China’s cooldown: Charting a new path for commodities

BEIJING AND OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

A woman looks for goods at a supermarket in Beijing. (REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON)

Zhang Lianjin remembers the 2008 global financial crisis well. It nearly shuttered his brand-new metal casting factory in Wuhan, the steel centre of China.

Sales for the firm, SAFE-Cronite Asia, have been recovering slowly since the crisis. But while orders are still rising, so far this year they’re growing at only about half the pace the company was expecting. The company’s automotive business is strong, but there’s been a drop-off in orders tied to heavy machinery. And the broader steel industry in China is a worry.

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“Many steel mills are really impacted. Some are even closing. There is too much [capacity] in steel mills in China, the economy is slowing down, the market doesn’t need so much and the production is much higher than the market needs,” said Mr. Zhang, the Beijing-based general manager of the European-owned company.

On top of overcapacity and massive overstocking, some competitors are also caught in a shadow banking crisis in which companies borrowed money against their inventory and find themselves unable to repay.

Now, firms like Mr. Zhang’s are having to adjust to the reality that China’s economy is maturing, and double-digit growth is a thing of the past.

China’s annual economic growth slowed to 7.7 per cent in this year’s first quarter – still an enviable rate for most of the world, but below expectations and continuing a string of weaker expansion in recent years.

News of China’s surprisingly slower growth helped trigger a broad selloff of gold, copper, oil and other commodities this week, and sent a chill into global commodity producers including Canada, which have previously enjoyed years of relentlessly strong demand and prices thanks to the building boom in the world’s second-largest economy. As growth cools, so will China’s appetite for coal, iron ore, copper, nickel and many of the key commodities Canada sells.

“The commodities supercycle of the past decade was predicated on ever-expanding Chinese demand,” pointed out Drummond Brodeur, vice-president and global investment strategist at Signature Global Advisors in Toronto. “But the demand-side shock is dissipating.”

China’s economy is unlikely to grow at a rate of 10 per cent a year again. “China is going to a six-per-cent-a-year economy” after 2013, Mr. Brodeur said.

As growth slows, China’s economy is undergoing a profound shift where the service sector is playing a far more important role as the traditionally dominant industrial sector gears down a notch after years of runaway expansion. China’s service sector is finally beginning to catch up to industrial production as a share of gross domestic product, now making up slightly under 45 per cent. The fraction is still well behind mature Western economies where services contribute closer to 55 to 60 per cent or more, which means China’s shift to a consumer economy will likely continue to play out for years.

“Big industrial projects will shrink in importance. That’s what happens when economies mature. Why would China be any different?” said Ron MacIntosh, a former Canadian diplomat and now a research associate at the University of Alberta’s China Institute. “The stated goal of the Chinese leadership is to move to a more consumer-oriented economy, to meet the aspirations of the rising middle class.”

China’s service sector is a low proportion even for an emerging economy, added Louis Kuijs, China economist with RBS in Hong Kong and previously an economist with the World Bank in Beijing.

“We have seen that the impact of the service industry has grown in recent years and it should continue to increase because of how the development of China’s economy means people have more purchasing power and more interest in buying services rather than goods,” Mr. Kuijs said.

At the heart of China’s slowdown is the country’s new leadership team, led by President Xi Jinping, and its early determination to restructure the economy. This is no longer the growth engine that powered the world’s economy out of the last recession. China’s new normal is a little slower.

“A telling sign of China's business cycle status is usually the government's reaction, both before and after key data are released. ... There was little indication of concern this time around. Most statements on the economy revolved around the property market, expressing concern that prices are still rising too fast,” wrote Alastair Chan, Asia economist at Moody’s Analytics, which now forecasts China’s GDP to grow 7.8 per cent this year. “The government may be acknowledging that China’s long-run potential rate of growth has slowed, an inevitable byproduct as the country attains middle-income status.”

There are signs of further slowdown ahead, with Chinese exports to the U.S. and Europe dropping sharply. Iron ore stocks are a third more than average, now piling up into three-storey mounds at Qingdao port, while copper stocks are double the usual average, filling Shanghai’s bonded warehouses and spilling into their parking lots. Property developers are complaining of slower starts and fewer purchases.

Yet China’s policy makers are so far staying the course. This spring a new 20-per-cent “windfall” tax on property sales sparked a flurry of selloffs, followed by a downswing, in efforts to further cool a market rife with speculators. They are restructuring the deeply corrupt and ineffective Ministry of Railways, breaking up its regulatory and operational sides, and promising further reforms to state-owned enterprises and a banking sector teetering under a mountain of bad debt. On Wednesday, an official also suggested that the yuan’s trading band would widen further, likely within weeks, opening the door to more volatility at a time when global markets are already jittery.

Now China watchers are trying to figure out what the new economic run rate will be.

“If you’re talking about the new normal, we think 7.5-per-cent growth is not necessarily the new normal. We think the new normal is an ongoing deceleration of growth over the next decade,” said Andrew Polk, resident economist for the Conference Board China Centre in Beijing, which says China’s trend growth – the amount the economy can sustain without exceptional inflationary pressures – should look more like 5.5 per cent between 2013 and 2018.

For now, that structural shift means lower prices for Canadian resource firms, which have benefited for years from the high demand and prices created by China’s double-digit growth and incredible urbanization.

“For a commodity exporter like Canada, that’s not a good thing. But for global growth, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing,” Mr. Polk said.

Trade Minister Ed Fast – in Beijing this week on his third sales trip in two years promoting Canadian commodities and tourism – is still relentless in his official optimism, maintaining that even a small share of an enormous market like China’s is still significant for Canada.

“We have said time and time again that the global economic recovery is fragile, whenever there are major events within the global economy, whether in the United States, whether in the euro zone or whether in China, it does have an impact on Canada,” he said. “Given our marked increase in trade over the last two years, despite tough times for the global economy, I think it’s safe to assume that China represents one of the most positive opportunities we have to continue to drive economic growth and long-term prosperity in Canada.”

China’s maturing economy will force Canadian exporters to adjust their trade strategies and move up the product value chain, said University of Alberta’s Mr. MacIntosh.

“China is slowing down and it will affect Canada,” Mr. MacIntosh said. “But there’s no reason to doubt the long-term trajectory of what’s going on there ... China will continue to be a huge market.”

And the country will continue to consume massive amounts of energy – a market Canadian oil and gas producers want to supply if they can build the pipelines and ports to get it there. “Of all the commodities, I worry less about energy. The demand in China is exponential,” Mr. MacIntosh added.

Canada’s interest in China was clear at a recent investor forum in Beijing that linked interests from the two countries, said Sarah Kutulakos, executive director of the Canada-China Business Council. Still, the country’s shift was evident even at lunchtime. Gone was last year’s stately served luncheon for the event’s VIP guests; instead, guests filled their own plates from a buffet of modest Chinese cooking, including scrambled eggs with tomatoes and a simple tofu dish.

“That was a real style change,” she said, illustrating that the government’s promotion of a “Chinese dream” of a moderately prosperous society is being felt from the top down.

“With all this austerity and so on, you do see it in the consumption figures a little bit,” she said, adding that while there is concern about the impact of falling prices on investments in Canada’s resource sectors, Canada’s overall interest in China is little diminished. “Urbanization is still a huge push in China. It may take a different shape with the promise of the Chinese dream, and everybody moving towards the smaller cities. But that just means the building continues.”

Carolynne Wheeler is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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