The U.S. shines amid global worries. Here are five strategies for profiting from the economy's relative health in your investing, spending, and saving.
The pace of U.S. growth may be more minivan than Ferrari, but the economy is nonetheless motoring along. Gross domestic product is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to grow 3.1% in 2015. That will put the U.S. ahead of most of its peers, which are facing serious headwinds: Europe may slip into its third recession since the financial crisis, and Japan’s stimulus effort hasn’t revved up its economic engines. China, meanwhile, is trying to maneuver slowing growth into a soft landing.
To make sure growth here doesn’t stall out, the Fed will likely wait till late 2015 to raise rates, and any increase is expected to be small and gradual. That’s still good news, though. “The U.S. economy is in a position to withstand the beginning of interest rates rising—something our trade partners can’t do yet,” says Chun Wang, senior analyst at the Leuthold Group.
Our relative health should continue to lure global investors to U.S. stocks and bonds. That in turn should support the almighty buck. After rising about 5% against a basket of currencies of our major trade partners this year, the dollar could gain another 5% in 2015, Wang says.
A stronger dollar means cheaper overseas travel and cheaper imports—and the latter should keep inflation from picking up momentum as well.
Here’a five-step action plan for profiting off U.S. versus them.
Move to the middle on bonds. While bonds that mature in less than three years are usually considered the safest, “short-term high-grade bonds could be the most vulnerable in 2015 if the Fed starts raising rates as expected,” says Lisa Black, interim chief investment officer for the TIAA General Account. Because the recovery here has been so much stronger than in the rest of the world, global investors will continue to favor 10-year Treasuries, putting upward pressure on prices and keeping a lid on yields. Thus short-term rates, over which the Fed has more influence, are likely to see a much bigger rise relative to their current level.
If you’ve kept a big chunk of bond money in short-term mutual or exchange-traded funds recently—either to hedge inflation risk or to get more yield on cash—get back to an intermediate strategy in 2015. MONEY 50 fund Dodge & Cox Income DODGE & COX INCOME COM NPV DODIX -0.7931% yields 2.5%, vs. less than 0.8% for Vanguard’s Short-Term Bond Fund.
Bet on cyclical stocks. LPL chief investment strategist Burt White—who forecasts a mid- to high-single-digit return for the U.S. stock market in 2015—expects to see above-average performance in sectors that do better when consumers and businesses have more money to spend. In particular, he says, industrial and technology stocks should benefit if the strong economy motivates corporations to invest in systems upgrades. He recommends Industrial Select SPDR ETF INDUSTRIAL SELECT SECTOR SPDR ETF XLI 0.9542% , as well as PowerShares QQQ ETF POWERSHARES QQQ NASDAQ 100 QQQ 0.2492% , which tracks the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100.
Eke more out of your cash. In 2014 the average money-market account paid a mere 0.08%, and that yield isn’t likely to grow in any meaningful way in 2015. But don’t just give up on your savings.
Move cash you need accessible—like emergency funds—to an online bank such as MySavingsDirect, which yielded 1.05% recently, suggests Ken Tumin of DepositAccounts.com. If you have $25,000-plus to deposit, you can earn 1.25% at UFB Direct. Use the rest of your savings to build a CD ladder. Divide the sum into five buckets and deposit equal amounts in one- to five-year CDs. As each comes due, roll it into a five-year to benefit from rising rates. Based on current yields, you’ll earn an average 1.6%.
Head south. The dollar now buys nearly 8% more euros and 13% more yen than a year ago. That will make travel to Europe and Japan less expensive, but it still won’t be cheap. For great value—and some stunning photos besides—consider Costa Rica, says Anne Banas, editor of SmarterTravel.com.
The dollar is up 7% against the colon in the past year, making the country more of a bargain than it already was. Located in the rainforests of Arenal Volcano National Park on the Pacific Coast, the five-star Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort—one of TripAdvisor’s 2014 winners for luxury—starts at $260 a night, for example. And flights from major U.S. cities can be found for $400.
Expect the unexpected. When stocks were spooked in September by Ebola reaching U.S. shores and increased U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, the S&P 500 fell 7% but European shares sunk 13%. U.S. stocks continued to lead when investors returned to focusing on economic growth.
