Australia Reportedly Faces Secret Trade Ban by China

This story first appeared on TheStreet.com.

https://realmoney.thestreet.com/politics/australia-reportedly-faces-secret-trade-ban-by-china-15481731

Is China punishing Australia by imposing a secret ban on a series of Aussie imports? That appears to be the case, with November 6 reportedly set as the day for the ban to begin.

Beijing has ordered a halt to the import of a wide range of Australia products, with at least seven product categories temporarily banned, according to a Bloomberg report citing “people familiar with the situation.”

The hit list would stop inbound shipments into China of coal, barley, copper ore and copper concentrate, sugar, timber, wine and lobster, the report states. The sources asked to remain anonymous because the information is sensitive.

Any temporary ban on commodities such as coal and copper would go much further than previous one-product restrictions, normally on high-profile consumer goods. China is Australia’s top trading partner, accounting for A$136 billion in imports into China in 2018, according to figures from the Australian government, with A$78 billion in Chinese goods heading the other way. That total two-way volume is up 35.8% since 2016.

Ore shipments explain why Australia punches above its weight as China’s sixth-largest source of imports, on par with Germany. Australia’s total trade ranks it as China’s 14th largest partner, matching the size of the Aussie economy.

China often changes visa restrictions for its citizens without any public notice. It often tries out policy changes in the securities industry by letting industry insiders experiment without any official announcement of a change in the rules to see how things go. And it occasionally restricts permissions for the import of certain specific goods in retaliation of perceived slights.

But China normally publicizes its punishments on trade. So it is unusual that Aussie exporters are in the dark on any trade ban about to come down.

The effects are already being felt.

Lobsters languish

Tons of live Australian lobsters have been left stranded on the tarmac of a Chinese airport, The Sydney Morning Herald reports, with customs clearance taking too long for the shellfish to reach restaurants before they are spoiled.

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says he knows about the reports of “customs clearance issues” on premium shellfish shipments into China. Paperwork suddenly becomes hard to come by if China wants to punish companies from a particular nation or multinational. So-called “health and reliance checks” have been holding up shipments into Shanghai, with China the destination for 94% of Australian rock lobster exports.

The trade minister said “discriminatory screening practices” imply a breach of World Trade Organization rules and a breach of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

I doubt Beijing’s bigwigs are going to let that bother them. World Trade Organization (WTO) and United Nations rules and protocols are very useful when China wants something, less so when they don’t suit Beijing.

Virus vitriol

China and Australia are at odds diplomatically after Australia requested an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Australia has also sent its warships to participate in “freedom of navigation” trips through waters that China claims in the South China Sea.

China pushes dodgy evidence of centuries-old fishing trips by Chinese vessels as justification for a land grab over the oil-and-gas-rich waters right up to the shores of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. All those nations are fighting China with legal challenges over their territorial rights.

The trade restrictions began in May, when China introduced heavy tariffs on Australian barley and suspended imports of beef from some Australian slaughterhouses.

China has since launched an investigation into whether Australia’s wine producers are dumping bottles at cut-rate prices on the Chinese market. The Australian cotton industry says Chinese spinning mills have been told to stop buying Australian cotton.

Pressure tactic

The China International Import Expo is taking place this week in Shanghai, at which President Xi Jinping sung the praises of international trade. Officially, China’s commerce ministry has denied that Australian goods are under a ban.

Trade analyst Jeffrey Wilson told The Guardian this is a classic example of “gray zone” diplomacy, where China is attempting to scare Australian companies over access to a key market, using trade to exert political pressure.

“The ambiguity is by design,” he says. “It’s not a trade war, it’s psychological war.”

Shares in Treasury Wines Estates fell 8% in Thursday trading in Sydney after the maker of Penfolds wines said China’s drinks industry is requesting Beijing to impose unprecedented retrospective tariffs on Australian wine already sold in China. That’s part of an anti-dumping investigation launched in August by China’s commerce ministry.

Spying spat, too

Besides their public diplomatic spats, China and Australia are also engaged in a clandestine fight over spying and undue political influence over Aussie politics.

Sunny Duong, a Chinese-Australian community organizer, on Thursday became the first person charged over foreign interference in Australian politics under new Australian national security laws. Duong, who heads the Oceania Federation of Chinese Organisations from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, has been a prominent donor to the pet projects of various Australian politicians.

There are no details as yet as to what Duong, who has been very public with his appearances alongside Australian politicians, is supposed to have done wrong. But the Australian Federal Police raided several properties in Melbourne on Oct. 16 in relation to the investigation.

