mentioned yesterday, the country has run out of cheap labor and must, therefore, transition away from the highly polluting, cheap labor employing, export-oriented basic manufacturing that is the initial staple of any developing country.  This kind of business has been the bread and butter of many Chinese companies, some of them state-owned, for decades.  Many are resisting Beijing’s call to change.  The strong currency is a club Beijing can use to beat them into submission.  In this sense, the fact that the renminbi has appreciated by 10%+ against other developing countries’ currencies over the past year, and by around the same amount against the euro, China’s largest trading partner, is a good thing.

On the other hand, the developed world has made it clear to China that if it wants to be included in the club that sets world financial policy, and in particular if it wants the renminbi to be a world reserve currency, the renminbi cannot be rigidly controlled by Beijing.  It must float, meaning trade more or less freely against other world currencies.  So China has a long-term interest in doing what it has started to do yesterday–to allow the currency to move as market forces drive it.

Why now, though?

World stock markets seem to be thinking that a severe erosion of China’s GDP growth is behind the move toward a currency float–that it’s backsliding from a committment to structural reform.

I’m not so sure.

I think what currency traders have concluded is that Beijing has enough money to prop up its stock market and enough to keep its currency at the present overvalued level–but not both.  So they’re borrowing renminbi  and selling it in the government-controlled market in the hope of pushing down the currency and buying back at a lower price.  Understanding what’s going on, and realizing the risks in defending a too-high currency level, Beijing is bending in the wind.  Doing so limits the amount of money that can be made this way, effectively short-circuiting the strategy.

Offshore renminbi, which can’t be repatriated into China, trade about 5% cheaper that domestic renminbi.  That’s where we should get the next indication of how far renminbi selling will go.

As far as my personal stock investing goes, my strong inclination is to bet that renminbi-related fears are way overblown.  I’ like to see markets calm down a bit before I stick a toe in the water, though.






the Chinese renminbi “devaluation”


Every day the Chinese government sets a mid-point for trading of its currency prior to opening.  The renminbi is then allowed to trade within a 2% band on either side of the setting.  At this morning’s setting, Beijing put the mid-point 1.9% lower than it was yesterday.  This is an unusually large amount and can be (is being) read as an effective devaluation of the currency.

What does this really mean?


In the late 1970s, when China made its turn away from Mao and toward western economics, it chose the tried-and-true road toward prosperity trod by every other successful post-WWII nation.  It tied its currency to the dollar and offered access to cheap local labor in return for technology transfer.

Late in the last decade, the country ran out of cheap labor.  So it was forced to begin to transform its economy from export-oriented, labor-intensive manufacturing to higher value-added more capital-intensive output and toward domestic rather than foreign demand.  The orthodox, and almost always not so successful, method of kicking off this transition is to encourage a large appreciation of the currency.  That causes low-end production to leave for cheaper labor countries like Vietnam or Afghanistan.

China, armed with a cadre of young, creative economists with PhDs from the best universities in the West, decided to do things slightly  differently–to hold the currency relatively stable and to boost domestic wages by a lot to achieve the same end of making export-oriented manufacturing uneconomic.  The idea is that this doesn’t bring the economy to screeching halt in the way currency appreciation does.  So far this approach seems to be working–although the shift does involve slower growth and a lot of domestic disruption.

At the same time, forewarned by the immense damage done to Asian economies by speculative activity by the currency desks of the major international banks during the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, China elected not to let its currency trade freely.

what’s changed?

For some years, China has been upset about the fact that despite being the biggest global manufacturing power, and by Purchasing Power Parity measure the largest economy on earth, it has virtually no say in world financial or trade regulatory bodies.  Those are dominated by the US and EU.  The main reason for China’s limited influence is that its financial system isn’t open.  (The other, of course, is that fearing China organizations like the new US-led Pacific trade alliance pointed excludes the Middle Kingdom.)

So China has been gradually lessening state control over the banks, the financial markets and the currency, in hopes of being admitted into the inner sanctums of bodies like the IMF.

In one sense, this is why China is becoming less rigid in its control of renminbi trading.

why now?

There’s no “good” time to let a currency float.  China doesn’t want to cede control over currency movements at a time when the renminbi might appreciate a lot, since that would be a severe contractionary force.  On the other hand, it doesn’t want the currency to fall through the floor either, since that would result in new export plants sprouting up all over the place.

