It’s no good blaming just China for the global stock market sell-off

It’s around 12.30 am at night as I start writing this column and I am watching the television coverage of the flip-flopping stock markets in the United States.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average started the day on August 24, 2015, around 1000 points down, from its previous close on Friday (August 21, 2015). It recovered more than 800 points and then started to fall all over again. Ultimately, it closed the day at 15,871.28 points, down 588.47 points or 3.58%, from its previous close.

Earlier in the day, the Shanghai Composite Index was down by 8.5% to close at around 3209.91 points. The BSE Sensex also saw a massive fall of 1624.51 points or 5.94% to close at 25,741.56 points. Stock markets around the world fell.

Analyst after analyst has blamed China for this massive fall in stock markets all over the world. And so have politicians. Before I get into this, here is some background. Until August 10, 2015, around 6.2 Chinese yuan made up for one US dollar. Between August 11 and August 14, the People’s Bank of China, devalued the yuan against the dollar. Since then the value of the yuan has moved between 6.38-6.40 yuan to a dollar. This was the biggest devaluation in the value of the yuan in two decades.

The yuan has been devalued in the hope of getting Chinese exports going again. In July 2015, the Chinese exports fell by around 8.3%. The fear is that the Chinese will continue to devalue the yuan in the days to come to prop up their exports.

A devalued yuan will lead to cheaper Chinese exports. Let’s understand this through an example. Let’s say a product exported out of China is sold at $50. At around 6.4 yuan to a dollar, the exporter makes 320 yuan every time he sells one piece of the product. We assume no other expenses for the ease of calculation.

Now let’s say the Chinese gradually devalue the yuan to around 7 yuan to a dollar. Then for every piece of the product that is sold the Chinese exporter makes 350 yuan. Instead of taking on the entire gain, the exporter may decide to cut the price in dollars and make his product more competitive. Let’s say he cuts the price of his product to $46. At this price he still makes 322 yuan, which is a little more than the 320 yuan he was making earlier. Nevertheless, given that he has cut his price by a significant $4, chances are he will sell more pieces of the product and make more money in the process. Chinese exports will go up and this will perk up economic growth as well.

Data from 2014 shows that China exports nearly 63% of its exports to the developed world (i.e. United States, European Union, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Taiwan). Prices of products made in these countries would have to be cut, in order to compete with similar products which are made in China and exported to these countries.

This would lead to prices falling (or what economists like to call deflation) in these countries and that can’t be good for the overall economy. The stock markets are adjusting to this “new reality”. The Economist estimates that “more than $5 trillion has been wiped off on global stock prices,” since August 11, the day China first devalued the yuan against the dollar.

China has been largely blamed for this massive fall in stock markets all over the world. It is being said that China will export deflation to other parts of the world.

In fact, even Donald Trump, who is a Presidential candidate for the Republican Party in the United States, has an opinion on this. Speaking to reporters after the Chinese started devaluing the yuan he had this to say:I think you have to do something to rein in China. They devalued their currency today. They’re making it absolutely impossible for the United States to compete, and nobody does anything. China has no respect for President Obama whatsoever, whatsoever.
Well, you have to take strong action. How can we compete? They continuously cut their currency. They devalue their currency. And I have been saying this for years. They have been doing this for years. This isn’t just starting. This was the largest devaluation they have had in two decades. They make it impossible for our businesses, our companies to compete.
They think we’re run by a bunch of idiots. And what’s going on with China is unbelievable, the largest devaluation in two decades. It’s honestly – great question – it’s a disgrace

Economist John Mauldin had this to say regarding Trump’s comment on the devaluation of the yuan: “Before you dismiss this as nonsense, remember that it comes from a Wharton School graduate.” These MBAs I tell you.

The larger point is why is everyone blaming China for the massive stock market crash all around the world? What led to China letting its currency fall a little against the dollar between August 11 and August 14, 2015? Now that is a question worth asking and answering.

In October 2012, around 80 yen made up for a dollar. Since then, the Bank of Japan has been printing yen (or rather creating them digitally) to drive down the value of the yen in a bid to make Japanese exports more competitive and Japanese imports more expensive.

The idea was that if Japanese exports became more competitive on the price front (as a result of the devaluation of the yen, as we saw with the yuan example earlier), the total amount of Japanese exports would go up. At the same time, if Japanese imports became more expensive, the sale of goods produced locally would go up.