Australia’s spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), has worked with the FBI-equivalent federal police on a counter foreign interference (CFI) taskforce in a year-long investigation.

“The CFI taskforce has taken preventative action to disrupt this individual at an early stage,” Australian Federal Police deputy commissioner Ian McCartney said, according to The Guardian. “Foreign interference is contrary to Australia’s national interest, it goes to the heart of our democracy. It is corrupting and deceptive, and goes beyond routine diplomatic influence practiced by governments.”

ASIO began warning in 2017 of Chinese influence attempts to control Australian politics through donations and sympathetic politicians.

In a blockbuster 2019 allegation, ASIO said it was investigating evidence that Beijing attempted to plant its operative as an elected official into the national Australian government. ASIO went public after news media broke the story. A Melbourne luxury car dealer, Bo “Nick” Zhao, reportedly told ASIO he was offered a “seven-figure sum” to run for government by a Chinese spy ring. Zhao was found dead in March 2019 from unexplained causes in a Melbourne hotel room.

As is typical, China has countered that Australia has been spying on China on a mass scale, instigating defections, spying on students and feeding false stories to the news media. A foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said in response to a report that Australia has tried to bug the Chinese embassy in Canberra that Australia is playing the “part of the victim, peddling rumors and stoking confrontation by staging a farce of the thief crying ‘stop thief.'”

Chinese exiles say they have faced intimidation from pro-Beijing squads while sheltering in Australia. It is a similar situation to what other Chinese exiles say has been happening in the United States. It appears these shadowy squads are sent to silence Beijing’s critics or force them to return to face Chinese courts through threats against their families in China or abroad.

Australia was the first country to ban the Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies from involvement in the country’s 5G mobile phone network. It cited national security concerns.

However, China is particularly angry over Australia’s demand for an investigation into the roots of Covid-19. It has worked very hard behind the scenes to force concessions from the World Health Organization as to how it will investigate the virus, with the WHO leaving many key decisions to China, and hobbled in its attempts to send its own scientists to the virus epicenter in Wuhan.

Australia and India Lead Mid-Week Selling for an Asia in Recession

There are country-specific reasons why Australia, India and Thailand are leading Asia’s plunge, but the whole region is in recession, S&P correctly says.

The wildly unpredictable movements of equity markets continued apace on Wednesday. Despite the strong rally on U.S. markets the day before, when the S&P 500 rose 6%, almost all Asian markets again posted sizable losses here on Wednesday.

The biggest losers are in Australia and India. I’ll briefly explore why each of those two markets is performing particularly poorly.

In Australia, there are massive daily moves in either direction, sometimes even intraday. The S&P/ASX 200 was down 6.4% at the close Wednesday after posting its biggest single-day gain in 20 years on Tuesday. Now that gain has been wiped out! Since hitting a record high on Feb. 20, the index has corrected 31.2%.

Australian equities are dominated by the Big Four banks – Commonwealth Bank CMWAY, Westpac Banking (WBK) , ANZ ANZBY and NAB NABZY – all of which are seeing their shares oscillate as central banks shift policy globally. The Oz market also has a healthy dose of commodity stocks such as the gold miners BHP Group (BHP) and Rio Tinto (RIO) , and commodities are getting crushed, even gold. There’s also a hefty listed real estate sector and renters are going to start struggling to pay up. Oh, and let’s not forget that Australia’s main customer is China, which isn’t buying.

India follows suit

Indian shares again sold off hard on Wednesday, with the Sensex down 5.6% at the close. Indian shares have now corrected 30.1% in the month since Feb. 19, one of the worst performances in Asia. Foreign institutional investors have been heavy sellers, placing a higher risk premium on Indian stocks than before the outbreak.

India only has 137 declared Covid-19 cases so far, and it’s a bit of a mystery why the world’s second-largest country by population has been spared so far. It may be that only a few people are being tested. While ultraviolet light does kill viruses in general, there has been no scientific proof that hot weather deters Covid-19, so it may be that developing markets that often are hot either haven’t been hit yet or tested well. Of course, developing nations will struggle the most in a health care sense if the disease sets in.

Here in Hong Kong, we’ve had virus cases confirmed among Hong Kong tourists returning from India trips. State governments in India are starting to shutter schools, malls, movie theaters and so on, an economic danger because domestic consumption accounts for around 60% of the economy. Travel and tourism, around 7.5% of GDP, will suffer immensely with tourism visas being cancelled.

