While lacking surprises, the US-China meeting held last week managed to avoid a trade war between the world's two biggest economies. Donald Trump and Xi Jinping agreed on a 100-day plan on trade that aims at boosting US exports. Meanwhile, the North Korea issue has remained a deadlock. Trump's announcement to launch airstrike in Syria during the meeting, followed by the deployment of a US navy strike group near the Korean peninsula, is a call for China to take necessary measures to address North Korea's nuclear program. Intensified geopolitical tensions have continued to pressured Korean financial market with Korean won extending weakness for a 5th straight day against US dollar while the country's benchmark equity index, KOSPI, recording the biggest one-day selloff in 6 weeks.
China's financial system continues to display fragility and liquidity squeeze. China's 7-day repo rate jumped to 5.5% (close), the highest level since late 2014, on Tuesday, followed by PBOC's injection of RMB 80-90B to the market on Wednesday as some small banks failed to repay debts in the interbank market. Less than a week ago, PBOC raised a range of short-term and medium-term interest rates to reduce financial risks, thought to be a response to Fed funds rate hike. Interbank rates should remain volatile over the coming week, ahead of PBOC's quarterly macro-prudential assessment in late March. Although recent data suggested that the problem of capital outflow eased in February, ongoing interest rate normalization in the US would prolong China's capital outflow problem, sustaining the challenges facing China in the implementation of its monetary policy.
Recent Chinese economic indicators have been positive. The country surprisingly recorded trade deficit, of RMB 60B, in February. The market had anticipated a decline of surplus to RMB 173B from RMB 355B in January. Imports soared +44.7% y/y while exports gained +4.2% y/y, compared with growths of +15.9% and +25.2%, respectively, in January. The sharp rise uin imports might indicate improvement in domestic demand. China's FX reserve added +US$ 6.9B to US$ 3.01 trillion in February, marking the first increase in 8 months. The market had anticipated further decline for the month. After adjusting for currency valuation effects, the reserves probably increased US$ 19-25B in the month. While this might be the first sign of the effect of China's capital control measures, we expect the government remain cautious as outflow should remain a problem for the rest of year. Note that a reason for the uptick in February was the improved performance of renminbi at the beginning of the year. Further information, including PBOC's FX position and SAFE flow data, is needed to grasp a clearer outlook of the capital flow situation. We remains bearish over renminbi as the Fed's monetary policy normalization program should continue to support USDCNY.
In PBOC's latest set money report, China's new renminbi loans rose to RMB 2.03 trillion in January. However, it came in below consensus of RMB 2.44 trillion and RMB 2.5 trillion the same period last year. Although it is usual for new loans to be high earlier in a year as banks front-load their loans for profit maximization, the January figure missed expectations as lending to non-bank financial institutions fell for the month. Outstanding renminbi loans growth decelerated to +12.6% y/y, from +13.5% in December. Medium and long term corporate bank lending, a barometer of corporate sector demand, increased +43.4% y/y to RMB 1.52 trillion, whilst medium- and long-term household loans, mainly mortgage loans, rose to a record high of RMB 0.63 trillion. This suggests that PBOC's recent tightening measures have yet to feed through the housing market. We believe a few months' data would be needed to see the effectiveness of these measures.
PBOC's move earlier this month to increase interest rates for its standard Open Market Operations (OMO) and Standing Lending Facility (SLF) has sparked speculations of monetary tightening. On February 3, the central bank announced to raise interest rates of 7-, 14- and 28-day reverse repos by +10bps each to 2.35%, 2.5% and 2.65% respectively. At the same, the overnight SLF rate was lifted to 3.1% from 2.75% previously. It was also reported that SLF rates for those banks that fail Macro-prudential Assessment (MPA) requirements is increased by +100 bps.
China's trade surplus narrowed to US$40.8B in December from USD44.6B a month ago. From a year ago, exports contracted -6.1% y/y, deteriorating from a -1.6% drop in November, while imports growth decelerated to +3.1%, from November's expansion of +13%. Both contraction in exports and expansion in imports came in worse than expectations. We are concerned that rising oil prices would continue to weigh on the country's balance of payment given China's huge crude oil imports. Released last week, the country's FX reserve was reported to have dropped -US$41B, to US$3.01 trillion, in December. Similar to the past 5 months, the decline was driven by government's selling of foreign currencies to moderate renminbi depreciation
Recent releases in China's November macroeconomic indicators suggest that growth continue to stabilize. Yet, weakness in renminbi means that capital outflow should remain a headache. China's growth in industrial production (IP) improved to +6.2% y/y in November, from +6.1% a month ago. This came in better than consensus of +6.1%. Retail sales expanded +10.8% y/y in November, compared with expectations of +10.2% and +10% in October. Indeed, this is the fastest pace of consumer spending growth so far this year. A key contributor to the upside surprise was auto sales, thanks to government tax incentives. Meanwhile, 'single's day earlier in November also helped boost sales of electronics and telecom products. Urban fixed assets investment gained +8.3% in the first 11 months of the year, unchanged from the year through October. This came in line with expectations.
The official manufacturing PMI for China climbed +0.5 point higher to 51.7 in November, another month of big increase after October's 0.8-point gain. The non-manufacturing PMI (services and construction activities) soared +0.7 point to 54.7. The services PMI added +1.1 points to 53.7, while the construction PMI slipped -1.4 points to 61.4. The Caixin/Markit version of manufacturing PMI, by contrast, fell to 50.9 in November from a 27-month high of 51.2 a month ago. Despite the fall, Markit noted that it remains the second-highest reading in 2 years and indicates that 'the manufacturing industry continued to pick up steam'. Moreover, although index readings for both output and new orders declined, those 'tracking input and output prices rose at a faster pace to hit their highest levels in 5 years, pointing to further intensification of inflationary pressure'.