Wednesday 17 January 2018

If Singapore's a guide, China is now tipping the world into recession

Gross domestic product plunged 4.6pc last quarter in the city-state of Singapore – a downturn almost certainly triggered by the woes of its massive Asian neighbour
Gross domestic product plunged 4.6pc last quarter in the city-state of Singapore – a downturn almost certainly triggered by the woes of its massive Asian neighbour

Singapore is the closest thing Asia has to an economic barometer. Its highly open, trade-reliant economy usually signals when trouble is approaching the global stage.

And at the moment, Singapore is flashing clear warning signs.

The city-state's gross domestic product plunged 4.6pc last quarter, a downturn almost certainly triggered by China. Singapore's plight may mark a dangerous inflection point not just for Asia, but for the entire global economy.

After the 2008 global crisis, China's 9pc-plus growth picked up the slack from a West licking its financial wounds.

But as Asia's biggest economy cools, officials from Seoul to Brasilia are finding themselves without a reliable growth engine. Uneven recoveries in the US and Europe have already slowed the exports that power most Asian economies, including Japan. China's downturn could now throw Asian manufacturing into reverse.

Morgan Stanley's Ruchir Sharma warns that "the next global recession will be made by China". The balance of data - including Singapore's abrupt shift toward recession - suggests China isn't growing anywhere near this year's 7pc target.

Shanghai's day traders celebrated this week's news that Chinese exports rose 2.1pc in June. The more interesting figure, though, was the 6.7pc decline in Chinese imports.

That helps explain the stunning 14pc drop in Singaporean manufacturing from the previous three months. The same goes for Singapore's non-oil exports to China, which fell 4.3pc in May, 5.1pc in April and plunged 22.7pc in February.

With Singapore's economy contracting the most since the third quarter of 2012, its government has to act fast. It may be time for another surprise monetary easing (the central bank last engineered one in January). Fiscal stimulus may also be necessary.

"The global outlook remains challenging and far less positive than the picture" four months ago, says economist Hak Bin Chua of Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "China's slowdown, the Greece crisis and weaker growth in the immediate neighborhood of southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, will likely dampen growth."

The downturn in China, Asia's main customer, will loom especially large. For now, many investors in the region are still bullish about Beijing's efforts to gin up both GDP and stocks. But even the good news on China these days is worrisome.

Take its surge in credit growth in June ($300bn), the most since January. While it's helping to stabilise the economy in the short run, it's also inflating China's debt bubble in sync with its asset bubbles in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

China is facing another problem: diminishing returns. Its stimulus efforts have grown exponentially in size, scope and frequency since the 2008 global crisis.

The more China strains to keep GDP growth above the 5pc range, the more it's putting the global financial system at risk. China's bailouts, after all, are beginning to overlap in surreal ways.

This year's massive stock rally was meant to ease the fallout from a seven-year borrowing binge. Now, as Beijing puts a floor under plunging shares, it's effectively bailing out its previous bailout.

Beijing's troubles are now the world's. In 2010, it accounted for roughly 23pc of global growth. By the end of 2014, that share had surged to at least 38pc.

China punches even further above its weight in the commodity markets that countries from Indonesia to South Africa rely on for growth.

"Over the next couple of years," Sharma told Bloomberg News, "China is likely to be the biggest source of vulnerability for the global economy."

China, he adds, could drag global growth below 2pc, a threshold many would agree is equivalent to a world recession.

If Singapore is any guide, it may already be under way.


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