The stock market is off to a really bad start in 2016, in case you hadn’t noticed. In fact, before last week’s bounce, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was having its worst start to a new year since at least 1897. That's when they began keeping records. William McKinley was president.
Right or wrong, two main culprits have been widely cited as catalysts for the selling: China and oil. And at least part of oil’s slide is attributed to weakness in China, which in 2015 notched its slowest GDP growth in 25 years.
So to help you understand what’s really going on in China, I present this handy chart via RBS Macro Credit Research.
Take a good look at this because even more than a chart of money fleeing from emerging markets, this chart tells you ALL you need to know about what’s going on in China and, by extension, what spooked global markets at the start of 2016.
Click chart to enlarge
Take a look again…got it? Good!
Right now you’re probably thinking: "Wait…what? This makes no sense-I can't make heads or tails of it."
What you’re looking at is a chart showing attempts by Chinese officials to regulate their stock market, going back to 2014. People seem to have forgotten that China’s market has been on a wild ride since mid-2014 when state-run media outlets published a series of articles and television specials that encouraged individuals to invest in stocks.
Believe it or not, that was China's (unofficial) “strategy” to get people to stop speculating in real estate—they just moved the action to another casino. It worked like a charm as China’s stock market exploded higher starting in the second half of 2014 through the first half of 2015. Then reality (and the selling) took over, prompting an even more ridiculous response from policymakers. (Update: The pattern repeated itself Tuesday as China's Shanghai composite fell 6.3%, hitting its lowest level since December 2014, despite the People's Bank of China conducting its biggest daily open markets operation in three years.)
What this chart tells you is there’s complete chaos in China. Or, as Jim Cramer once famously said about Ben Bernanke and the U.S. Fed: They’re nuts! They’re nuts! They know nothing!
The good news here is that China’s stock market is actually a pretty small part of the Chinese economy and a much smaller part of the global economy. From a fundamental basis, what’s happening in China really shouldn’t matter all that much to the U.S. stock market in the long run. U.S exports to China equaled just 0.7% of America's GDP in 2014. (Last year's figure is not out yet.) But stocks trade in the here and now, and in the long run we’re all dead…as another famous man, John Maynard Keynes, once said.
Many people have said the problem with China's stock market is that no one trusts it because it is being manipulated by the government. But as Gary Cohn, president of Goldman Sachs, pointed out at the World Economic Forum last week, it's not that unusual for governments to step in and try to control markets. The U.S. did it in 2008.
But the difference is in China it was always the assumption, both outside, but particularly inside the country, that while the economy had modernized, it was still under the ultimate control of China's Communist party.
"The intervention in the stock market exactly shows that the government is afraid of volatility caused by a loosening of the State’s grip on the economy," writes RBS's global macro credit research team. "In our view, the real danger for China is a delay in the necessary reforms, if the government again uses investment and credit to prop up growth. This could further fuel the country’s debt bubble, which will lead to bigger fallouts when it bursts and the government will have less policy dry powder to counter."
The real problem with China is the crazy moves in the local stock market in recent years—down AND up—and the government’s haphazard attempts to manipulate the market are glaring proof that China’s Communist Party is NOT in control…is NOT all powerful and all knowing…and the Chinese people know it. And that could be a huge problem for the global economy if the ruling Communist Party can’t put the genie back in the bottle...and fast.