Asian Markets Rally on Biden Victory

This story first appeared on TheStreet.com.

https://realmoney.thestreet.com/investing/global-equity/asian-markets-rally-on-biden-victory-15482906

Asian stock markets are breathing a sigh of relief on Monday, now that the result of the U.S. presidential election is clear. It’s a sea of green for Asian indexes on my screen.

Trade-heavy markets in particular such as China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea are seeing their stocks climb higher in hopes that Biden will take a less-confrontational, more-constructive approach on trade.

The U.S. dollar is also losing ground. The Chinese yuan is hitting a 28-month peak, the Korean won is climbing to its highest level since February 2019, and the Singapore dollar is rising to its highest level so far this year.

The Indonesian rupiah, which in March weakened to levels last seen during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, is also gaining ground. Investors look willing to take on more risk now that the U.S. election has passed, with emerging markets prime beneficiaries.

The Nikkei 225 in Japan is Asia’s biggest gainer on Monday, traditional Japanese industrial companies seeing their shares rise 2.1%, although the broad Topix index of all major stocks in Japan finished with a more-muted 1.4% advance.

The other major gains came for the CSI 300 of the largest stocks in Shanghai and Shenzhen, which ended up 2.0%, with the Stock Exchange of Thailand index also finishing up 2.0%.

Some of the response is simply a relief rally with the uncertainty of the U.S. election now behind markets. But Asian economies are expected to gain ground with Biden likely to de-escalate tensions on trade, while U.S. monetary policy is set to expand stimulus and therefore weaken the U.S. dollar.

Trump’s very first action on taking office was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP, a bid to create the world’s largest trade bloc, subsumed bilateral negotiations between the United States and Japan. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expended considerable political capital getting the influential Japanese farming lobby to agree to the deal, only to be left jilted at the altar by Trump, an ally he had courted immediately upon Trump’s successful election.

Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga, will now engage with Trump’s successor. It will be interesting to see the future direction of the “Quad” alliance that has brought together Japan, the United States, India and Australia, with the unstated aim of containing China’s rising influence in Asia.

Biden may now seek to join the TPP’s successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the remaining 11 nations agreed. Biden has certainly pledged, on his first day, to sign the United States back up to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Biden may be more effective in building diplomatic alliances, whereas Trump alienated many traditional U.S. allies. Australian shares had their best session since the virus-related downturn in March, the S&P/ASX 200 ending up 1.8% and the NZX 50 in New Zealand finishing with a 1.8% gain as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have yet to reach out to congratulate Biden on his victory. Trump had also expressed admiration for other authoritarian strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the Saudi Arabian king and crown prince, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. As of Monday afternoon Asian time, all those leaders have stayed silent on Biden’s election. It has been a useful exercise for anti-democratic regimes to point to the “chaos” of the U.S. electoral process as a way of bolstering their own governance.

The state-owned Global Times mouthpiece used to push Beijing’s foreign-policy agenda says in an editorial that Biden may go further in pushing China on human rights over the pro-democracy crackdown in Hong Kong and the concentration camps for Uighur Muslim minority citizens built in the western province of Xinjiang.

At the same time, the state-owned paper says it may be possible to pop the “bubbles” of pressure created by outgoing President Donald Trump in the election campaign. “Beijing should undertake to communicate with the Biden team as thoroughly as it can, making greater joint efforts to recover China-U.S. relations to a state of great predictability,” the editorial states.

Trump was bipolar on China, saying that he and Chinese counterpart Xi “love each other,” but equally using China as a convenient, little-known and far-off foe, to drum up votes. He was right to push China on the origins of the coronavirus, which had the central Chinese city of Wuhan as its epicenter. China has done its very best to stop efforts to examine just how the outbreak began, undermining efforts by the World Health Organization to present impartial evidence, and blocking efforts to send WHO scientists to Wuhan itself.

It is hard to imagine that Biden administration will act “tougher” over China, the Global Times states, though the Democratic Party is “more stubborn about values.” Biden is highly likely to continue the “maximum pressure” campaign of his administration, only “probably not with reckless gambling-style moves,” the editorial states.

India is cheering the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother’s family trace their roots to southern Tamil Nadu province. Half-Indian, half-Jamaican by parentage, Harris visited India frequently in her youth. While she will surely seek to bolster India’s position as an American ally, she may also push right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his treatment of non-Hindu citizens, and human rights. The Sensex main stock index in India was up 1.4% in afternoon trade.

Here in Hong Kong as well as in Taiwan, we will wait to see how Biden approaches diplomacy over our efforts to maintain autonomy in the face of pressure from Beijing.

Taiwan, a Democratic nation that has put in place one of the world’s most-effective programs to combat the coronavirus, remains blocked by mainland China from joining the World Health Assembly and the WHO. Taiwan’s foreign ministry says it has been excluded from a World Health Assembly meeting that starts today and runs all week on instructions from China. The WHO’s exclusion of Taiwan is purely on political and not on public-health grounds, undermining the group’s whole mission.

Trump accepted a call of congratulation from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen after he won election, an unprecedented move. It is not clear if Biden will do the same. As Taiwanese lawmakers fret that Biden will be more China-friendly, the head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, Chen Ming-tong, has told them there’s “no need to worry,” that while the White House’s tactics may change toward China, “there will be no change in its China strategy.”