There are some India-specific issues that add an extra layer of worry. Yes Bank, a private bank established in 2004 as an alternative to state-backed institutions, has collapsed and is being bailed out by the Reserve Bank of India, the nation’s central bank. Also, violent attacks against Muslim minority by radical Hindu nationalists have left scores dead. Those ethnic tensions are not going to be helped by any downward spiral in the economy.

It isn’t pretty elsewhere, either

While Australia and India have fared worst here on Wednesday, other markets alternate to outdo each other in poor performance. Japan was one of the only sources of green on screens, with the Topix up a narrow 0.2% on Wednesday after the Bank of Japan announced it will support the market by buying ETFs. But the Topix, a broad measure of all big Japanese stocks, is down 26.2% this year.

Thailand’s SET index has fallen 33.7% in 2020, by a small margin the worst year-to-date performance in Asia. Thailand gets 11% of its GDP from tourism, and that’s dead – technically, down 44% and getting worse. The Philippines, where stocks are down almost as much, 31.7% in 2020, has simply shut down its stock exchange, saying it couldn’t guarantee the health of folks on the floor. The blood pressure of investors is another health disaster altogether.

It’s going to take a coordinated global response when it comes to fiscal and monetary stimulus to get everyone on the same page. It also will take cooperation among medical bodies and addressing transportation links if we’re going to get out of the coronavirus mess. The unilateral, single-nation responses are firing buckshot when we need a .458 Winchester Magnum, the kind of Big Game rifle the ranger carries when I’ve been on walking safaris in South Africa.

Investors are sensibly responding to economic disruption rather than simply rates of infection. Korean stocks lost 4.9% in a market dominated by big exporters and heavy industry.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index closed down 4.2% on Wednesday, even though the rate of new infections is now slow in East Asia. Most of Hong Kong’s new cases are coming from abroad as Hong Kongers hurry home ahead of travel shutdowns around the globe. The Hang Seng hadn’t risen as high as other Asian indexes due to the pro-democracy protests here last year, so the benchmark is down “only” 20.9% in 2020.

Mainland China, where this all started, is seeing its stocks spared the worst of the selling. The CSI 300 index of the largest shares in Shanghai and Shenzhen fell 2.0% on Wednesday, and the whole index is down only 11.2% this year. That’s half the size of the general selloff around Asia. But treat Chinese share movements with skepticism. Domestic retail investors drive the trading and don’t have many other places to put their money. They are also notorious momentum traders. Mainland stocks are also essentially options on companies rather than genuine holdings, because Communist Party policy can change literally overnight without warning and shut your favorite company down. The party also has cash to spend on stimulus.

Recession is here

I was a guest on RTHK Radio 3’s drive-time business show “Money Talk” Tuesday morning, talking about the disastrous economic figures out of China on Monday. The jobless rate is at a record high, manufacturing has slowed a record amount, and retail sales cratered by a record margin.

One point I made is that, given the shutdowns already under way in Italy and Spain, we can expect similar figures out of those economies in the next month or two. And as more countries corral movement and stop public gatherings, we will see that economic pain spread.

So I chuckle a wry laugh when I hear forecasters predicting that we’re heading for recession. We are in recession, people! It’s here now.

The backward-looking economic output figures will confirm that assessment in the future. I hate the new piece of business jargon that an analyst is attempting to “nowcast” activity. But real-time assessments and common-sense assessments are what we need right now.

I’m digesting a particularly gloomy set of reports from Standard & Poor’s. The rating agency isn’t pulling any punches.

“Asia-Pacific Recession Guaranteed” is my light reading right now. It’s a quick hit. The “enormous first-quarter shock” in China means its growth will shudder to 2.9% in 2020, S&P says, a gutsy call because the Communist Party was keen on “predicting” growth of “around 6%.”

S&P is using the traditional definition of two down quarters in a row to define recession. By other measures, countries such as India and China need to achieve outsize growth just to keep the floods of people moving from the countryside to the city gainfully employed.

This new report says the “rising scale of the shock will leave permanent scars on balance sheets and in labor markets” in Asia. I concur. The rating agency believes US$400 billion in permanent income losses is going to be wiped off profit-and-loss statements.

S&P forecasts aggregate growth will fall by more than half in Asia to under 3% for all of 2020. It envisions a U-shaped recovery.

V-shaped, U-shaped, it’s all a question of how deep and how long this recession is going to last. All downturns are temporary unless you think the world economy is going to zero, which it’s not. But how bad will this get? We don’t know. The costs are continuing to add up, meaning we can’t count the final tab yet.