When I was in Singapore last week I spoke at the FT Asia Commodities Summit. Regardless of whether the subject was ags or energy or metals, China played an outsized role in the discussion. In particular, participants focused on China’s newish “supply side” policy.
There is little doubt that the policy–which focuses on reducing capacity, or at least output in steel, coal, and other primary industries–has had an impact on prices. Consider coking coal:
Coking coal, the material used by steelmakers to fire their blast furnaces, has become the best performing commodity of 2016 after surging more than 80 per cent over the past month on the back of production curbs and flooding in China.
Premium hard Australian coking coal delivered to China hit $180.9 a tonne on Friday, this highest level since price reporting agency Steel Index began publishing assessments in 2013. It has risen 131 per cent since the start of the year, outpacing gold, silver, iron ore and zinc — other top performing commodities.
The main driver of the rally — which has also roiled thermal coal — is Beijing’s decision to restrict the number of working days at domestic mines to 276 days per year from 330 previously.
This policy is aimed at the improving the profitability of producers so they can repay loans to local banks. But it has reduced output and forced traders and steel mills to buy imported material from what is known as the seaborne market.
80 percent. In a month.
Newcastle thermal coal is heading for the first annual gain in six years as China seeks to cut overcapacity and curb pollution. While the timing of the output adjustment is unavailable, it may start in September or October after recent price gains, Citigroup said in the report dated Sept. 8. Bohai-Rim is 26 percent higher from a year ago, when it was 409 yuan, while Newcastle has climbed as much as 40 percent this year.
The phrase “supply side reform” actually fits rather awkwardly here, at least to a Western ear. That phrase connotes the reduction of regulatory and tax burdens as a means of promoting economic growth. But Supply Side Reform With Chinese Characteristics means increasing the government’s role in managing the economy.
A better description would be that this is The New Deal With Chinese Characteristics. FDR’s New Deal was largely a set of measures to cartelize major US industries, in an effort to raise prices. The economic “thinking” behind this was completely wrongheaded, and motivated by the idea that there was “ruinous competition” in product and labor markets that required government intervention to fix. Apparently the higher prices and wages were supposed to increase aggregate demand. Or something. But although the New Deal foundered on Constitutional shoals only a few years after its passage, in its brief existence it had proven to be an economic nightmare rent by contradictions. For instance, if you increase prices in an upstream industry, that is detrimental to the downstream sector for which the upstream industry’s outputs are inputs. According to scholarship dating back to Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, and continuing through recent work by Cole and Ohanian, interference in the price mechanism and forced cartelization slowed the US’s recovery from the monetary shock that caused the Great Depression.
The motivation for the Chinese policy is apparently not so much to facilitate the rationalization of capacity in sectors with too much of it, but to increase revenue of firms in these sectors in order to permit them to pay back debt to banks and the holders of wealth management products (which often turn out to be banks too). Further, the policy is also driven by a need to sustain employment in these industries. Thus, the policies are intended to prop up the financially weakest and least efficient companies, rather than cull them.
So step back for a minute and contemplate what this means. Through a variety of policies, including most notably financial repression (that made capital artificially cheap) and credit stimulus, China encouraged massive investment in the commodities and primary goods sectors. These policies succeeded too well: they encouraged massive over-investment. So to offset that, and to mitigate the financial consequences for lenders, local governments, and workers, China is intervening to restrict output to raise prices. Rather than encouraging the correction of past errors, the new policy is perpetuating them, and creating new ones.
Remind me again how China’s government got the reputation as master economic managers, because I’m not seeing it. This is an example of a wasteful response to wasteful over-investment: waste coming and going. Further, it involves an increase in government intervention, which obviously has those in favor a more liberal (in the Smithian sense) free market policy rather distraught, and which foreshadows even more waste in the future.
The policy is also obviously fraught with tensions, because it pits those consuming primary and intermediate goods against those producing them–and against the banks who are now more likely to get their money back. That is, it is a backdoor bank (and WMP) bailout, the costs of which will be borne by the consumers of the goods produced by industries that were supersized by past government profligacy.
Ironically, the policy also stokes something that the government purports to hate: speculation. Policy volatility encourages speculation on the goods and industries affected by these policies. The large movements in prices in the coal and iron-steel sectors in response to policy changes provide a strong incentive to speculate on future policy changes.
Further, it creates the potential for moral hazard in the future. Future lenders (and purchasers of WMP) will look back on this policy and conclude that the government may well undertake backdoor bailouts if the companies they have lent to run into difficulties. This is hardly conducive to prudent lending and investment.
This is not foresighted policy. It is extemporizing to fix near-term problems, most of which were created by past measures to fix near-term problems. There is a Three Stooges aspect to the entire endeavor.
Of course, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. Glencore is no doubt very grateful for Chairman Xi’s heavy-handed policy intervention. It has probably played a larger role in bringing the company back from the brink than did the company’s prudent efforts to cut debt. But it is probably too late, alas, for Peabody Coal, and Arch Coal, and all those “coal people” whom former empathizer in chief Bill Clinton mocked last week. The ingrates!
The bottom line is that China is the 800 pound gorilla of the commodity markets, and shifts in its policies can lead to huge moves in commodity prices. Given that these policy shifts are driven by the crisis du jour (e.g., commodity producer shakiness threatening to make banks and local governments shaky) rather than good economics, and that these policy shifts are difficult to predict given the opacity and centralization of Chinese decision making, they add to substantial additional volatility in commodity prices and commodity markets: who can read the gorilla’s mind (which he changes often)?, and woe to those who read it wrong.