By Valentin Schmid
Of course, stock markets worldwide were overvalued for quite some time and speculators were using margin debt to buy shares. So is this long overdue correction surprising? Hardly. What is interesting is that the trigger for the change in sentiment was China.
Over the last year, the country has experienced the popping of a real estate bubble, a fierce economic slowdown, a stock market crash, and a surprise devaluation of the currency. Actually given this kind of record, it is surprising global markets haven't reacted until recently, once China moved into correction territory (down more than 10 percent from their highs) during the week ending August 21.
The Chinese stock market has erased all gains for the year 2015 (Google Finance)
Maybe people believed China, because of its closed financial system, wouldn't export internal volatility. Of course, there are other reasons for the selloff in Western equity markets (possible Fed rate hike, extreme valuation levels, margin speculation, and growth slowdown); but it's worth taking a closer look at the connection to the world's second largest economy. It may just be as contained as subprime was during the hey-days of the last financial crisis.
For stocks to go higher, the world needs economic growth and companies need earnings growth. And even though China has actually taken growth from other countries by running a trade surplus for decades, it also bought up more than half of the world's iron ore and cement every year for the same period to use it in more than questionable investment projects.
This has benefited raw material exporters such as Australia, much of South America, as well as Canada and even the United States (soybeans!). Using as much as 10 percent of the world's oil also was a boon to Middle Eastern oil producers.
Countries that don't export raw materials benefited indirectly through the export of capital goods - have you seen anything other than American - made Caterpillar trucks driving around Australian open-pit mines? For good measure, car and luxury goods companies benefited from China's rising consumer class and endemic corruption.
This party is definitely over as the Bloomberg commodity index has just crashed to levels not seen since 1999. Raw material is a capital-intensive business, so this hurts everybody who kept on investing in expansion projects banking on Chinese growth. Just take the global mining industry, which invested $400 billion on expansion projects since 2009.
So no more growth for a few key industries globally for the next few years and possibly some nasty losses from bad investment in (over)capacity. No wonder those industries' stocks are getting hit hard and other companies are feeling the ripple effect.
Yes, it is true, China has quite a closed off capital account and problems within its financial system should have a limited impact on world markets. In theory.
However, in practice, the People's Bank of China still has $3.7 trillion in foreign exchange reserves - it sold more than $300 billion over the last 12 months to satisfy private dollar demand.
Given its sheer size, any action the PBOC takes has market impact and recently, they have been a seller. We can see some of it now.
In addition, China has around $500 billion worth of trade obligations outstanding, used by companies to borrow dollars in order to buy raw materials on world markets.
"Chinese companies that export to the United States (Foxconn) are not the same companies that import resources for all that manufacturing and assembling. Importers have to borrow dollars from either foreign banks onshore or native Chinese banks that themselves have to borrow dollars," writes Jeffrey Snider of Alhambra Investment Partners.
Much of this trade financing is collateralized by precisely the raw materials that have been in free-fall (copper, steel), leading to losses for the importer.
Add this to the fact that China's trade balance has been narrowing quite sharply and the dollar flow into China has subsided significantly, this means importers are desperate for dollars to service their trade debt. This is another reason for the surprise devaluation August 11: China just let some companies buy up dollars on the open market.
So trade grinds to a halt, Chinese importers are liquidating raw material positions to service trade debt - or stop buying - which drives down the price. This momentum forces leveraged global speculators to liquidate as well, further driving down the price, putting further pressure on Chinese companies: The usual vicious deleveraging bubble.
Losses in commodities force investors to sell profitable positions (equities!) in order to meet margin calls and the selling spreads.
Reserves Could Run Out Quickly
One word on China's foreign reserves here. Yes, they can be sold to abate the liquidity squeeze and some already have been. However, most of these investments are very illiquid. As The Heritage Foundation points out, China has poured more than $1 trillion into illiquid foreign investments, mostly into mining and energy.
Chinese overseas investment since 2005. (Heritage Foundation)
The bottom line is that those are the investments under pressure at the moment and will be hard to sell because most of them aren't publicly traded.
Yes, the country still has a chunk of liquid investments left, such as U.S. Treasuries ($1.3 trillion), but Jeff Snider warns those reserves can run out faster than one can say bank-run.
"The outflows have been tremendous. There is no guarantee that this will remain stable, and if conditions worsen, it could grow exponentially into a run."
Two years ago and one year ago, the situation was different because dollar credit was readily available. However, since the Fed stopped pumping money into the markets in 2014, global dollar liquidity has been drastically reduced for everyone, not just China.
It would normally be bad enough if Turkey and Brazil scramble for dollar financing, selling assets and driving down commodity prices. Adding China to assist in this exercise is like adding an elephant to an already crowded bathtub. What happens to the water could be seen in yesterday's market.