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China: Slowing down the gravy train

May 01, 2004

How do you stop a speeding locomotive in its tracks? That's the Herculean task that the Chinese government has undertaken with a bit of help from the country's state-run banks.

But don't underestimate the enormity of what it is attempting. Stopping the locomotive dead in its tracks would probably send the passengers hurtling all around the carriages. So, the train must be slowed to exactly the right speed.

Can this feat of economic management be pulled off? Can China slow down its runaway economic growth? The Chinese signalled earlier this week that they want to reduce credit and also the amount of money with the banks for lending. On Friday came rumours of the first interest rate hike in nine years.

By midweek -- even before the interest rate hike rumours -- the signals from China had already reverberated around the globe, hitting markets, currencies and natural resources in a stinging triple whammy.

On Thursday markets in Asia fell and Europe and Wall Street followed suit. In the United States the share price of US Steel, the largest steelmaker in north America, fell 8 per cent. Simultaneously, the yen fell against the dollar.

Cut to Australia which has been pushed into overdrive by the promise of insatiable Chinese demand. Many fund managers from around the world have been pouring money into Australia on the calculation that the country's economy was bound to benefit from rising natural resource prices. Putting money in Australia was, in fact, reckoned to be a safe way of betting on China.

On Thursday Sydney's ASX 200 had its sharpest fall in a year. The biggest losers were, inevitably, companies like BHP Billiton, a global copper giant which also produces large quantities of iron ore and which has doubled profits in recent months.

Another metals giant Rio Tinto Zinc also tumbled and so did other smaller natural resources companies. Unsurprisingly, the Australian dollar also slid against the US dollar. The Australian dollar, rose 34 per cent in 2003.

Meanwhile, the possibility of a Chinese slowdown sent the metal markets into reverse gear after months in the super-fast lane. Only a few weeks ago copper stocks fell to their lowest levels in almost a decade.

Suddenly this week, the buyers were heading for the exit and on the London Metal Exchange copper prices fell by 5 per cent. It was followed by a raft of other metals like aluminium, nickel, platinum and silver.

Last year China swallowed up about 20 per cent of the world's copper. The metal is used in large quantities both by the booming auto and housing sectors. China's auto industry revved into top gear last year and grew by almost 76 per cent.

There are, of course, other factors at work in the world economy. The possibility of US interest being pushed up is sending the prices of commodities like gold and silver tumbling. It's also affecting currency markets globally.

But the country's that should worry most about a Chinese slowdown are its neighbours. The Japanese economy has been showing signs of life for the first time since 1990 and it's largely because of China. Exports to the Middle Kingdom have almost doubled in the last two years and Japanese companies are pouring money into its neighbour.

"A rebound in corporate earnings, a recovery in capital spending and exports, and even an easing in the country's (Japan's) deflationary scourge all owe much to the hypergrowth wave in China," commented Businessweek recently.

It's the same story in other Asian countries which also owe their sudden burst of growth to the Chinese. Take Taiwan, for instance, which despite its occasional bellicose noises, sends the lion's share of its exports to the mainland. Hong Kong too has moved back into the high growth charts because of China's booming strength.

Nevertheless, most economic analysts are still betting that China will be able to pull off the soft landing. They point out that China's exports are still going strong and the gargantuan preparations for the Olympics aren't likely to slow down even slightly.

So, the current bout of the shivers could be a purely temporary phenomenon -- but it is a potent demonstration of how much China matters in today's world.

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