China’s economy is having a hard time – but not as hard as you think

It's no surprise that China's slowdown has rattled markets across the globe. But things are nowhere near as bad as many people think, says John Stepek.


China's economy is in nowhere near as bad a state as many people think

The US Federal Reserve will definitely probably raise interest rates this year. So said Fed boss Janet Yellen towards the end of last week.

So the September hold was a blip. You can still expect a rise by the end of 2015.

That is, unless there are any economic surprises.

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I'll believe it when I see it...

Back-pedalling on interest rates

It seemed to help a little at first. After Yellen's late speech on Thursday, US stocks began the day with a decent showing on Friday. Meanwhile, US economic growth in the second quarter was revised higher. But in the end, they closed mixed, with the Dow Jones higher and the S&P 500 dipping slightly.

Of course, the main reason for Yellen's delay or certainly, her references to "international" events made it seem like that is the trouble in emerging markets and China, and the potential knock-on impact on the US economy.

And that's no surprise. The carnage in China and emerging markets has rattled investors across the globe. Plunging commodity prices and tanking emerging-market currencies have led to fears of deflation taking hold, swirling the entire global economy into a vortex from which there is no return.

As esteemed a journal as The New York Post is now fretting that the US cannot afford to import Chinese deflation: "As trading partners struggle with slowing growth, producers cut pricing to buoy growth. When that arrives [in the US], we are importing deflation."

So it's a widespread narrative. However, as is often the case with widespread narratives, it might also be wrong.

China is less ugly than you think

And the fact that China's economy is slowing isn't new either. It started slowing in 2012. It's just that not many people were talking about it then, or fretting about it as much as they are now.

It's got to the point where we're at the stage where investors are now so gloomy, that there is probably greater potential for positive surprises than for negative ones.

Here's a very specific example: on Friday, sportswear giant Nike saw its shares rocket by 9% partly because sales in China are going great guns. Sales of footwear in China and Taiwan "surged 36%" in the quarter to the end of August, and clothes sales rose 22%, reports Richard Blackden in the FT.

So, while the likes of Caterpillar and anyone who relies on the commodity extraction and production business are suffering amid the mining slowdown as you'd expect not every China-exposed company is feeling the strain.

And this isn't restricted to individual companies. Despite the generally lacklustre economic data, and the understandable scepticism with which people treat Chinese data, various indicators suggest that things are turning around.

For example, as Bloomberg reports, its China Monetary Conditions Index improved for the second month in a row in August. That's the "first back-to-back gain since 2013". These sorts of improvements "in the past have tended to presage either an acceleration or a stabilisation in economic growth".

I'd still be surprised if the Fed ends up raising rates this year so far it's been hard to lose money by underestimating the Fed's appetite for tightening monetary policy.

But China may not be a feasible excuse to delay for very much longer.

In the latest issue of MoneyWeek magazine, we look at why things aren't as bad as they look for China and what opportunities that might reveal for investors. Sign up for here your subscription, if you haven't already.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.