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claimed “the dynamism of the market” would be harnessed to move China towards a new economic paradigm, replacing its outdated reliance on the cheap labour, cheap credit and booming export markets that have fuelled growth for the past 37 years.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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.