A model of Chongquing built from coins. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
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The wild ride on China’s stock-market rollercoaster is far from over

China's admirers like to compare its Communist leadership to a meritocratic mandarin caste whose governance skills outstrip anything on offer in the west. But with £2trn wiped off the mainland exchanges in July, the picture is more complicated.

The scale and speed of China’s growth make it easy to overlook the way in which the country is still feeling its way forward. It may have become the world’s second-biggest economy, with 7 per cent growth officially reported for the second quarter of the year this past week, but it is still plagued by problems of expansion, from disparities in wealth to a huge environmental fallout. Recent weeks have thrown up another example of the dangers that can arise from insufficiently considered leaps into the future.

Admirers of China like to compare its Communist leadership to a meritocratic mandarin caste whose governance skills outstrip anything on offer from the fumbling administrations of western democracies. Yet the convulsions of the mainland stock markets over the past month – in which £2trn ($3.2trn) was wiped off the mainland exchanges before prices stabilised towards the end of the first week in July – show the authorities in a rather different light.

One might ask why Beijing was so intent on developing the country’s stock markets on the back of individual retail investors, many of them lacking experience in such techniques as margin trading, in which you buy shares using money borrowed from a broker. It might have been better from the start to have mobilised big institutional players, such as pension funds. The government, however, decided to encourage the growth of the largely retail markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen, in the hope that companies would raise capital there rather than seeking bank loans.

This was considered to be part of the modernisation of the financial system at the heart of the ambitious reform plan laid out by the Communist Party at the end of 2013. The programme claimed “the dynamism of the market” would be harnessed to move China towards a new economic paradigm, replacing its outdated reliance on the cheap labour, cheap credit and booming export markets that have fuelled growth for the past 37 years. The stock market was viewed as a way of achieving a more efficient allocation of capital and of mobilising household savings into corporate funding.

As it happened, there was a lot of cash looking for a home as a result of the downturn in the property market, historically a magnet for middle-class savings, and a squeeze on high-risk financial products outside the mainstream banking system. On top of that, the relaxation of rules on margin trading acted as an incentive to buy shares.

The result was a runaway bull market from 2014 onwards, with the number of individual investors increasing from 70 million to 90 million and the volume of officially sanctioned margin trading rising from £40bn to £220bn. Once the boom was under way, the government moved in with the second part of its strategy to develop China’s stock markets, introducing measures that facilitated the initial public offerings (IPOs) of 25 companies. Given that prices of newly floated firms often double on the first day of trading, the IPOs are hugely oversubscribed.

There were two snags. The first was that the boom assumed bubble proportions on the back of margin trading. The second was that so much cash was tied up in these IPOs that there was little left over to sustain demand for other shares. For short sellers, who make money by betting that prices will drop, it was a clear signal to act. Once they did and share prices fell, the remorseless logic of margin trading kicked in, with investors forced to sell their shares to repay brokers’ loans. The result was a 32 per cent drop in prices on the Shanghai Composite Index in less than a month.

The government moved in with supportive measures, including buying by state institutions, but these were initially unable to stop the slide. Only after increased support and adjusted margin requirements and with half of the quoted shares suspended did the market find a bottom and start to rise.

The impact of the gyrations can be overstated. Of the 90 million account holders, 30 million are estimated to hold only one or two stocks and to trade infrequently. The size of the stock markets is still quite small compared to the overall economy; the two are usually not co-related, so the broader impact of a downturn is limited. In addition, the Shanghai market is dominated by shares of state-backed companies that are less affected by stock movements than private firms. Even in the depths of the early-July decline, the Shanghai Composite Index was 70 per cent above its level a year earlier. Fears of a firestorm that would cause a crash in China and affect other economies were overblown.

Still, the turbulence that resulted in day-to-day swings up to the permitted limit of 10 per cent is likely to continue in short, sharp bursts. What is more important is the impact on the government’s broader economic policies. These face a great deal of opposition from vested interests that have done well out of the old economy and are facing not merely the challenge of change, but also the unrelenting anti-corruption campaign launched by Xi Jinping. They are likely to seize on events on the exchanges to point to the dangers of relaxing controls in the last major Leninist state on earth. Indeed, conspiracy theories on Chinese websites suggest that they may have been behind the short selling.

That will put the reformers on the back foot. Xi is a leader who ranks the preservation of the Communist Party first; if reform seems to present problems with maintaining authority and ensuring social stability, it will take second berth. That would have long-term effects on China’s evolution and may well be the most important aspect of this summer’s market roller coaster.

Jonathan Fenby’s book “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” is published by Polity. He tweets as: @JonathanFenby

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.