The China Factor: What it means for the region

The saying goes, that the world catches a cold when China sneezes. If that is true, what will happen if China catches a fever?

Already in the throes of an economic slowdown, the world's second-largest economy has started the new year with a major hammering to its stock and currency markets.

And an inability of the authorities to put out the fires has raised concerns that Beijing is losing its grip on economic policy, as analysts fear the impact may spread across economies from East Asia to Down Under.

"China's economic fundamentals remain weak, and investors have struggled to understand the cohesiveness of various policy measures aimed at stabilising the equity and currency markets," Deutsche Bank chief economist Taimur Baig said in a monthly research note last week.


Immediate repercussions of the two-week horror in Chinese markets were felt in Hong Kong, which has close historic, cultural and trade ties to China, and whose fortunes are increasingly intertwined with it.

The Chinese flock to the city of seven million to shop and invest, with tourist numbers increasing 37 per cent last year. Last month's trade figures were also robust.

But Hong Kong took a big hit when Chinese markets suffered. After the latest rout this month, the Hang Seng Index closed at its lowest level in nearly 3½ years on Friday, while the Hong Kong currency fell 0.15 per cent to HK$7.7933 versus the greenback on Friday, as investors seemed to lose confidence in Chinese assets.

Fears that the Hong Kong dollar will weaken beyond its permitted trading range of HK$7.75-HK$7.85 by the end of this year has gripped the market.

"If the (yuan) weakens a lot, I don't see how Hong Kong would escape speculation of de-pegging as well," Mr Mirza Baig of BNP Paribas in Singapore told Bloomberg.

Property prices are also predicted to drop 8 per cent this quarter.

Focus-Economics analyst Eric Denis wrote in a report this month that "economic dynamics will remain weak in Hong Kong in 2016", with its growth drivers hit by a subdued global environment and rising interest rates in the United States.

Thailand, which has been struggling to revive its sluggish economy, has also been trying to build closer economic ties with China. But the Thai central bank said it is expecting zero export growth this year partly over the China slowdown, and has forecast the economy would grow 3.5 per cent.

"We have to find ways to make tourism revenue exceed our target to make up for exports that will be largely affected this year due to the global economic conditions," Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak told reporters recently.


China's slowdown has also had a huge bearing on prices of everything from crude oil to iron ore, with the economies of Malaysia and Australia feeling the pinch the most as a result. Malaysia, a major exporter of gas and commodities, saw exports rise at only half the anticipated pace in November and industrial production slowed to its weakest pace in 16 months.

Australia, which rode a mining investment boom for nearly a decade as China guzzled raw materials to power its construction industry, has suffered significantly. Demand for iron ore fell amid an increased global supply.

Indonesia - despite limited direct links - is also susceptible to China's convulsions, which can generate huge ripples in its exports and put currency stability at risk.

"There is probably an increasing realisation among policymakers in Indonesia - and beyond - that a new era where there is bound to be bouts of Made-in-China volatility is here to stay," says OCBC economist Wellian Wiranto.

The move by the People's Bank of China to weaken the yuan stoked market fears that China may be on a path of competitive devaluation, with huge repercussions for other Asian currencies.

A weaker yuan and inflation will put Asian policymakers in a fix whether to follow suit and depreciate their exchange rate to maintain competitiveness, and whether to cut interest rates and risk triggering capital outflows, Deutsche Bank economists Taimur Baig and his team observed.

They predict that sharply lower commodity prices will be passed on to retail prices, and Asian economies will see another bout of sharp disinflation or outright deflation this year.


Chinese companies have been competing with top firms in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, in the electronics, engineering and infrastructure sectors.

Samsung, Xiaomi and HTC each vie for a bigger piece of the smartphone market, while Japanese rail companies have been battling Chinese state firms for strategic infrastructure projects in South-east Asia and South Asia.

But as China struggled to maintain control over its markets and oil prices slide, equities around the world were also off to their worst start to a year. Japan's Topix is down 9.1 per cent for this year. South Korea's exports to China, which account for about half of the economy, declined 16.5 per cent last month.

Growth in Japan remains constrained by weaker demand from overseas, in particular from China, while the South Korean central bank said uncertainty over the Chinese economy and markets, global oil prices and prospects of a US interest rate rise all posed a risk to its economy.


All the turmoil was exacerbated by latest data showing the purchasing manager's index at below 50. This is a widely-tracked gauge which indicates contraction in the manufacturing sector. But analysts say this has to be viewed in context.

"Manufacturing in China is changing, not disappearing," McKinsey & Co senior external adviser Gordon Orr writes in a 2016 outlook report for China. "The country is evolving towards extremes of performance: the truly awful and the genuinely competitive," he observes.

He predicts that this year, smaller Chinese firms in the manufacturing sector will give multinationals a tough fight within and outside China.

OCBC's Mr Wiranto said a shift in outlook towards China is needed, where the nation is not seen just as a market alone.

"There ought to be a shift in thinking about China as an eager end-customer for exports of goods from the region, to increasingly a potential competitor that is also striving for market share in the realm of global exports," Mr Wiranto says.

Deutsche's Mr Baig expects vigorous policy implementation and surprises in the first half of this year from the China's authorities to stabilise the markets. "But challenges would likely re-emerge in the second half as struggles with the debt burden and excess capacity (of its industries) continue," said Mr Baig.

This article was first published on Jan 17, 2016.
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