- Simon and Garfunkel, The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)
Friday was the quietest payroll day that Macro Man can remember. Perhaps it was the lack of weakness in the figure, perhaps it was the looming decision from the Federal Reserve, perhaps it was the need to get on with Christmas shopping, or perhaps it was the hangovers. Whatever the cause, the market just didn't seem to care, as action was pretty lackluster in all markets last Friday.
This environment, of course, lends itself to contemplation of longer-term issues and/or specific themes. So, too, seems to be the case in Beijing, where the economic mandarins appear to be catching up on all the 60's Western music that was verboten during the Cultural Revolution. In particular, the folk stylings of Simon and Garfunkel appear to have caught on, with the 59th Street Bridge Song currently topping the charts.
Last week, the Central Economic Work Conference announced that it intends to shift the monetary policy setting to "tight" in an effort to rein in economic overheating and inflation. That presumably means that they don't believe that the rise in CPI inflation is merely down to temporary microeconomic factors, after all.
In any event, the first shot of the tightening campaign was fired over the weekend, when PBOC raised the reserve requirement ratio by a full 1% to 14.5% This was the first 100 bp rise in the RRR since 2004, the last period of intentional policy tightening in China. The move is probably not as bold as it appears; December traditionally sees a disproportionate amount of fiscal spending from central and local governments, which draws down their central bank deposit balances and puts liquidity into the system.
Nevertheless, it is probably still worthwhile paying attention to the authorities' preferences. The clampdown on new lending in Q4 has apparently been severe, and the authorities did manage to slow growth the last time they tried to, in 2004.
If we step into the "way-back machine", we can see that China's policy clampdown did appear to have significant market consequences. The most obvious starting point is base metals, given that China accounts for 40-50% of world demand for metals like copper and zinc. Looking at the Journal of Commerce industrial metals index, we can see that it basically went nowhere for more than one and a half years after the last policy tightening. One could argue that we've been in a range for the last nine months; nevertheless, if history were to repeat itself, we have another few quarters in store of sideways trade in metals .
To a degree, however, that's already in the price. Copper has fallen precipitously since early October, and at this point it looks like a poor place to layer fresh shorts. Perhaps it is worth selling, however, in the 330-340 region, which would represent a reasonable retracment of the peak-to-trough move.
An alternative trade might be the sale of commodity currencies like the AUD or ZAR; the problem there, of course, is that shorting them incurs a large amount of negative carry, whereas shorting copper is currently a positive carry trade via the contago'ed curve.
A policy move ostensibly at odds with policy tightening was the weekend announcement that China is tripling the QFII quota to $30 billion. This, for uninitiated, is the amount of foreign investment that the authorities are willing to allow into China's securities markets. On the face of it, the timing seems odd. Why tighten policy if you then allow foreigners to inject substantial liquidity into domestic financial markets?
A more Machiavellian interpretation is that having restricted foreign investment during the period of "easy money" in Chinese equities, the authorities are now more than happy to allow foreigners to pay the top and lose money on the way down. A middle ground interpretation is that the massive run-up in China stocks has, for the time being, cooled foreign demand for them, which makes now an ideal time to expand the quota, as it won't be immediately filled.
Whatever the motivation, the chart above and the apparent commitment to tighter policy would appear to suggest that anyone buying China shares at current levels may not be feelin' groovy in a few months. An interesting speculative short might be Chinese banks, who are seeing potentially profitable loans being replaced on their balance sheets with PBOC reserves paying a paltry 1.98% per annum. And if the economy ever does meaningfully slow, perhaps the old Asian bugbear of non-performing loans will rear its ugly head. Macro Man isn't brave enough to pull the trigger at this point, but he may look into the matter further and allocate a small amount of risk to the idea in coming weeks.