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.

China Posts Worst Economic Performance on Record

Monday’s numbers for production, retail sales and the jobless rate are all the worst on record for China. Asian shares continued heavy selling despite central-bank support. [This story first appeared on TheStreet.com.]

China has posted its worst production and sales figures on record on Monday, as a series of firsts continue to be set in Asia, almost all of them on the downside.

The economic numbers released on Monday are far worse than predicted by forecasters, indicating that China’s factories essentially shut up shop in the first two months of the year. Retailers stopped buying, too, e-commerce not able to offset the empty stores nationwide.

Industrial output fell 13.5% for the January-February period, from the prior year. That’s the worst reading on record since Reuters began tracking the figure in January 1990. A poll by the news agency had anticipated a 1.5% rise.

Retail sales plummeted 20.5%, also the first decline on record, despite an increase in online purchases of goods like groceries. Shopping malls and high streets have become ghost towns, and a logistics logjam due to a lack of delivery people has delayed e-commerce orders. A survey of economists by Bloomberg had anticipated only a 4.0% fall.

China’s unemployment rate has risen to 6.2% for February, up from 5.2% in December. That, too, is a record high jobless rate since the government started publishing figures.

Investment also sank 24.5% for the January-February period, the first drop in record, and far worse than the dip of 2.0% forecast by economists. (Combining the two months negates the impact of Lunar New Year, which fell in January in 2020 but February in 2019.) Investment into property, the holding of choice for wealthy Chinese citizens, shrank by its largest amount on record, and home prices stalled for the first time in five years.

Early predictions of the impact of the coronavirus suggested there would be a rapid V-shaped recovery in China. But the location of the virus outbreak in the “Chicago of China” rapidly impacted travel and trade. The epicenter, Wuhan, is a major inland port on the Yangtze River, as well as a north-south and east-west node on railway lines. It is the center of China’s auto manufacturing.

Economic figures for March may be even worse than those recorded for the first two months of the year. Consumer confidence has been shaken to its core, and it’s unclear what will encourage it to return.

Official figures claim that China registered only 16 new cases of the coronavirus on Sunday, and 12 of those stem from “imported” cases of people arriving from abroad. But with the country opening back up to human movement, there’s potential for a second outbreak. One Hong Kong news report out of Wuhan states that doctors there are releasing patients from temporary hospitals if a lung scan shows no scarring, without testing for the virus, since test kits have run low.

During the SARS outbreak in 2003, which centered on southern Guangdong Province as well as Hong Kong, China did not enter any significant lockdown. With the Covid-19 disease, the top leadership effectively ordered half the country’s 1.4 billion people to stay home. That has complicated the return of workers from the Lunar New Year, and only around 75% of Chinese companies are back in business.

The cessation of production is far more extreme than in 2003, hence the huge and unprecedented impact on industrial production. This has broad implications in the West. Even if demand returns around the world, that is no good if there is no supply of goods.

China’s efforts to get its economy firing on all cylinders are now going to be deterred by a lack of demand, too. The travel bans put in place around the world, and a rising number of lockdowns in major economies such as Italy and Spain, will only further dampen economic activity in Asia.

China’s top leaders were due to announce their “forecast” for full-year economic performance in 2020 at a meeting on March 5. But the event has been postponed due to the virus crisis. The Communist top brass had reportedly agreed a “target” of around 6% when they gathered late last year, and are now debating whether to lower that.

Hong Kong’s economy is also suffering through what amounts to a virtual shutdown. Figures released on Monday showed that there were only 199,000 tourist arrivals in February. That is normally the same number of tourists who arrive in a single day, equating to a 96% decrease. Even at the height of SARS, which centered on the city, 427,000 visitors arrived in the month of May.

The lessons learnt during SARS have however led to far fewer cases of Covid-19 occurring (so far) here in my hometown. Although Hong Kong is next to mainland China, it has only recorded 148 cases, far fewer even than Singapore, at 226, despite Hong Kong having a population that is 32% larger. Social distancing and staying at home, as well as a rapid response to track relatives and friends of those infected, seems to be working.

Asian markets continued their panic selling on Monday, despite moves by the U.S. Federal Reserve to slash interest rates, and an emergency meeting by the central Bank of Japan. New Zealand and South Korea also cut interest rates.

Australian stocks have crashed 9.7% on Monday, their biggest fall since “Black Monday” in 1987. That comes after an extraordinary day’s trade on Friday, which saw the S&P/ASX 200 fall 8.1% at the start, only to close with their strongest one-day gain in more than a decade, of 4.4%. Financial stocks led the selling on Monday, and investors will also have been unnerved by those historically bad activity numbers out of China, the largest source of demand for Australian exports.

Japan’s Topix declined 2.0%, despite BOJ action. The Japanese central bank moved up a policy meeting by two days, and agreed to purchase bonds and other financial instruments, as well as expand corporate finance.

Chinese shares fell 4.3% on Monday after the economic-output figures, and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong dropped 4.0%. Singapore’s Straits Times index lost 5.3%. Indian shares were the biggest fallers outside Australia, the Sensex down 7.9%.