First, it should never have risen so high (we have previously covered why it did so).
Second, it should have fallen further (and may still do so).
Third, the recent rally will not last.
My personal worries again relate to what Chinese companies are reporting. I have had my doubts and this links in with my view that I simply do not believe the data that these companies are reporting.
It was reassuring therefore to see that the Economist has picked up on this and about time.
The issue of Chinese subsidies is very important. This is the mother of all stimulus packages and it is clearly helping companies survive but to what cost and to what end?
It is tempting to take a large short position on China at the moment.
Red flags [Economist]
CHINA’S stockmarket has been one of the best performing in the world this year, and the country’s firms have so far steered through the global financial crisis better than many of their global peers. Partly they may have been buoyed by robust business conditions in China. But two recent studies, which raise serious questions about the credibility of China’s corporate earnings, suggest that companies may also have had an artificial boost.
The less damning of the two is issued under the auspices of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and written by Giovanni Ferri, of Italy’s University of Bari, and Li-Gang Liu of BBVA, a bank. It argues that the profits of China’s large state-owned companies are entirely a product of subsidised financing by state banks, which lets them borrow much more cheaply than private or foreign firms (see chart).
To reach that conclusion the authors sifted through government data from 1999-2005. Mr Liu believes that such subsidies may have even increased since last summer, because the big state-owned enterprises have been the main beneficiaries of China’s economic stimulus. In the short term the subsidies will have boosted profits, not least compared with the firms’ credit-starved private peers. But in the longer term Mr Liu believes that the political component of the loans will mean capital is being allocated inefficiently, raising the prospect of future losses.
At least the academics are convinced that the profits are genuine, even if they are subsidised. But an exhaustive working paper by TJ Wong and Danqing Young, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Xianjie He, of Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, reaches a more alarming conclusion. It suggests investors have little faith in the numbers.
To measure this they looked at Chinese firms before and after the country broke with its accounting traditions in 2007, adopting something akin to international accounting standards, which base valuations on market prices. They then dissected earnings in three ways. First, they compared how shifts in earnings correlated with shifts in share prices under the old accounting system and the new. An improvement in accounting practices should have meant a closer correlation between earnings and the performance of the share price. Not only did this not happen—there were some signs that things got worse.
Nor were there correlations between the share price and the shift in reported value of investment instruments, goodwill and the impairment of assets—all typically critical to an investor’s analysis. Lastly, the academics examined a nuance in the new standards that allowed Chinese firms to book profits by restructuring debt that was owed to affiliated companies. Before the change in accounting standards, this kind of debt restructuring was rare. Afterwards, it was common: more than 200 companies, or over 15% of those in the study, did it in 2007. This resulted in clear gains to earnings but no impact on share prices. So is there anything in the company reports that investors do consider to be meaningful? That, says Mr Wong, is the subject of the next study.