Chinese stocks crashed 8.5% on Monday, July 27, 2015, but the headline loss doesn’t even begin to describe it. More than two-thirds of the stocks on Shanghai Composite hit the 10% floor and trading in those was stopped. The Chinese stock market is now down 28% from its peak in June. That raises the following questions, the answers to which you may want to share with your clients.
1: What is driving these extreme losses?
2: Is the worst over for China?
3: What could be the impact in the U.S.?
Pundits on CNN suggest that a drop of 0.3% in China corporate profits is responsible for this bloodbath. A mere 0.3% drop.
It seems incredible that such a small drop caused tremendous market stress when we’ve seen similar or bigger drops in China corporate profits in 2014 and earlier this year (as large as 7%). It should be no secret to anyone that a global economy is slowing down, so why would a mere 0.3% drop cause such panic? The drop in corporate profits was just a trigger. As a Reuters story summarized how China watchers responded: “Analysts struggled to explain the severity of the sell-off, which accelerated sharply in the afternoon session, long after investors had time to digest the latest economic releases.”
So is this the famed Black Swan, something that nobody could ever predict? Far from it. All of these crashes have their own logic that is remarkably similar. Here is how you can explain it to your clients. Events like the 8.5% daily drop are not rational responses to economic news; they are due to the feedback loop of losses on the over-levered market. It works like this: prices drop for whatever reason and then the feedback loop ensures:
Lower prices lead to margin calls which forces selling to meet those margin calls which in turn causes prices to fall even more.
Back in 2002 RiXtrema’s senior scientific advisor, John Danielsson, came up with an ingenious way to illustrate this vicious cycle using a London Millennium Bridge analogy (and he did so long before the topic of margin debt became a big news story).
Millennium Bridge was opened in 2000 with much fanfare, but when people tried to walk on it the bridge began to sway violently. To visualize this effect, see this video of people trying to cross the bridge. What engineers found was that the original wobble defect of the bridge was very small, hardly detectable. But what made the bridge sway violently is many people adjusting simultaneously and in rhythm to the wobble, thereby causing an ever bigger wobble. The small original wobble in our case is the 0.3% drop in Chinese corporate profits. The rest is margin lenders and traders adjusting simultaneously.
The Drivers: Leverage Both Visible and Invisible
So how did all this work to cause the July 27 panic? It is no secret that China has had for years a massive real estate bubble. That bubble was gradually deflating since 2011 when the Chinese government started increasing interest rates and banks started limiting real estate lending. However, events around the globe and a local slowdown forced Chinese authorities to start reducing interest rates to increase the supply of money.
Some of this easy money found its way into the stock market to increase leverage. The simplest form of this is legal margin debt on stock exchanges. In March 2015 the combined margin debt on Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges hit 1 trillion yuan for the first time ever, and by June 2015 it was already over 2 trillion yuan. Rather than a Black Swan, this parabolic growth in debt was quite visible. In principle, this is not much different than any stock financial crash in history, not excluding the 2008 Lehman collapse.
But legal margin debt is rarely enough for the kind of panic we are seeing. In the case of the 2008 crash there were many other sources of shadow leverage, from off-balance-sheet vehicles created by investment banks to hedge fund financing. In today’s China, this hidden leverage has reached staggering proportions. According to estimates from Bank of America Merrill Lynch the true size of the margin funds used in the stock markets is closer to 4 trillion yuan even as legal margin debt has decreased to 1.4 trillion yuan (for more on China’s margin issues, see this post).
Is the Worst Over?
Likely not, as the amount of shadow leverage still present in the system is very high. It is possible that China’s centralk bank–the People’s Bank of China, or PBC–will go all out in its support of the markets further reducing rates and buying up assets and markets will respond.