thinking about China: deflating a stock market bubble

For most of the 30 years I’ve been watching China-related securities, the mainland stock markets have been an afterthought for virtually all foreign investors.  The same for the authorities in Beijing, as far as I can see.  They seem to have regarded the equity markets as a vehicle for funding moribund state-owned enterprises that no bureaucrat in his right mind would give money to.

The mainland markets have gradually morphed over the past decade into something more interesting, as smaller, more innovative firms elbowed their way in.  But the market remains very hard for foreigners to gain access to, and is arguably still not worth the trouble.  The real action remains in Hong Kong.


Last year, faced with a bubble in the domestic property market created by a flood of investment money with no place else to go, Beijing decided to redirect this flow of funds to the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets.

In solving one problem, however, Beijing created another.

The issue was partly that the mainland exchanges were going through the roof in US-internet-bubble fashion.  In addition, however, the rise was fueled in large part by borrowed money.  Worse, this consisted not only of official margin lending but also by huge amounts of sub rosa margin disguised as either uncollateralized borrowing or debt secured by businesses or property.  No one knew how large this total debt was–only that it was gigantic, and that inexperienced retail equity investors had leveraged themselves to the sky because they had taken government encouragement as a guarantee against losses.


As/when the market peaks and begins to decline, margin loans come due.  When speculators can’t add more money to margin accounts (as is inevitably the case), this triggers forced margin selling that feeds on itself and turns into an avalanche of downward pressure.  Once selling starts, it can be almost impossible to stop.  Of course, as soon as potential buyers realize what’s going on, they withdraw and wait for the market to hit bottom.

This precarious development in Shanghai/Shenzhen is not a unique phenomenon.  The same thing happened in 1985 in Singapore/Malaysia, in 1987 in Hong Kong, and in 1997-98 in many smaller Asian markets.  In hindsight, Beijing could possibly have averted the crisis by raising margin requirements and by cracking down on unofficial margin loans by financial institutions.  But it didn’t.

Beijing seems to me, however, to have followed the standard protocol for dealing with a mammoth overhang of margin selling and restoring order to the market, namely:

  1.  identifying and cutting off borrowing sources

2.  prohibiting short sellers from exacerbating the problem by speculative selling

3.  buying enough stock, either directly or indirectly, to reduce forced selling to a level that the market can handle unaided

4.  allowing the market, once functioning again, to clear by itself.

The way I look at it, we’re in #4 now.

One other comment:

in the US, the rise and fall of the stock market is regarded as the most powerful leading indicator of future economic performance.  I don’t think that what’s going on in Shanghai/Shenzhen stock trading has much macroeconomic significance.  Rather, the China stock market fall is an obstacle that every emerging market encounters on the way to stock market maturity.











more on oil

As I was thinking about this post, I knew that oil is a complicated subject and that there’s a risk of getting lost in the details.  So I decided to sketch out the structure of the post carefully on paper before I began to write.  Several pages of notes later, I abandoned the attempt, in favor of extreme simplicity (I hope).


Like any other mineral commodity, oil is subject to boom and bust cycles.  We’re now in bust, meaning that supply is structurally higher than demand, exerting continuous downward pressure on prices.

As with any other commodity, prices will stay low until supply and demand come back into balance.  The slow way for this to happen is for demand, now at about 93 million barrels per day and growing at 1%+ per year, to expand.  The fast way is for prices to stay low enough, long enough for high-cost producers to go out of business.  As I see it, adjustment will primarily come the fast way.

Oil is peculiar, though, in two respects, both of which argue that prices will stay low for a considerable time:

–many major oil producing countries (e.g., the Middle East, Russia) have relatively simple economies that are radically dependent on exports of oil for government income.  Over the past year, OPEC oil output has actually risen by about 1.5 million barrels per day, despite the expanding glut.  This indicates that, unlike prior periods of oversupply, the group has no desire to try to moderate the downturn.

–the long-term geological damage to a big oilfield from turning the taps off and on can be great.  So producers are more hesitant than in other industries to do so.

the catalyst

Arguably, what has upset the pricing applecart is the unanticipated surge in oil production in the US, which was 5.6 million barrels per day this time in 2011 and is 9.5 million today.  Hydraulic fracturing is the reason for this.

where to from here?

US oil production is still averaging more than a million barrels per day higher than in 2014.  However, the steady month by month march upward of output figures may have been broken in May, when liftings were about 200,000 barrels a day less than in April.

My guess (and I’m doing little more than plucking numbers out of the air) is that at $50 a barrel or below, new fracking projects won’t get started. Under $40 a barrel, some wells may be shut in.  If a production falloff comes solely through the former mechanism, we’re probably a year away from a meaningful (translation:  more than a million barrels, but after that, who knows) decline in fracking output.

That would likely mean a higher oil price then than now, IF (…a big “if”) OPEC nations desperate for cash don’t up their production further.

what I’m doing

I have no desire to buy oil stocks today, because I think we’re not that far along in getting supply and demand back into balance.  In the early 1980s, for example, the entire process from top to bottom took about half a decade.  I’m also thinking that there might either be another sharp price decline, or simply a further sharp selloff in oil stocks before the current oversupply is over.  I’ve just started to think about what I might buy if either were to happen.  One thing is certain, though.  It won’t be the big oils, or tar sands, or LNG.

more than you ever wanted to know

When I started on Wall Street as an oil analyst, oil and natural gas sold for roughly the same price per unit of heating power.  Natural gas has been less than half the cost of oil on a heating equivalent basis for many years, however, because it isn’t in widespread use as a transportation fuel and because it takes a pipeline to deliver it to customers.  Natural gas is already being substituted for coal in power generation.  Will it ever have a dampening effect on the ability of the oil price to rise?

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.