While it’s impossible to predict what will rattle the markets in 2015, what you can do is take stock of your fortitude. If you persevered and profited from this recent snap back, plan for another in 2015 and bet on U.S. outperformance.
On the other hand, if you panicked and sold stocks, dial back your equity exposure by, say, five percentage points if it will keep you hanging on to your allocation in rough seas. Redirect that money to U.S. Treasuries. Jack Ablin, chief investment officer for BMO Private Bank, says that these should benefit from a crisis: “It’s remarkable how Treasuries and the U.S. dollar are the newly appointed safe-haven vehicles for the world.”
Beijing moves to support an economy growing at its slowest rate in five years
China’s central bank cut its official interest rates for the first time in two years Friday, in a surprise move that sent international stock and commodity markets sharply higher.
The action by the People’s Bank of China, which comes in response to a string of disappointing economic data and increasing signs of tension in local money markets, is the authorities’ strongest show of support in months.
The economy is currently growing at its slowest rate since 2009, and while Beijing has tried to appear relaxed about that, surveys are now showing output stagnating and jobs being shed across the key manufacturing sector.
The PBoC’s action also adds to the trend of central banks across the world easing monetary policy to fight off a growing threat of deflation–a trend that goes in the opposite direction to the U.S., where the Federal Reserve is preparing to tighten policy as the economic recovery gains traction after six years of emergency measures.
The PBoC cut its one-year deposit rate by 0.25 percentage points to 2.75% and the one-year lending rate by 0.40 percentage points to 5.6%.
It timed its announcement to come after the close of financial markets in China, but European stock markets surged on the news, as did prices for commodities such as crude oil. The benchmark contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose by $1.50 a barrel, or 2.5%, to its highest level in two weeks, while in Europe, the German DAX index soared 2% and the U.K.’s FTSE 100 rose 1.0%.
European markets were also buoyed by a strongly-worded speech by European Central Bank President Mario Draghi promising aggressive action to ensure the Eurozone doesn’t fall into deflation.
Official interest rates don’t have quite the same function in China’s economy as they do in western ones, due to their interplay with other tools, such as caps on deposit rates and statutory reserve requirements. And the market for money is in any case effectively sealed off from the rest of the world by China’s capital controls. As such, they may not have the same kind of stimulating effect that a similar move by, for example, the Federal Reserve (in the days before the 2008 crisis).
Interestingly, the PBoC also relaxed its control of the amount that banks can offer for deposits. They can now offer 1.2 times the benchmark rate, rather than 1.1 times. These range from 0.35% to 4% depending on maturity. The PBoC enforces a strict cap of 75% on loan-to-deposit ratios in the banking system.
Taken together, the measures look designed to support liquidity into a banking system that is facing challenges on a number of fronts. The sector is seeing a sharp rise in bad loans, especially to real estate developers and construction companies, which is hitting revenue. In addition, banks are also looking to raise capital themselves and amass cash to service clients’ demands for other stock offerings that are due next week in China.
Earlier Friday, the PBoC had felt the need to issue a statement via its account on the Chinese Twitter-equivalent Weibo reassuring market participants that liquidity was “ample”. Benchmark one-week interbank rates had risen by an alarming 0.2o percentage point to 3.48% earlier, according to the Wall Street Journal.
All hail the almighty greenback!
Ever since the Wall Street financial crisis of 2008, predictions of the dollar’s demise have come fast and furious. As the U.S. economy sank into recession, so too did confidence that the greenback could maintain its long-held position as the world’s No.1 currency. In Beijing, Moscow and elsewhere, policymakers railed against the dollar-dominated global financial system as detrimental to world economic stability and vowed to find a replacement. Central bankers in the emerging world complained that the primacy of the dollar allowed American economic policy to send shock waves through the global economy that roil their own markets and currencies.
But here we are, six years after the crisis, and the dollar is showing just how resilient it actually is. The dollar index, which measures the greenback’s value vs. a basket of other currencies, has reached a four-year high. Those policymakers who bitterly criticize the dollar show little actual interest in dumping it. The amount of U.S. Treasury securities held by China stands at a whopping $1.27 trillion.
