To shore up sagging stock prices, Beijing calls in the ‘national team’
This is the web version of Eastworld, Fortune’s newsletter focused on business and technology in Asia. Subscribe here to get future editions in your inbox.
When China’s leaders unveiled their 14th five-year economic plan at last week’s National People’s Congress in Beijing, the thousands of delegates gathered in the Great Hall of the People for the event could be counted on to applaud enthusiastically and on cue.
Investors in the nation’s equity markets haven’t been so well-behaved.
China stocks were sliding before the congress commenced. By the confab’s opening on March 5, the benchmark CSI 300, an index of the 300 largest stocks listed in mainland China, had tumbled 9% from its recent peak on February 10. The index slid 0.3% lower Friday, stopping just shy of the 10% decline analysts define as a correction. On Monday, it sank 3.5% crashing through the correction barrier, and on Tuesday, it dropped a further 3.2%— despite evidence that Beijing had ordered a group of state-backed investment funds sometimes called “the national team” to stem the rout by buying shares.
At the close of trading Tuesday, the CSI 300 is down 14% from its February high, with shares of once high-flying companies like Kweichow Moutai Co. surrendering more than 25%.
That’s an un-bullish start for the Year of the Ox, and casts a shadow over the NPC, the release of China’s 14th five-year plan, and the centenary of the founding of China’s Communist Party.
The shakeout follows a series of recent warnings by Chinese financial officials. In January, Ma Jun, a key adviser to the People’s Bank of China suggested interest rates were too low and that China’s central bank would need to reduce liquidity to ease the risk of speculative bubbles. On March 2, China’s top banking regulator, Guo Shuqing, said he worried cheap credit had spawned a “bubble problem in foreign financial markets” and that he also saw “relatively large bubbles” in China’s real estate sector.
Those comments come against the backdrop of a stronger-than-expected global recovery. China investors, like their global counterparts, are unnerved by rising yields on U.S. Treasury bonds, which increase borrowing costs, make stocks look less attractive, and raise the specter of rising inflation. There’s mounting concern that global policymakers, who have ramped up public spending and held interest rates at all-time lows to jump-start economic growth, will reverse course and begin tightening fiscal and monetary policy too quickly.
Chinese Premiere Li Keqiang may have stoked those fears Friday in announcing China’s economic growth target of “above 6%” for 2021. Most analysts think China capable of growing by as much as 9% in the current year, up from last year’s 2.3%, leading some to speculate that the low-ball forecast signals China’s leaders are more focused on reining in debt and asset bubbles than on ramping up growth. Notably, Beijing lowered the target for its fiscal deficit to 3.2% of GDP, down from last year’s 3.6%.
The Economist this week makes the case that “fiscal tapering” is the sensible course for China’s policy makers. China was both the first country to suffer from the COVID-19 virus and also the first large economy to control it. Bloomberg’s Daniel Moss observes that “Beijing and Washington appear to have learned opposite lessons from the global financial crisis” of 2007-2008. China, which went on a big spending spree, now regrets its “debt hangover.” U.S. officials, meanwhile, “appear to have concluded they weren’t bold enough post-crisis and withdrew too quickly.”
Investors in both markets will put those conclusions to the test.
More Eastworld news below.
This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Eamon Barrett. Reach him at email@example.com
H&M orders pause
Swedish fashion retailer H&M said Monday it was suspending new orders from its factories in Myanmar, as the junta intensifies a bloody crackdown on protesters fighting against a military coup that took place on February 1. At least 50 protesters have been killed by armed forces to date. However, H&M has said it doesn’t plan to withdraw operations from Myanmar entirely, where it works with 45 suppliers. Strikers destroyed production lines at one of those supplier factories last week, following a months-long dispute with management over healthcare and performance reviews. Reuters
“Blockchain, with its tamperproof and distributed nature, is key to strengthening trust in this increasingly digital environment,” says Ant Group Chief Technology Officer Ni Xingjun in a recent Fortune op-ed. Despite cracking down on Bitcoin mining, the Chinese government is pushing for innovation in the crypto/blockchain space. Tech hub Shenzhen used blockchain to facilitate tax payments in 2019 and, last month, Chengdu became the latest city to trial China’s sovereign cryptocurrency. Fortune
Worth a shot
China launched its vaccine passport on Monday, days after officials revealed the plan at China’s annual Two Sessions parliamentary meeting last week. The International Travel Health Certificate is an app integrated within China’s ubiquitous WeChat messaging platform. The pass uses a QR code to store information about the user’s COVID-19 test and vaccination history, but it’s not clear whether immigration authorities outside of China will accept the plan—nor how quick uptake in China will be. Global Times
Thailand’s northeastern state of Buriram held a hemp exhibition over the weekend as the government further eases restrictions on cannabis products. Thailand legalized marijuana for medical usage in 2017 and in January this year legalized hemp farming and formalized rules allowing for hemp derivatives to be used in food and cosmetics. Nearby China is currently the world’s leading producer of hemp. Reuters
Cup of Suga
Japan Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide will be the first foreign leader invited to the White House by President Joe Biden, according to Axios. Suga is expected to make the trip in April. Japan and the U.S. are two of the four constituents of The Quad—a strategic alliance including Australia and India that hedges against China’s economic and political dominance in Asia. Axios
Markets and Movers
On auto. China car sales quadrupled in February over the same month last year, when the pandemic caused the most havoc in China. Sales of passenger cars hit 1.18 million units, 97,000 of which were electric. WSJ
Women’s day. None of Hong Kong’s top listed firms have achieved gender parity on their boards, with only 74 women present across the boards of the 52 companies represented in the city’s benchmark Hang Seng index. FT
Gap. Gap is mulling selling its China business, after a decade in the market, Bloomberg reports. The American clothing retailer is considering different restructuring arrangements as the pandemic hits sales. Bloomberg
JD.com JD Technology, the fintech unit of e-commerce site JD.com, is planning to withdraw its IPO application from Shanghai’s Star Market, citing “changing market circumstances.” Beijing has increased scrutiny of fintech firms since it forced Ant Group to pull its IPO last year. SCMP
Jardine buyout. Jardine Matheson is taking its second-largest unit private in a $5.5. billion buyout, taking Jardine Strategic Holdings off the Singapore Exchange. Shares in Jardine rallied 15% Monday, after the announcement. Bloomberg
Aramco a-go. Bank of America says Saudi Aramco is unlikely to miss the annual $75 billion in dividends it promised to pay for the first five years of its listing. The pandemic cast doubt on Aramco’s ability to meet its pledge as oil prices plummeted, but the current rebound puts the petroleum giant back on track. Bloomberg
Noodle stock. Philippine instant noodle maker Monde Nissin plans to raise $1.3 billion through an IPO on the Philippine Stock Exchange, in what could be the country’s largest public offering to date. The company has not set a date for its IPO. Nikkei Asia
Chinese photo editing app Meitu invested $40 million in cryptocurrency last week, including $22 million in Ether and $18 million in Bitcoin. Meitu, which began life as a photo-editing app but has proven itself a pioneer in computer vision and facial recognition tech, plans to reallocate $100 million of cash holdings into cryptocurrencies, hoping to ride the digital currency hype. The Hong Kong-listed company is running at a loss since its largest clients—smartphone makers—began creating their own in-house alternatives to Meitu’s tech.