This would mean that exports as well as consumption of goods produced within the country would go up. And this would benefit the Japanese economy. As William Pesek recently wrote on “The yen’s 35 percent drop since late 2012 made Japanese goods cheaper, companies more profitable and Nikkei stocks more attractive.” Further, with a fall in the value of the yen, Japanese exports became more competitive in comparison to exports from countries like Taiwan and South Korea.

Further, imports into Japan became more expensive and this hit countries like China. The Chinese exports to Japan fell by more than 10% in July 2015. By trying to devalue the yuan, China was only doing what the Bank of Japan has been doing for a while.

Other than the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, the central bank of the euro zone(essentially countries which use the euro as their currency), has also been printing money, in the hope of driving down the value of the euro. The ECB is printing around 60 billion euros a month.

As Mauldin points out: “First off, the two largest currency manipulating central banks currently at work in the world are (in order) the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank. And two to four years ago the hands-down leading manipulator would have been the Federal Reserve of the United States…Today, the euro is off over 30% from its highs, as is the Japanese yen. Numerous other currencies are likewise well into double-digit slides. China has moved maybe 3 to 4%. Oh, wow.”

Also, it needs to be pointed out here that the Chinese yuan had been rising against the dollar, all this while, unlike what Trump pointed out. As Mauldin writes: “The rest of the world (Japan, Europe, Great Britain, Brazil, India, among others) [has been] letting their currencies drift down. The simple fact is that the Chinese currency rose by 20% over the last five years…It is utterly wrong-headed to call a 20% rise over almost 10 years “continuous devaluation.”

Hence, why blame only China? The currency wars are on, and China is just one part of it.
The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on August 25, 2015

Currency wars are driving down the Sensex

Vivek Kaul

The BSE Sensex fell by around 1624.51 points or 5.94% to close at 25,741.56 points yesterday (August 24, 2015). Sensex is an index of 30 major stocks that are traded on the Bombay Stock Exchange.

By now, dear reader, you may have read at many places that this was the biggest fall of the Sensex ever. That is incorrect. It was the 29th biggest fall of the Sensex, if we look at falls in percentage terms, which is the right way of looking at the situation.

Further, it was the biggest fall of the Sensex in more than six and a half years. On January 7, 2009, the Sensex had fallen by 7.25%. That was the day when B Ramalinga Raju of Satyam Computers confessed to a fraud. All falls after January 7, 2009, have been lower than yesterday’s fall.

So the question is why did the Sensex fall as much as it did yesterday?

The simple answer is—currency wars. In October 2012, the 80 Japanese yen were worth a dollar. As I write this on August 24, 2015, around 118 Japanese yen make for a dollar. The Bank of Japan (their equivalent of Reserve Bank of India) has been printing yen in the hope of driving down the value of the yen.

Why has it been doing this?

This is being done to make Japanese exports more competitive. A fall in the value of a currency means exporters can make more money. It also allows them to cut prices and hopefully boost exports and in turn economic growth. At the same time, the idea is to make Japanese imports more expensive.
China competes with Japan when it comes to exports. In July 2015, Chinese exports were down by 8.3%. During the same period Chinese exports to Japan were down by more than 10%.

Between August 11 and August 14, the People’s Bank of China, the Chinese central bank devalued its currency, the yuan, against the dollar. Before August 11, 6.2 yuan were worth a dollar. Now around 6.4 yuan are worth a dollar. This was done in the hope of boosting Chinese exports and in turn Chinese economic growth. The fear is that China will devalue the yuan further.

But why is that driving down the stock market?

If China devalues the yuan further, Chinese exports will become cheaper. This will mean that prices of goods produced in countries like United States and in large parts of Europe will have to be cut, in order to remain competitive with Chinese imports. This will lead to a scenario of what economists call “deflation” or falling prices in these countries. The Western economies will contract or not grow at the same speed. The stock markets around the world are adjusting to this “expected” situation. The Indian market is not an exception to this, as most of the money invested in the Indian stock market belongs to foreign investors.

What should you do?

A lot of experts have said that this is a good time to buy. That may actually not be the case. As I write this, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, one of the premier stock market indices in the United States, is down by more than around 500 points or 3%. Chances are the Sensex’s fall may continue as well. This is a risk not worth taking.

