Italy, the Belt and Road program, and China – My weekly column

Italy’s moves to sign a deal with China and get involved in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are highly significant as Italy is the first of the European Union’s founding countries to join this program. By way of reminder, the Belt and Road Initiative aims to develop stronger trade between China and various other regions of the world. Italy is the 12th European Union country to get involved in this program. Meanwhile Greece, Hungary and Poland are not opposed to it, and rail transport between Chengdu and Lodz has increased considerably over the past five years due to trade between the two countries. However, Sweden is fairly opposed to the Chinese program, while France and Germany are reacting cautiously – probably as they see potential business and trade opportunities, but also the restrictions involved in the program as it is primarily dictated by China.

The value of the Italy-China agreement is not yet huge and does not reflect a firm commitment between the two countries, but it has already caused some strife in the Italian government between Di Maio who went all out to promote the agreement, and Salvini who wanted none of it.

China sets great store by this international drive and the country’s role in the global balance, and when Xi Jinping set up the BRI in 2012 just after he took over as President, he put this world view center-stage again. His aim then as now is to root China’s fresh phase of growth within a broader context and link it back to the country’s development more than 2,000 years ago when the growth of the Silk Road network shaped Asia, sprawling out as far as Europe. During his recent visit to Europe, Xi Jinping was keen to remind listeners of the very long-standing relationship between Rome and the Han dynasty, which ruled from 206 BC to 220 AD, and he also referred back to the rich 13th century Venetian merchant Marco Polo’s trip to China. He took great pains to mark the country’s historical ties with Italy, but also China’s long-standing influence and role across the globe.

China’s incursion into Europe via the BRI obviously raises questions on the relationship between the two regions: targeting one of the EU founder countries marks a new milestone, especially as Italy has already been on the receiving end of quite a bit of China’s investment in the region. The UK has traditionally been China’s favorite focus for investment since 2000, with a total of €59.9bn up to 2018 according to Merics, but Italy ranks third with €15.3bn, just behind Germany’s €22.1bn, while France is fourth with €14.3bn.

However, Italy’s political choice raises a number of questions.

Is this decision a way to divide Europe amidst a global backdrop where doubt already prevails over European harmony? Several countries no longer want to comply with EU rules as strictly as they did before: Italy is a case in point, but we could also mention Poland, Romania and a few others. Considering European wariness of China, could this be a way for it to drive a wedge between the countries of Europe? This is a valid question as by promoting an easing of European-led restrictions, perhaps China could gain some more leeway to implement its worldwide growth strategy while also shoring up its international position…

Well may we wonder then whether Italy’s move is also a way for Southern Europe to put pressure on Northern Europe and the European Commission, as the region could use the relationship with China to gain leverage – particularly Italy, as tension with Brussels has soared since the coalition government took over.

China has already invested in the port of Athens (Piraeus), the port of Sines in Portugal, the port of Valencia in Spain, and has taken a foothold in the industrial port of Venice (Mestre-Marghera). The country – alone or sometimes via Hong Kong – now owns or manages 10% of European ports, while there are also bids to manage even more. This is a hefty figure and these moves could fuel imbalances and pressure between European states in a less harmonious Europe.

So all this begs the question whether China’s behavior as it seeks to extend its influence is a reflection that Europe is relegated to second place. The old continent harbors strong purchasing power, but it is divided despite the European institutions and does not seem to have a role to play in the tech battle between China and the US. So is this a way for China to disrupt Europe’s supposed unity with the US and move forward in the technological war, which will ultimately lead to China’s technological domination in Europe as it asserts its worldwide position? We recently saw threats from the White House – particularly to Germany – as it sought to stop the use of Huawei equipment when renewing mobile phone infrastructure.

Lastly, the key point in the Italy-China agreement is the port of Trieste, an industrial free zone that is set to be China’s bridge into Italy. Trieste boasts major advantages that Piraeus does not have, and these explain much of why Chinese investments in the port of Athens ended in failure. Firstly, the port of Trieste is already part of a broader industrial framework: secondly, there is a much more extensive rail network than in Greece, which makes Munich closer via this route than if getting there from Hamburg, in terms of both time and distance. In other words, Trieste is close to southern Germany, northern Italy and south-east France, and the route from Shanghai to Trieste is almost 10 days shorter than the route to ports in the north of Europe. This is very important and could put Trieste in a position to rival with Rotterdam or Hamburg, and this factor could play a crucial role in shaping the new European landscape.

This post is available in pdf format My Weekly Column – 1 April

Can a China / USA Agreement be credible?

Financial markets strongly value the possibility of a trade agreement between the United States and China. Such a situation would make it possible to reduce the constraints on global trade and to order them according to the framework defined by the agreement. Nothing would then stand in the way of the return of larger trade flows likely to bring global growth once again.

This idea is attractive because it would leave the area of concern that marks the global economy since last fall and for which we do not spontaneously see a way out.

Yet this possibility of an agreement seems to me to be totally illusory. Tensions between the US and China mainly reflect a problem of technological leadership. Which of these two countries will set the standard for developments like 5G or artificial intelligence or other technologies. Both countries are in fierce competition. I can’t imagine an agreement in which one of the two countries would agree to be subject to the developments of the other. Tensions between the two countries will remain strong even if minor agreements could be signed.

This will generate tension and volatility in the overall dynamics.