China is growing more slowly than normal and is experiencing currency outflows as a result of that.  Letting the currency slide a bit relieves some of the pressure–although it may simultaneously attract speculators to try to push the renminbi lower.  So, yes, it is a sign of economic weakness.  At the same time, the loosening comes shortly before the IMF will decide on admitting the renminbi as one of its reserve currencies.  And it follows by a few months Beijing allowing banks to issue certificates of deposit at market rates, rather than at yields set by central planners.  So it’s also a step toward a healthier, more economically advanced, future.

my take

I think worries about the stability of the Chinese economy are overblown.  I also think that traders are using the Beijing move as an excuse for selling that they’ve been wanting to do anyway.  Beijing may have been the trigger for this, but it isn’t the cause.





how one China-related ETF has fared

Yesterday I mentioned a Factset article about the trading behavior of China-related ETFs during the current market gyrations in Shanghai and Shenzhen.  It focuses on the Deutsche X-trackers Harvest CSI 500 China-A Shares Small Cap ETF (ASHS).  Quite a mouthful.

ASHS opened for business last year and has about $41 million in assets.  Its goal is to track the performance of 500 Chinese small caps.  It holds all of the names in the appropriate proportions, to the extent that it can.  Where it can’t, it finds the best proxies available.

Year to date through yesterday, ASHS has risen by 37%+.

The fund melted up in mid-June, however.  Its price rose by 40% from June 8th through June 10th alone, at which time it had y-t-d performance of +113%.

The bottom fell out in the following month, when ASHS lost slightly more than half its value–before bouncing back up by +30% over the past few weeks.

Two points about ASHS:

1.  The fund uses fair value pricing, which is the industry norm in the US.  Fair value pricing, usually performed by a third party the fund hires, does two things:

—-it adjusts the prices of foreign securities in markets that are closed during New York trading for information that has come to light after their last trade, and

—-it gives an estimate for the value of securities that are not trading for one reason or another on a given day.

(Note: in my experience, both types of adjustment are surprisingly reliable.)

This second feature has doubtless come in handy over the past couple of months, since there have been days when as many as half of the Chinese small caps haven’t traded.


2.  A mutual fund transacts once a day, through the management company, after the market close and at Net Asset Value.

In contrast, an ETF like ASHS trades continuously during the day, through a number of broker dealers (Authorized Participants), and not necessarily at NAV.

The idea is that these middlemen will use the very cheap brokerage record systems for fund transactions, thus keeping administrative costs down–and that the brokers will use their market making and inventory capability as a way of minimizing the daily flows in and out of the ETF portfolio.

In June, this worked out in an interesting, and ultimately stabilizing way for ASHS.

As I mentioned above, the market price of ASHS rose by 40% over two days in mid-June.  We know that, according to Chinese trading rules, the stocks in the portfolio itself could rise in value by at most 10% daily, or 21% over two days.  I can’t imagine the ASHS fair value pricing service decided that the portfolio was actually worth 40% more than two days earlier when the market signal was twenty-ish.  If I’m correct, the broker dealers decided to meet (presumably large) demand for ASHS shares by letting the premium to NAV expand substantially  …by 20%?…thereby choking some of the demand off, rather than issue a ton of new ASHS shares at a lower price.

According to Factset, the brokers did create new shares.  But they apparently lent at least some of them to short sellers, who sold them in the market, further tamping down demand.

So the Authorized Participants performed their market-making function admirably–presumably making a boatload of money in the process.   But this situation illustrates that the worst fears of possible ETF illiquidity in crisis times may be overblown.






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.


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.




three weird things that happened this week

1.  Greece  After months of vitriolic negotiations and after calling a referendum in which it successfully campaigned to have Greece vote against accepting a financial bailout from the EU/IMF, the Greek government appears today to have accepted that bailout.

2.  Chinese stocks  After plunging for a month, Chinese stocks have risen by 10% over the past two trading days.  The world is breathing a sigh of relief.  I’m not sure what’s weirder–that this happened or that foreigners believed for a short while that in a country where doing anti-social stuff can get you either a long prison term or beheading, rather than the cover of Forbes, China would be unable to achieve this outcome.  Actually, the foreign belief is way weirder.

3.  Microsoft/Nokia  Less than fifteen months after acquiring the cellphones business of Nokia, MSFT has discovered that what it bought for over $7 billion (led by mastermind Steve Ballmer) is essentially worthless and is writing off virtually the entire purchase price.  The stock went up on the news.

Which is weirder:  that the MSFT board that rubber-stamped this disaster is still intact?  …or that people are still buying Clippers season tickets?   I suppose you could argue that Nokia was the price for getting rid of Ballmer, which would imply that the behavior of Clippers fans is weirder.

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.