The newfound strength of the dollar makes perfect sense. Sure, the world economic landscape is changing, with new rising powers like China and India, whose currencies may one day rival the U.S. dollar. But the buoyancy of the greenback is a reflection of today’s reality: the U.S. is the lone, significant bright spot among the world’s major economies. GDP in the third quarter grew an annualized 3.5% — far higher than other industrialized economies. That’s why the Federal Reserve has wrapped up its long-running and highly unorthodox economic-stimulus program known as quantitative easing, or QE, which, by spilling a torrent of dollars into global financial markets, was one factor behind the currency’s weakness in recent years.
Meanwhile, most of America’s key trading partners are heading in the opposite direction. The European Central Bank (ECB) is widely expected to start its own QE program to try to combat potential deflation and jolt sagging growth in the euro zone. That’s why the euro’s value against the dollar has been sinking to levels last seen two years ago. If the ECB does act, downward pressure on Europe’s common currency will likely intensify.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the central bank on Oct. 31 surprised markets by greatly broadening its own monetary-expansion program in an attempt to rescue Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s stumbling initiatives to revive the long-slumbering Japanese economy, nicknamed Abenomics. The yen tumbled to a seven-year low against the dollar as a result. Research firm Capital Economics predicts that the Bank of Japan’s (BOJ) action will help push the Japanese currency all the way down to 120 yen to the dollar by the end of 2015, from about 112 today.
The dollar has been gaining against some emerging-market currencies as well. Faced with slowing growth and the strain of economic sanctions, Russia’s ruble has been hitting repeated all-time lows against the dollar. Not even an interest-rate hike by Russia’s central bank on Friday has been able to stem the slide. On top of that, though that pressure has eased, the currencies of India, Indonesia and many other emerging economies still have not recovered their strength from when they tanked last year, after the Fed first signaled it was scaling back its stimulus activities.
How long can the good times roll for the U.S. dollar? That depends on many factors, from the future growth of U.S. GDP to the health of the global economy and upcoming Fed decisions on interest rates. Yet with central-bank policy in the most advanced economies sharply diverging — the Fed tightening, the ECB and BOJ loosening — the dollar could see continued gains. Some economists believe the conditions are in place for an extended period of dollar strength, perhaps lasting several years. “The building blocks are still in place for a sustained dollar rally,” analysts at financial giant Barclays concluded in a recent report.
The fact remains, too, that no other currency has emerged to truly rival the dollar as the world’s No.1 choice. The uncertain stability of the euro was exposed by its multiyear sovereign-debt crisis and the chaotic response to it from Europe’s leaders. And even though Beijing has high hopes to transform the Chinese currency, the yuan, into an international powerhouse, policymakers there have been extremely slow to introduce the financial reforms that would make that a real possibility.
Of course, there are still long-term factors at play that could knock away the pillars of dollar dominance. Russia and China, for instance, recently pledged to settle more trade between the two nations in rubles and yuan. But for now, the dollar reigns supreme, as well it should.
Last week's tumultuous week in the stock market sets the stage for yet more nervousness and hand-wringing as a fresh set of earnings and economic data are due to be released.
When Wall Street opens for business on Monday morning, will bad news about the global economy be bad news for stocks?
That was the case for most of last week, when the equity market was hit with a frightening sell-off that reminded investors of the bad old days of the financial crisis.
Or will bad news turn out to be good news for the market, as was the case on Friday, when the Dow Jones industrial average soared more than 260 points?
Friday’s dramatic rebound in stock prices reflected two forces that are likely to move the market in the coming days.
Keep an Eye on the Fed
At the end of this month, the Federal Reserve is slated to end its stimulative bond-buying program known as quantitative easing.
Investors are naturally nervous about this development, as quantitive easing, or QE, has been credited for the strength and length of what is now a five-and-a-half-year-old bull market. As many market observers have noted, Wall Street is about to lose a major psychological crutch.
Remember that when the Fed ended its prior two rounds of quantitative easing — in 2010 and 2011 — stocks sold off fairly quickly:
But late last week, when the market was in the throes of a selloff, St. Louis Fed president James Bullard said in a Bloomberg TV interview that “we could go on pause on the taper at this juncture and wait until we see how the data shakes out into December.”