The inevitable Chinese slowdown – My weekly column

This post is available in pdf format My Weekly Column – January 28th

Growth in China slowed again in 2018, with an average of 6.6% across the year vs. 6.9% in 2017.
This remains a respectable figure, but it is the lowest since 1989 and 1990 as shown in the chart opposite. The 10-year average is also at a low, at around 8%. The 10% that had previously been typical of the Chinese economy is now a thing of the past, and expectations of a shift back to this trend are unrealistic. The Chinese economy is changing, setting the stage for a slower pace of growth. 

A weighty challenge for the world as a whole
Slowing Chinese growth often sets off the warning bells on world growth as a whole. Having hinged on developed countries during the period after the Second World War, growth is now dependent on the situation in China, which has displayed exceptional expansion since the start of the 1990s, creating strong and long-lasting impetus for the world overall.

The world growth driver is now China, rather than developed markets, and this shift is particularly vital as potential growth in developed countries has been on the wane since 2008. Right across the globe, from the US to France, growth that can be sustained in the long term while not generating permanent imbalances is weaker than before the 2007 crisis, and none of these countries can drive strong and self-sustaining growth from within their borders. Meanwhile, China managed to fuel momentum, taking over the role of developed economies – particularly the US – and benefiting the entire world economy.

So China managed to set the stage for stronger growth the world over on a long-term basis, either by sparking fresh competition on the Western markets, developing relationships with other emerging countries (Asia, Africa, Latam) or attracting capital to take advantage of Chinese growth, even if the price to pay for this was the transfer of technology.

According to IMF data (in current dollars terms), Chinese GDP has gone from less than 2% of world GDP in 1991 to 6% ahead of the 2007 crisis and then 16% in 2018, reflecting an astounding acceleration and putting it on a par with the euro area.

Chinese GDP as measured in purchasing power parity – a more coherent price and exchange rate system than the dollar-denominated assessment – has been higher than the US figure since 2014 and above the euro area figure since 2011.

More generally speaking, an increase in the weighting of China was achieved primarily at the expense of Europe and Japan, while the US maintained its strong representation. This also explains why the tension surrounding technological leadership is a Chinese-US matter and excludes Europe, which was not sufficiently involved in supporting China’s swift development.

A final point worth keeping in mind is that Chinese imports equated to close to 80% of US imports in 2017. A domestic Chinese shock affecting its imports would have a similar effect to a shock on US domestic demand and hence on its imports, and the worldwide impact of a shock on Chinese growth would be closer than many would expect to the effects of a shock on US growth.

China – US: the battle is just beginning

Donald Trump’s threats to world trade are a desperate attempt from the US to maintain the country’s world economic leadership. The most dramatic shift over the past 20 years has taken place in China, as the country has displayed stellar growth and now accounts for an increasingly large percentage of the world economy.

China has been one of the big winners from globalization, as citizens have enjoyed an impressive surge in income to the detriment of the middle and lower classes in developed markets, as shown by Branko Milanovic’s famous elephant chart. This chart also goes a long way to explaining recent political events in western countries: the middle classes across the board have ended up in a more unstable situation than 10 or 20 years ago, and this has major consequences for the way they vote.

The industrial momentum that very swiftly pushes up income is now the preserve of Asia, and China in particular. Industrial output across the US, Japan and Europe – the three major areas that drove world growth after the Second World War – has stagnated over the past ten years, while figures in Asia (excluding Japan) have doubled. The “Made in China 2015” plan seeks to further accelerate this shift.

This contrasting industrial momentum now comes firmly down on the side of Asia and acts as the focus for Trump’s trade measures against China. Output is no longer increasing in western countries, but rather in Asia, driving the region’s catch-up trend and reducing developed countries’ headway. The US is seeing its leadership diminish, while at the same time the situation also raises major challenges for Europe, although it has not taken the same aggressive course of action as the White House. Furthermore, the industrial revival in developed countries often referred to as “Industry 4.0” only seems to involve the substitution of existing production, rather than a true jump in production volumes. For the moment, this so-called revival is not sufficient to point to a reversal in the aforementioned trend towards the location of production in Asian countries. Continue reading

Higher bonds rates in China – Should we care?

Written with Zouhoure Bousbih

This week, the Chinese bond market has again been under selling pressure. The yield on 10-year Chinese government bonds once again flirted with the 4%, the highest in 3 years.
The Pboc (the Chinese Central Bank) intervened twice this week by injecting liquidity into the market, for a total amount of 810 billion yuan or USD 122bn , the largest injection since mid-January.
China-10YearRate
Should we worry?
No. The movement began just after the end of the C.C.P congress (end of October) when the Chinese authorities signaled clearly that they would continue their fight against high leveraged finance, ie shadow banking.
This has resulted in massive sales from Chinese government bondholders notably from  mutual funds that are the second largest holders of Chinese state bonds. They feared a tightening of financial conditions.
China’s interest rates have been low so far because of the loose Pboc’s monetary policy. The orientation has not changed but the action of the Chinese monetary policy is now more focused.
The Pboc intervened in the market by injecting liquidity in order to reduce volatility and it will continue to intervene if necessary to correct the excesses of the financial markets.
The Chinese central bank must find an equilibrium between its deleveraging campaign and the stabilization of Chinese financial markets so as not to penalize economic activity.

Does this question the attractiveness of the Chinese bond market for international investors? and the willingness of the Chinese authorities to open their bond market?
At 4%, Chinese government bonds remain attractive compared to their counterparts in developed countries,  helped by a stabilized yuan. China’s deleveraging campaign is rather a positive signal sent to international investors. China will not come back on the opening of its bond market to international investors because of the internationalization of the yuan. China’s economic activity remains sound. This is only a moment of turbulence to pass …