Friday, February 12, 2010

China Worries About Inflation, The EU Needs to Worry About Growth

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

The Chinese just announced a second increase in reserve levels for their banks. The first increase took place less than a month ago. That announcement was the earliest of three major withdrawals of liquidity from global markets. The other two were the U.S. Fed closing down five of its Credit Crisis liquidity injection programs on February 1st and the Bank of England temporarily halting its quantitative easing (read money printing) program shortly thereafter. Stocks and commodities started selling down with the first Chinese announcement and continued selling off with the others. Global markets got hit again with the second announcement and adding to their worries was a poor GDP report coming out of the euro zone.

China has been leading the world out of the global recession. This hasn't occurred by magic. It has engaged in a huge amount of stimulus to reeve up its economy. While doing so it also froze the value of its currency, the yuan, and this has kept it tremendously under valued compared to a free market price (some estimates are that the yuan should be 40% higher, even a greater amount is possible). Economic stimulus and undervalued currencies are both in and of themselves inflationary. The combination of the two in large amounts can be explosive. So China is understandably trying to lower liquidity in its economy by reigning in bank lending. While these efforts are minimal so far, traders are anticipating more serious efforts down the road. Food inflation is a particular danger for the Chinese and too much of it can risk political destabilization. Food prices are already rising in many parts of the world and reached over 19% in next-door India at one point in December.

While the Chinese have probably engaged in the most significant stimulus measures globally for any sizable economy, the euro zone has not been as nearly aggressive. While the U.S. lowered its funds rate to zero, and the UK to 0.5%, the interest rates in the euro zone were only dropped to 1.0%. Less stimulus in the euro zone means less inflation in the future, but also means less economic recovery now. Fourth quarter GDP figures came in at 0.1%, indicating overall growth is flat. Leading economy Germany had a zero percent quarter over quarter growth rate. Much troubled Greece's economy sank 0.8% from the previous quarter. Italy was down 0.2%. For all of 2009, the size of the 16-nation euro zone economy fell 4%. Growth in the 27 member EU (a number of countries in the EU don't use the euro) was also only 0.1% last quarter. No matter how you look at it, Europe is economically weak.

In mainstream media reporting of Europe's predicament, one major news service stated, "the recovery in the third quarter now appears likely to have been due to temporary factors like government spending boosts, a build-up in inventory levels and car scrappage schemes that pay people to trade in old cars". The exact same factors have boosted GDP in the U.S., although that wasn't mentioned. The U.S. reported 1.4% quarterly GDP growth for the last quarter of 2009 and this was triumphed in news coverage. Investors can expect that number to be revised downward as was the case with the original third quarter figure. Greater stimulus in the U.S. has been one reason that American GDP numbers have been better than in Europe. Another reason is that the U.S. is willing to engage in more blatant manipulation of its economic statistics.It's a lot easy to 'fix' the economic numbers after all than it is to actually fix the economy.

A slow down in the Chinese economy will have a strong impact on the Western industrialized nations. Much of the improvement that has taken place since the depths of the Credit Crisis in the fall of 2008 has been because of increased demand from China.  The economies in the U.S., UK, Japan and Europe are still very weak. Based on recent actions, the powers that be in the US and UK seem oblvious to this. European leaders seem to be no sharper. Proposed austerity programs in the troubled euro zone economies - Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain will only cause further economic contraction. The fix for the Greece's debt problems - details are still forthcoming - is likely to be a win/lose situation.

Investors should expect that industrialized countries will be on inflation watch for a while longer. At some point even the incredibly oblivious U.S. Fed Chair Ben Bernanke will realize that there are still economic problems that have yet to be solved. More stimulus will follow. Stimulus is what has been behind the global market rallies that began in March 2009. Reduction of stimulus is what is behind the sell off that started in January. Investors should watch for signs that stimulus is returning. Until then, stock and commodity prices are likely to be pressured.

Disclosure: No positions.

NEXT: China is Selling Its U.S. Bond Holdings

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

1 comment:

CJ said...

One a sidenote: isn't a steady rate of growth unsustainable in the long run anyway?

Regardless; read and enjoy your blog every day.