On the 5th of June 2015, a severe market crash started from which China has not been able to fully recover. On the contrary, despite a recovery starting as of February of 2016, prices were not able to get anywhere near their pre-crash highs and, in fact, they went to new lows toward the end of 2018 and the very beginning of 2019. Since then, prices have recovered somewhat but, again, the recovery has been let’s say sub-optimal.
As such, the situation needs to be analyzed thoroughly and we’ll start with… well, the pre-crash period or in other words, we will do our best to understand how the market “got in trouble” in the first place. Right off the bat, it’s important to understand that despite the middle class just starting to emerge and despite the average investor being less than sophisticated, China’s stock market is a heavily retail-based one.
What this means is that the capital allocated toward stocks comes primarily from “mom and pop” investors, so average Chinese citizens rather than experienced financial market players. With over 80% of stock trading activities taking place between retail investors (inexperienced ones at that), it’s not hard to guess what exactly created the conditions which ultimately brought about 2015’s crash.
To provide the proper context, we will take a few additional steps back and go all the way to the end of 2007. As pretty much everyone knows by now, that’s when the (in)famous Great Recession started and stock markets from all over the world tanked, with China not representing an exception. From October-November highs close to the 6,000 CNY zone for the Shanghai Composite Index to sub-2,000 CNY levels less than one year later. As mentioned in another article, China implemented drastic measures to combat this (essentially, massive spending) and while they worked for the “real” economy, the situation when it came to stocks was… trickier.
The authorities in China did their best to convince retail investors to allocate more money toward shares, access to capital became easier but even after all these efforts, the best the Shanghai Composite Index was able to do was exceed 4,500 CNY for a brief period of time in 2015, just prior to the crash. And even these results came at the expense of sustainability, as prices had been bid up by a lot of unsophisticated retail investors who made purchases on leverage.
A common denominator among unsophisticated investors in general and Chinese investors in particular is their tendency to invest in a “pump and dump” manner. To put it differently, they jump on bandwagons quickly (with prices rising from the 2,000 CNY zone in mid-2014 to the previously mentioned 4,500+ CNY area by mid-2015) but end up selling just as quickly when things turn sour, either due to fear (panic selling) or as a result of the fact that they received margin calls and were forced to liquidate overly-leveraged positions.
While the Chinese authorities once again implemented a wide range of measures to fight the crash, anything from stimulus approaches to arresting some of the top Chinese traders and threatening short sellers with jail time, the results have been sub-optimal.
In the meantime, let’s just say the Chinese GDP hasn’t contracted. On the contrary, it has been experiencing consistent growth, even if the 10+% pre-2010 YOY growth days are gone. Still, with projected growth rates in the 6 to 6.5% range at this point in time, a very compelling case can be made that while things haven’t been stellar when it comes to shares, the overall economy keeps growing consistently.
Does this mean today’s prices represent a buying opportunity?
In this author’s opinion, it means that eventually, the time will come when the risk to reward ratio associated with heavily gaining exposure to Chinese stocks will be asymmetrically in your favor. However, that doesn’t mean it’s time to back up the truck. On the contrary, perhaps the wisest play would be waiting for further corrections (perhaps brought about by the onset of a new global financial crisis, but more on that in another article) or in other words, keeping your finger on the trigger but not pulling it just yet.
The conclusion of this article is therefore simple: for many reasons, it makes sense to want decent exposure to Chinese stocks but that doesn’t mean you need to gain said exposure overnight. Instead, it means you should be keeping an eye open when it comes to future opportunities and here at ChinaFund.com, we are here to help with just that.