In other words, a member of the Federal Open Market Committee that sets the nation’s interest rate policy is openly mulling whether the Fed should postpone ending QE in light of recent market volatility.
Bullard’s remarks on Thursday were enough to give the markets a lift in the last two days of the week. And if there are more signs of a major global economic slowdown, including a possible recession in Europe and Japan, then the Fed may have to think twice about how — and how soon — it ends its stimulus efforts.
This week, investors will want to see if more members of the FOMC sound similar conciliatory notes of extending QE. So far, no one else has. Boston Fed president Eric Rosengren, a major defender of QE, said on Friday that he does not expect the Fed to extend the program at this juncture.
What else should investors look for?
- Wednesday’s inflation report from the Department of Labor. If the global economic slowdown is starting to impact the U.S., we will start to see it in the form of lower prices for U.S. consumers.
- Thursday’s report on the index of leading economic indicators from the Conference Board. The LEI is forward-looking barometer of economic trends, so if the global slowdown is likely to affect the U.S. in the coming months, this index should offer clues.
Keep an Eye on Earnings
Last week’s bloody selloff was peppered by major earnings disappointments on Wall Street. For instance, there was Netflix, which reported that subscriber growth wasn’t as strong as expected and saw its stock lose more than a quarter of its value on Wednesday. Google also disappointed Wall Street on earnings and revenue growth, as well as on paid clicks on ad links.
The idea is that if Wall Street is about to lose its QE crutch, it will have to fall back on the fundamentals — so corporate profit reports will have to look good.
On Friday, a slew of companies led by General Electric and Honeywell announced better-than-expected results, which helped drive stocks higher at the end of the week.
Yet the mood on Wall Street regarding earnings is somewhat pessimistic. The strengthening U.S. dollar, brought about by the global economic slowdown, is expected to crimp global profits for U.S. exporters.
This week, several high-profile earnings announcements are due to be released. Here are the major ones to look for:
- On Monday, Apple is due to report its results after the closing bell. Everything Apple reports is news these days.
- On Tuesday, Coca-Cola will reports its results before the market opens. No company is as exposed to the global economy as Coke is.
- On Wednesday, Boeing is set to reveal its earnings before the market opens. The global slowdown is expected to hurt U.S. exporters, and Boeing could be a sign of how bad things have become.
- On Thursday, Amazon.com will report after the bell. Amazon isn’t just a bellwether of the tech economy, it is now a key gauge of the health of the U.S. consumer.
Volatility is back with vengeance, and it's being felt throughout the financial markets.
Updated: 4:30 pm
Volatility is back with a vengeance on Wall Street.
The Dow Jones industrial average plunged around 450 points on Wednesday afternoon before recovering to close at 175 points down, marking the sixth day in October that the stock market has suffered triple-digit losses. The Dow, which had been trading as high as 17,145 at the end of September, sank to below 15,900 before ending the day at 16,141.
This capped off the worst three-day sell off for the broad market since 2011.
Small-company stocks — considered the market’s canary in the coal mine, since they’re more easily rattled by changes in the economy due to their size — sank around 1% on Wednesday and are in an official correction, defined as a 10% drop in value over an extended period. Micro-cap stocks, the tiniest sub-set of small stocks, also fell and they’re only a few percentage points off from an official bear market, or a 20% decline.
Wall Street is having flashbacks to the bad old days in the aftermath of the global financial panic, when there were real concerns that the global economy might slip back into a deflationary and recessionary spiral.
Right now, the big worry is that Europe and Japan will soon suffer their third recessions in the past six years. Policymakers in both countries are scrambling to find ways to jumpstart growth, yet their central banks are running out of ammunition.
Meanwhile China, once viewed as the engine driving global growth, has been slowing noticeably in recent quarters and can‘t find a way to reaccelerate, as it works through its own housing and financial crisis.
“While domestic growth is robust, slowing economies abroad have the potential to upset the recovery,” notes Jack Ablin, chief investment officer for BMO Private Bank.
Those global growth concerns are now being reflected in two troubling trends.
First, there’s the plunge in crude oil prices. While a barrel of crude oil traded above $100 a barrel as recently as this summer, prices fell to around $81 a barrel on Wednesday morning. Falling oil prices are often viewed as a good thing — since lower energy costs free up households and businesses to spend on other things. Yet the fact is, people aren’t necessarily spending that money on other things.
Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist for Barclays Capital, noted that U.S. retail sales fell 0.3% in September. “The main downside surprise in this report,” he said, came in core retail sales — which strips out volatile food an energy prices — fell 0.2%. He said that was “against our expectation for a four-tenths rise.”
Moreover, the price of oil sometimes doesn’t cause good things so much as it reflects bad things already in the economy.
Right now, investors may be asking: “Is this the moment of truth when lower oil is signaling lower demand?” says Neal Dihora, an analyst with Morningstar.
Similarly, fears over the global economy tends to drive investors into slow-growing but safe assets, like Treasury bonds. And this morning, the yield on the 10-year Treasury fell below the 2% threshold for the first time since June 2013, a worrisome trend as MONEY’s Pat Regnier points out.
Even more troubling is the possibility that the market is telling us that the financial crisis may not be squarely in the rear view mirror.
BMO’s Ablin noted:
“Decades of debt accumulation touched off the 2008 financial crisis and critics argue that the solution, quantitative easing programs, simply shifted borrowing from the private sector to the public sector. The Fed’s primary lever since the Greenspan years, boosting asset prices and enticing borrowing by lowering interest rates, is no longer working now that short-term rates are effectively zero. Scarred by the financial meltdown and an underwater mortgage, households have had a change of heart and are now more interested in reducing debt.”
And as investors are keenly aware, reducing debt doesn’t help stimulate economic activity.
The city can't remain a global financial center without its own political process
The conventional wisdom about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests is that they are bad for business. Hong Kong has become one of the world’s three premier financial centers (along with New York City and London) because the city has been a bastion of stability in an ever changing region, the thinking goes, and therefore the tens of thousands of protesters who paralyzed downtown Hong Kong on Monday are a threat to its economic success. The Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, used just such an argument to try to persuade the protesters to clear the streets. “These activists are jeopardizing the global image of Hong Kong, and presenting the world with the turbulent face of the city,” it said in an editorial on Monday.
That worry isn’t merely Beijing propaganda. Andrew Colquhoun, head of Asia-Pacific sovereign ratings at Fitch, said one of the big questions facing Hong Kong over the long term is “whether the political standoff eventually impacts domestic and foreign perceptions of Hong Kong’s stability and attractiveness as an investment destination.” The fallout for Hong Kong’s financial sector from the Occupy Central movement was immediate. The stock market dropped, banks closed branches, and the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the de facto central bank, had to reassure the investor community that it would “inject liquidity into the banking system as and when necessary” to overcome any possible disruptions.
But the real reason why Hong Kong has been so successful is that it is not China. When Hong Kong was handed back to Beijing by Great Britain in 1997, the terms of the deal ensured that the former colony, now called a “special administrative region,” or SAR, of China would maintain the civil liberties it had under British rule. That separated Hong Kong from the Chinese mainland in key ways. In China, people cannot speak or assemble freely, and the press and courts are under the thumb of the state. But Hong Kongers continued to enjoy a free press and freedom of speech and well-defined rule of law. The formula is called “one country, two systems.”
That held true in the world of economics and finance as well. On the Chinese side of the border, capital flows are restricted, the banking sector is controlled by the state, and regulatory systems are weak and arbitrary. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, financial regulation is top-notch, capital flows are among the freest in the world, and rule of law is enshrined in a stubbornly independent judicial system. Those attributes have given Hong Kong an insurmountable advantage as an international business hub. Banks from all over the world flocked to Hong Kong, while its nimble sourcing firms orchestrated a global network of supply and production that became known as “borderless manufacturing.” While there has been much talk of Shanghai overtaking Hong Kong as Asia’s premier financial center, the Chinese metropolis simply cannot compete with Hong Kong’s stellar institutions, regulatory regime and laissez-faire economic outlook.
What happens if Hong Kong loses this edge? In other words, what happens if Beijing changes Hong Kong in ways that make its governance and business environment more like China’s? Hong Kong would be finished. The fact is that Hong Kong’s economic success, the nature of its institutions and the civil liberties enjoyed by Hong Kongers are all inexorably entwined. If Beijing knocks one of those pillars away, if it suppresses people’s freedoms or tampers with its judiciary, Hong Kong would become just another Chinese city, unable to fend off the challenge from Shanghai. Foreign financial institutions would be forced to decamp for a more trustworthy investment climate.