Also, it is worth remembering the old adage of drinking stocks SIP by SIP, where SIP stands for a systematic investment plan. Since the start of January 2008, Sensex has given a return of 5% per year. But an SIP on a good mutual fund would have given you a return of higher than 15% per year. This is timeless advice and works at most points of time.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on August 25, 2015

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Down 1600 points: Why the Sensex is on a free-fall

As I write this, I am listening to one of my favourite songs, “Free Fallin’”, sung by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

And it is indeed heart-breaking to see the BSE Sensex go on a free-fall today. It fell by 1624.51 points during the course of the day to close at 25,741.56 points.
In absolute terms it is the biggest single day fall ever. But that is not the right way of looking at it (though that is how much of the media will report it).

In percentage terms, the Sensex fell by 5.94% during the course of the day. This is the 29th biggest fall ever. Given this, the Sensex fall today is a big fall, but it is not as big as it will be made out to be.

Much analysis has happened around the fall and various reasons have been offered on why the stock market is on a free-fall.
A major reason that has been offered is that the Chinese stock market has fallen by around 8.5% today. The Shanghai Composite Index is quoting at around 3,210 points, down 298 points from Friday’s close. And given that the Chinese market has fallen, the contagion has spread to other stock markets as global investors try and limit their losses by selling out.

But this is only partly true. The thing is that the Chinese stock market has been going down for a while now. Here is a column I wrote on July 9, 2015, trying to explain why the Chinese stock market has fallen. It has been more than six weeks since then.

Hence, the question to ask is why has it taken so long for the Indian stock market to react to the Chinese fall? Why has the contagion taken so long to spread?
The answer is not as simple as it is being made out to be. Until August 11, 2015, one dollar was worth 6.2 yuan. The People’s Bank of China, the Chinese central bank, over the years, has maintained a stable value of the dollar against the yuan. This has essentially been done to help Chinese exporters. By ensuring the yuan had a fixed value against the dollar, the Chinese central bank took this variable out of the Chinese exporters’ equation totally. This helped Chinese exports and exporters flourish and has been a very important part of the Chinese economic miracle.

Between August 11 and August 14, 2015, the Chinese central bank devalued the value of the yuan against the dollar and pushed down its value to around 6.39 yuan to a dollar. This was the biggest devaluation of the yuan against the dollar in nearly two decades.

A major reason for the same was the fact that Chinese exports for the month of July 2015 had fallen by 8.3% in comparison to June 2014. Even in June 2015, the Chinese exports went up by only 2.8%, in comparison to a year earlier.

But all that happened nearly 10 days back, why is all hell breaking lose now? On August 21, 2015, data pertaining to the Chinese factory sector was released. It showed that the Chinese factory sector had shrunk to its lowest level since January to March 2009.

This data point led to stock markets around the Western world falling. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, one of the premier stock market indices in the United States, fell by around 531 points or 3.12% to close at around 16,460 points. The FTSE 100 Index of the London Stock Exchange fell by 2.8%.

Why were these markets reacting to negative Chinese factory data? The simple answer lies in the fact that a shrinking factory sector is a reflection of weak Chinese exports. And what this means is that the People’s Bank of China is likely to devalue the yuan more in the days to come.

If that were to be the case, it would give Chinese exporters some leeway to cut their prices in order to get their exports growing again. And this will lead to imports prices of Chinese goods coming into the United States, Europe and other parts of the world, falling.

As Albert Edwards of Societe Generale wrote in a recent research note: “This move will transform perceptions about the resilience of the US economy… Up until now Japanese yen devaluation has been the main driver of falling US import prices.” Now the devaluation of the Chinese yuan (i.e. if it continues) will add to falling import prices in the United States.

What this means is that the local goods being produced in the US and Europe will also have to cut prices in order to compete with cheaper Chinese imports. And that can’t be good for the economy.

This is precisely the reason why stock markets through much of the Western world fell on Friday. These stock markets close a few hours after the Indian stock market had closed. The BSE Sensex had gone up marginally on Friday.

So, when it opened today, the BSE Sensex had to adjust to a new level and the possibility of the Chinese authorities devaluing the yuan further. If the yuan is devalued further, it would mean cheaper Chinese goods hitting all parts of the world (not that they are not already). In the process China would end up exporting deflation (lower prices) to large parts of the world.

Lower prices would mean that the economies will not grow at the same pace as they were in the past. And that is a possibility that the stock market needs to adjust to. Further, as markets fall, selling leads to more selling.

To conclude, since I started with a Tom Petty song, I will end with one as well: Coming down is the hardest thing. Hope this helps, dear reader. Happy listening!

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column appeared originally on Firstpost on August 24, 2015