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The views expressed are those of the author at the time of writing. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. Forward-looking statements should not be considered as guarantees or predictions of future events. While any third-party data used is considered reliable, its accuracy is not guaranteed. For professional, institutional, or accredited investors only.
Consensus expectations for China’s economic growth have not been this pessimistic in a generation, perhaps longer. With the bar set so low, it won’t take much for the Chinese economy to deliver an upside surprise in 2023.
China has experienced a maximum stress-test. For well over a year, a triple whammy of housing-related distress, zero-COVID lockdowns, and a generalized sense of policy angst have stifled consumer and business confidence (Figure 1). Amid massive pressure on multiple fronts, nothing has gone “bang.” One can never rule out a crisis event, but I believe China’s financial system has seen the worst of the stress and passed the test. Yet many observers still have a very grim outlook for the Chinese economy. I daresay even modest improvement would feel like a rebirth of sorts.
Market liquidity is ample and financial conditions loose, but there has not been a corresponding pickup in banking system loans. And while broader measures of credit seem to suggest that the credit impulse is inflecting, there are few signs that China’s economy is responding to present fiscal and monetary easing. My view is that this response will likely come (and with it, improving growth) when confidence recovers, which could occur in the first quarter of 2023 as policy uncertainty subsides, COVID restrictions ease, and (hopefully) stronger action is taken on real estate. The real estate sector is, in my judgment, the single biggest factor weighing on confidence — even more so than zero-COVID.
For at least the past decade, many commentators have criticized the Chinese government’s lack of action to rein in outsized activity in its all-important real estate sector. Last year, China’s policymakers finally did something about it, leading some to wonder if they may have gone too far. Consensus is now bearish overall, split between those who believe the sector might stabilize soon and those who think otherwise. I am in the former (minority) camp.
I believe the stimuli injected so far — mortgage rates and lending, monetary policy, pledged supplementary lending (PSL), and targeted assistance to property developers — should help the real estate market and put a floor on risk. Easy financial conditions and lower interest rates are already starting to spur demand. (Indeed, mortgage rates in China are now lower than in the US.) Stabilization of the real estate sector would enable a return of confidence, paving the way for a potential economic rebound.
Inflation is not an issue for China today, nor do I suspect it will be for a long time to come. In fact, I think China’s inflation is sufficiently well-anchored that even if it were to rise slightly (as it might), it would still not create much of a headwind for the economy.
Chinese core inflation is below 1% as of this writing, while the country’s low level of domestic demand and an absence of direct income support to consumers have kept the commodity price surge from impacting headline inflation to the same degree as in developed nations. Mild inflationary pressures should allow both fiscal and monetary policy easing to continue through much of 2023. Moreover, one silver lining of zero-COVID has been to suppress demand more than enough to prevent a widespread inflation problem from emerging.
The zero-COVID policy was extremely effective at minimizing infections and case counts, while maximizing China’s economic activity until the Omicron variant appeared. Since then, however, maintaining the policy has come at a heavy cost for the economy. In light of this major trade-off, the government will likely discontinue zero-COVID and choose to let China “live with” the virus beginning at some point in 2023. I believe it has become clear to Chinese leadership that adhering to its current policy stance is incompatible with its economic and social objectives.
Latest update: Over the past month, China’s pandemic containment measures — lockdowns, isolation, contact tracing — became overwhelmed by a large number of infections. This forced the government toward a policy shift, easing COVID restrictions nationwide even as case counts rose and accelerating vaccination rates for vulnerable individuals. As a result, I expect China to reach a state of “hybrid immunity” that should enable a full reopening in 2023. Between now and then, there may be many more infections as the virus spreads further, which could restrain mobility and economic activity. But markets, recognizing that China’s path to reopening is critical for the global economy, are already looking toward the eventual “renormalization.”
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