That’s why the Occupy Central movement is so critical for Hong Kong’s future. So far, Beijing has generally abided by its agreement with London and left Hong Kong’s economic system more or less unchanged. But when China’s leaders made clear last month that Hong Kongers would be able to choose their top official, known as the Chief Executive, from 2017 onward only from candidates who have the approval of Beijing, it became obvious that Hong Kong was going to face tighter control by China’s communists over time. That raises the specter that Beijing will at some point dismantle “one country, two systems” and along with it the foundation of the Hong Kong economy.
By fighting for their democratic rights, the activists in Hong Kong are fighting for an independence of administration and governance that will perpetuate their city’s economic advantages. Beijing should realize that ultimately a vibrant Hong Kong is in its own interests. China has benefited tremendously from Hong Kong over the past 30 years. It was Hong Kong manufacturers that were among the first to bravely open factories in a newly opened China, thus sparking the mainland’s amazing economic miracle. Chinese firms have been able to capitalize on Hong Kong’s stellar international reputation to raise funds and list shares on the city’s well-respected stock exchange. Even now, China continues to upgrade its economy by seeking Hong Kong’s expertise. The stock markets in Hong Kong and Shanghai are in the process of being linked to allow easier cross-border investment.
Of course, Hong Kong’s economy is far from perfect, and here, too, the importance of Hong Kong’s democracy movement can be found. The SAR suffers from a highly distorted property market and one of the widest income gaps in the world. Such ills have bred more resentment in the city toward Beijing. Yet right now many of the people of Hong Kong simply don’t trust their Beijing-chosen leaders to resolve these issues. Hong Kong requires a popular administration that commands the support of the people in order to implement the reforms necessary to tackle these critical problems. Thus the battle unfolding on the streets of central Hong Kong is a contest for the city’s very survival. Perhaps Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists will disrupt the usually sedate financial district for a few days. But that’s a tiny sacrifice compared to the long-term damage Hong Kong faces if its citizens do nothing.
— Schuman reported from Beijing.
But analysts warn that China's growing appetite for debt coincides with a growing appetite for risk
China’s corporate debt raced ahead of the US by more than $1 trillion in 2013, to $14.2 trillion, beating analysts’ forecasts by one year, according to a report released Monday by Standard & Poor’s. The new report highlighted not only the growing clout of China’s financial sector, but also its growing appetite for risk.
S&P estimates that one-quarter to one-third of the debt originated from China’s shadow banking sector, a system of informal lending that operates outside of government oversight. A series of defaults in that sector alone could expose one-tenth of the world’s corporate debt to a sudden contraction, the report warns. “Given the substantial share that shadow banking contributes in financing not just China’s corporate borrowers but also local and regional government financing vehicles, a sharp contraction would be detrimental for business generally,” the analysts wrote.
One graph in particular showed that the risks might be thriving in the shadows. S&P compared cash flows and indebtedness among China’s corporations to 8,500 of their global peers. These measures together offer a rough gauge of their ability to repay loans, and unfortunately here too, China surpasses the rest of the world.
Analysts have warned for years that China is in the midst of a gargantuan property bubble and the inevitable reckoning may have finally arrived as massive oversupply and a tightening of credit appears to be crushing the market—with consequences for the global economy
You know a property market is in trouble when developers stage long-jump contests to attract buyers. That’s what happened earlier this month in the eastern city of Nanjing. Looking to sell apartments in a new residential complex, a local newspaper reported that agents from the developer, Rongsheng Group, lined up potential customers behind a queue and asked them to leap forward. Those who jumped the farthest got the biggest rebates — up to $1,600.
Chinese newspapers these days are riddled with such tales of desperation. On May 9 in the central Chinese city of Changsha, pretty girls were enlisted to hand out 50,000 tea eggs to lure people into a housing fair. Developers in Shenzhen and Fuzhou are offering to sell apartments with no down payment. In Hangzhou in April, two real estate agents competing for buyers got into such a vicious fistfight that the police had to intervene.
