Stop worrying about China's market meltdown, Davos veterans say

Investors are concerned about China, as its economy grew last year at the weakest pace since 1990.
Investors are concerned about China, as its economy grew last year at the weakest pace since 1990. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

DAVOS (Bloomberg) - A year ago, China's Premier Li Keqiang told the World Economic Forum (WEF) that his country could avoid a hard landing.

As the Swiss town of Davos prepares for the 2016 edition of the conclave, delegates such as Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Credit Suisse Group AG chief executive Tidjane Thiam say he's still right.

Their stance clashes with the recent sentiment in financial markets, where a sell-off of the yuan and Chinese equities sent shockwaves through commodities markets and helped wipe US$5 trillion off stocks worldwide by reviving fears over the global growth outlook. 

"Sentiment has likely lurched far too quickly into a bearish posture and over-hyped downside scenarios," said Mr Tim Adams, the United States Treasury's former point man on China and now president of the Institute of International Finance.

"In the end, China will likely emulate every major economy and muddle through."

Investors are increasingly concerned about China as a report on Tuesday (Jan 19) is poised to show its economy grew last year at the weakest pace since 1990. Further spooking investors is a debt overhang estimated at US$28 trillion, currency weakness that risks spurring competitive devaluations elsewhere, and equities' decline into a bear market.

With China now the world's No. 2 economy and responsible for about 15 per cent of global output, the worry is that its troubles will spread to other nations as it cuts imports of commodities and manufactured goods. A weaker yuan also threatens to deal another disinflationary blow.

Some economists counter that there's reason for optimism as Chinese consumers are still spending, property prices are stabilizing, demand for exports has picked up and there is plenty of room for fiscal and monetary stimulus if required. Though growth is indeed fading, China is on track to expand 6.5 per cent this year, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

"There's always been a gap between what's happening in the real economy and financial markets," said Dr Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University who will be in Davos.

"What's happening in China is a slowdown by all accounts," he said, "but it's not a cataclysmic slowdown."

To Mr Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the situation is akin to the US savings and loans crisis in the 1980s, which hurt but didn't cripple the economy. Chinese citizens still have savings, the country has little debt denominated in foreign currency, and banks are displaying no signs of instability, he said.

"I really think people are over-reacting," Mr Posen, a former Bank of England policy maker, told Bloomberg.

Even under more adverse conditions in China, the spillover will be limited to about 0.2 per centage point of GDP in the US, Europe and Japan, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economists said in a report this month.

Some argue that the pain will ultimately pay off as China shifts to a more sustainable expansion focused on consumption and services rather than investment and manufacturing.

"Yes there will be growing pains, yes they're changing their model from export-led capital intensive growth to consumerism, but I think they'll manage," Credit Suisse's Mr Thiam said Jan 12.

"I went to China first in 1984 - anybody who's been to China in 1984 can only be a China bull."

Other visitors to Davos are less upbeat. Citigroup chief economist Willem Buiter has suggested there's a 55 per cent risk China will push the global economy into recession in the next couple of years.

And British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne cited a weakening China among the "dangerous cocktail" of threats facing his economy.

There will be plenty of opportunity to debate who is right. Attendees from the country include Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma, Baidu president Zhang Yaqin and Mr Jiang Jianqing, chairman of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

Hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates will join Mr Jiang and International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde on a panel focused on where the economy is headed and hosted by Bloomberg.

That the 2,500 visitors to Davos are even discussing China's potential fall marks a change from most forum meetings over the past decade, when the debate focused on its rise as an economic superpower.

This year, the evergreen question "What's your China strategy?" will likely elicit a completely different answer.

"China and rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia will dominate the hallway conversations," said Mr Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Inc. "Markets hate uncertainty. The uncertainty about China is extremely high now."