Chinese politicians don’t have a magic wand – but it’s not the end of the world

Up the market rollercoaster goes… and down it plunges.

Oil tanked again yesterday. So did stocks. The market isn’t ready to shrug off all this China stuff yet.

Yesterday, the excuse was that China’s manufacturing sector had started shrinking again, for the first time since February.

What’s slightly baffling is that none of this is news. China’s economy has been clearly slowing for a while.

So what’s changed to rattle markets so badly?

The world’s second-biggest economy has crashed before and no one cared

Suddenly the media is full of pieces on why China’s slowdown matters. All it takes is 10% or so off the FTSE 100 and S&P 500 and suddenly everyone starts caring about what’s going on.

There’s just one problem – China has been slowing down for ages. We started warning about a China slowdown a good few years ago. Commodity prices – and mining share prices – peaked ages ago, too. Oil was one of the last to succumb.

So it’s hardly been a state secret. Or at least, China might have liked to have kept it a state secret, but anyone with an ounce of scepticism has known that China’s economy wasn’t ticking along at the remarkably steady 7% rate presented by its leaders.

In fact, if you look at the figures, most things China-related had suffered what in any other market would be described as a ‘crash’ or at least a ‘slump’, well before anyone started worrying about it. Luxury goods have struggled for a while. Miners haven’t been having much fun either.

“But China is the world’s second-largest economy”, argue the pundits. Surely it matters? The answer to that is pretty simple: Japan.

Japan was the world’s second-largest economy too, for years. It had a crash of such epic proportions that it has become the bogeyman that keeps central bankers awake at night. And ever since then, it has been (and still is) locked in battle with a generally lacklustre growth picture.

Meanwhile, the rest of the developed world, and much of the emerging one, enjoyed a fantastic bull market.

Anyway, we all know that economic growth and stockmarket growth are not at all correlated.

So, seriously this time – what’s bugging the market?

Confidence, confidence, confidence

What’s really rattled markets right now is simpler than all this, I think.

The Chinese have demonstrated that they have no idea how to deal with this. It turns out that ‘command capitalism’ isn’t the miraculous political and economic solution that the more democracy-averse among us had believed.

It turns out that the absence of universal suffrage is no guarantee that you’ll get a superior breed of power-crazed egomaniac running your country. The nice thing about democracy is that you get to switch egomaniacs when you get bored with the current one.

Putting it bluntly, the Chinese have made a complete mess of dealing with their stockmarket crash. So now everyone is starting to worry about their ability to manage a ‘smooth’ landing for the wider economy.

It’s all about confidence, in other words. Investors are worried that China might do something stupid. And that this will have a knock-on impact on the rest of the world.

The central bankers have their deflation handbook out

So what are the risks?

I have to admit, I have been uncharacteristically sanguine about this particular market slide. I might be wrong. But I’ll explain why.

In a nutshell, the obvious forces coming out of any China crash or mistake, are deflationary ones. Much of the world’s asset markets – crucially, the bond market – are pricing in a deflationary future. The developed world’s central bankers – led by the Federal Reserve – are sensitive to any sniff of deflation.

In short, if things get particularly hairy, there’s nothing to stop more money-printing. So far, that has proved successful at boosting asset prices. And if it doesn’t, they’ll just do it until it does.

The big risk then – and this is one risk that I am concerned about – is that central banks do too much. But that’s not what we’re facing just yet.

There is one other thing that does worry me more than the rest of the stuff here: that’s the threat of defaults in the high-yield bond market. With oil prices at these levels, it’s only a matter of time before someone blows up.

But even then, that’s still more likely to be a sector-specific problem than a systemic one. People who played in junk bonds and poorly-understood exchange-traded funds will get burned.

Ultimately, this is a squall rather than a hurricane. People are panicking right now, but I don’t see it taking much for the ‘buy the dip’ mentality to make a comeback. Stick to your investment plan – and if you don’t have one, may I recommend this one?