Are we witnessing the end of China’s great property boom? For years now, some analysts have warned China was in the midst of a gargantuan property bubble, ready to burst at any moment, with dire consequences. But Chinese real estate defied the naysayers and continued to soar. Both developers and customers, bypassing restrictions imposed by policymakers to constrain the industry, continued to build, invest and propel prices higher.
Now, though, the inevitable reckoning may have finally arrived. Massive oversupply combined with a tightening of credit orchestrated by the government appears to be crushing the market. Government statistics show that the amount of unsold commercial and residential property hit an all-time record in March. “We are convinced that the property sector has passed a turning point and that there is a rising risk of a sharp correction,” analysts at investment bank Nomura commented in a May report.
Falling apartment prices spell bad news for China’s economy. Real estate is one of the main drivers of China’s growth, with property investment accounting for 16% of GDP by Nomura’s calculations. A downturn could dash hopes for a recovery of the world’s second largest economy, already suffering through its worst slowdown in more than a decade, and the impact would be felt across the world. Real estate investment in China affects global prices of commodities like iron ore, so a slowdown can send shockwaves from Australia to Brazil. Falling property prices could also subvert the wealth of the Chinese middle class, dampening consumption of everything from cars to coffee. That could hurt companies like General Motors, McDonald’s and Starbucks.
Beijing’s leaders got themselves into this mess with their go-slow approach to reform. In the country’s tightly controlled financial markets, the average Chinese citizen has few options when investing his or her newfound wealth. That has made property option No. 1 for investors, pushing up the market to dizzying heights. Now the declining market presents some tough choices for policymakers. A sharp downturn in property could lead to serious financial problems at the nation’s indebted developers, causing bad loans at the banks to rise. Developers that borrowed from the country’s poorly regulated shadow-banking industry could cause even worse problems for the financial industry. Depressed property could also present the government with a major social issue. With so many Chinese families having invested their savings in apartments, falling prices could lead to widespread discontent.
There is ample evidence to suggest that the deflating of Chinese property could turn very ugly. A Barclays economist warned that the “risks of a disorderly adjustment are real and rising.” Nomura points out that new housing starts, an important indicator of where the market is headed, plunged in the first quarter of 2014. Property sales declined too in 2013. “It is no longer a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘how severe’ the property market correction will be,” the investment bank asserted.
The question now is: What will Beijing do? So far, the country’s top leaders have been (wisely) allowing China’s overall growth to slow while they focus on controlling debt and reining in the out-of-control financial sector. A tumbling housing market, however, will put more pressure on the government to reverse course by loosening credit to pump up growth — a strategy that might alleviate pain in the short run, but only intensify the economy’s long-term problems of debt and excess capacity. The central bank this week already issued guidelines encouraging banks to speed up mortgage approvals and offer reasonable rates of interest for some home buyers.
China’s problems with property shine a spotlight on how the country’s continued foot-dragging in liberalizing and strengthening its financial sector and altering its investment-obsessed growth model are creating major threats to its stability. And it is yet more evidence of how China’s role in the world has jumped from being a critical support for growth amid a disastrous downturn in the West, to becoming a primary risk to the health of the global economy.
Although they say they're concerned about inequality, economic policymakers continue to pummel low-income families and the jobless, and that’s bad for all of us
A year ago I asked if Karl Marx was, in certain respects, right about capitalism, and argued that class struggle was making a comeback.
The German philosopher believed the capitalist system was inherently unjust. Capitalism, Marx predicted, would inevitably concentrate wealth in the hands of a few while impoverishing everyone else. There is ample evidence that Marx’s theorizing is becoming reality.
According to a recent report from the International Monetary Fund, income inequality has risen in nearly all advanced economies over the past two decades. In the U.S., the share of income captured by the richest 10% of the population jumped dramatically from around 30% in 1980 to 48% by 2012, while the portion grasped by the population’s richest 1% more than doubled, from 8% to 19%. Other data shows that since 2009, the 1% captured 95% of all income gains; the bottom 90% of people got poorer.
The good news is that more politicians and policymakers are waking up to the problem. “Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in this year’s State of the Union Address. “Our job is to reverse these trends.”
There is an emerging consensus, furthermore, that such extremes of inequality are bad for overall economic health. “We now have firm evidence … that a severely skewed income distribution harms the pace and sustainability of growth over the longer term,” IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warned in a February speech.
But here’s the bad news. The talk hasn’t translated into action. Economic policy for the most part is still biased against the poor — in some ways, it is becoming increasingly antipoor.
The war against the poor may be most pronounced in the U.S. Washington sliced $8.7 billion from the food-stamp program in February, even though nearly 47 million people, or about 1 out of every 7 Americans, currently rely on it. A new bill to extend emergency unemployment benefits is almost definitely dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The standard conservative argument against such welfare programs is that they make people dependent on “nanny states” and discourage initiative. But statistics say otherwise. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 60% of families with children who receive food stamps have a member who works. The problem is that too many people with jobs don’t earn enough to buy sufficient food and other necessities — they’re the “working poor.” But don’t expect any sympathy from Congress. The Republicans are dead set against a hike in the minimum wage that would allow these folks to buy their own food.
Meanwhile, in Europe, politicians and bankers are breathing sighs of relief that the region’s debt crisis has been quelled. But the reality is that, for tens of millions of Europeans, it hasn’t. Unemployment in the euro zone in February was a gut-wrenching 11.9% — almost unchanged from 12% a year earlier. In Greece, the latest rate is a staggering 27.5%. No wonder angry Spaniards protested in the streets of Madrid in March, more than five years after the economic crisis began. Yet the European Union remains wedded to a policy of austerity rather than growth. What happened to the emergency leadership conferences that were so common when the governments themselves were in trouble? Apparently, Europe’s impoverished aren’t worth such efforts.
In Japan, new policies by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aimed at restarting a stalled economy are instead squeezing the Japanese people. In an attempt to shake Japan from damaging deflation, Abe is using the central bank to flood the economy with cash to raise prices. Meanwhile, to contend with giant budget deficits and rising government debt, he is also increasing the consumption tax. Yet even though corporate profits have soared — thanks to a weakened yen, also engineered by central-bank policy — those profits haven’t trickled down to the average worker. A combination of higher prices and taxes, and flat wages, means that Japanese families are getting poorer.
Even in China, policymakers talk about closing the country’s gaping rich-poor gap, but many of the necessary reforms have yet to materialize. Interest rates in the banking sector are still controlled in a fashion that punishes savers to subsidize industry, so the return on bank deposits is so meager it barely keeps up with inflation. That hurts China’s low-income families the most. Policy also continues to discriminate against the country’s 262 million migrant workers, who are deprived of proper social services.
Before anyone attacks me as a liberal opposed to free enterprise — the usual slander slapped on those who think the destitute deserve better — please be clear that I see pro-poor policies not as charity, but simply good business and smart economics. Improving the financial health of the average family can build a stronger foundation for economic growth. The soccer mom in Wichita, Kans., who stops by her local bakery to buy a birthday cake for her 5-year-old son, or purchases a new Ford from her local dealer, is every bit as important to the overall economy as any Manhattan tycoon.
What I find baffling is how business leaders and economists fret over retail-sales figures and consumer-confidence surveys, but then advocate practices and policies that crimp people’s incomes and ability to spend. Companies won’t pay a living wage and then wonder where their customers have gone. This isn’t just a matter of improving current economic growth, but our future economic potential as well. U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan recently lambasted America’s school-lunch program, which provides meals to poor kids, as offering “a full stomach — and an empty soul.” Yet is it fair to expect a student with an empty stomach to perform as well on exams as those with full bellies? Ryan isn’t encouraging hard work. He wants to tilt the playing field in favor of the wealthy.
The same is true around the world. Why Abe thinks a poorer population can restart Japanese growth is hard to fathom. China won’t be able to reshape its broken economic model and produce more sustainable growth without pro-poor reforms. With astronomical youth unemployment, Europe is looking at a segment of its population possibly facing economic peril for years, perhaps decades, to come. Is it any surprise euro-zone GDP is expected to grow a mere 1% this year?
The fact is that there is a class war going on, and the little guy is losing. Perhaps that won’t result in revolution, as Marx assumed. But until our politicians and CEOs understand that the average family on Main Street is as critical to the global economy as the bankers on Wall Street, our economic outlook will be just as grim.