China’s answer to bad news: skip it
China released more bad economic news on Tuesday, but it was the number that wasn’t included in the official data dump that stood out: Beijing said it would stop publishing figures for youth unemployment, weeks after it hit a record high of 21.3 percent in June.
The decision may be temporary, but it will only make it harder for investors to know what’s happening in the country — and that may be the point. Shares in Hong Kong and Shanghai closed lower again, but, unlike on Monday, the damage didn’t spread across Asia.
China’s economy, the world’s second biggest, is in a prolonged slump. Retail sales and industrial production both missed forecasts in July, Tuesday’s data showed. China’s central bank cut a benchmark lending rate on Tuesday, but that was a far cry from the big-bang stimulus measures investors have been hoping for since the country fell into deflation last month.
That poses a challenge for global growth. The I.M.F. has previously forecast that China would account for 35 percent of global growth this year, but that’s looking less likely. The slowdown is hitting everything from commodities to construction, and some big U.S. companies that operate in China don’t expect a rapid turnaround.
Increasing opacity won’t help international investors. China has been publishing less economic data since Xi Jinping rose to power. In recent months, authorities have reportedly told Chinese economists to avoid discussing negative trends. Officials have also instructed lawyers working on I.P.O.s to soften their wording on the country’s risks.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, told DealBook that Mr. Xi’s focus is “Sino-centric” and less about how his decisions play internationally. He has ordered officials to “tell China’s story well” and will see withholding negative economic information as a way of enhancing confidence at home, “even though investors outside of China may read the act in the opposite way.”
But it also shows Beijing’s business priorities. “The focus is on state-enterprise-led advances in the economy. Getting private enterprises to make money is fine, but they have to follow the party line,” George Magnus, an associate at Oxford University’s China Center and a former chief economist at UBS, told DealBook.
Is a weak China more dangerous than a strong one? President Biden warned last week that China was a “ticking time bomb” because of its economic challenges. “That’s not good, because when bad folks have problems, they do bad things,” he added. And some China hawks in Washington want to increase scrutiny of funds that invest in China (more on that below).
Mr. Tsang notes that there are risks either way. “A strong, rich and powerful China under Xi wants to change the world order. A strongman in charge of such a state that is getting weak, poor and unstable will do whatever it takes to stay in power, regardless of its consequences for the rest of the world,” he said.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
Donald Trump is indicted over his efforts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results. A grand jury indicted the former president and 18 others, including his former White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, in a sweeping racketeering case. Mr. Trump, the Republican front-runner for president, has been charged in four separate criminal cases since April. He said the latest case was based on “fabricated accusations.”
Russia raises rates to prop up the sinking ruble. The central bank this morning increased the prime lending rate to 12 percent from 8.5 percent. That pushed the ruble’s value to just above a penny, but inflation fears continue to weigh on the economy as the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine takes a toll.
UBS settles fraud charges dating back to the 2008 financial crisis. The Swiss banking giant agreed to pay $1.4 billion in fines tied to charges that it misrepresented the bonds backed by mortgages it sold. Such products were at the heart of the collapse of the housing market that tipped the global economy into crisis.
Michael Oher, the inspiration behind “The Blind Side,” says his adoption was a lie. The former N.F.L. star has petitioned a Tennessee court to formally end his relationship with the family who took him in. He accused them of tricking him into signing away his decision-making powers in his teens so they could cash in on his life story, which was immortalized in the 2009 film.
Could a China crackdown affect mainstream investors?
China hawks in Congress want the Biden administration to go further in restricting American investment in Chinese tech companies they deem to pose a national security risk. They say last week’s executive order targeting direct bets on businesses by private equity and venture capital firms should be expanded to cover mainstream investment products too, such as mutual funds and index funds.
The fund managers BlackRock and MSCI are already in lawmakers’ cross hairs. A House committee on competition with China is investigating the firms for offering products with investments in Chinese companies that raise national security or human rights concerns. “American dollars should not fund the Chinese Communist Party’s military buildup, its techno-totalitarian surveillance state or its gross human rights abuses,” Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican who is the committee’s chair, told DealBook.
The China sweep could involve scores of Wall Street firms. The House subcommittee on China has found that 57 asset managers, including BlackRock, State Street, Vanguard and Fidelity, offer funds that invest in Chinese firms on the committee’s watch list.
A wide crackdown on investment in China has bipartisan support. “We must ensure that the savings of Americans are not being used to bolster the P.R.C.’s military or technological prowess,” said Representative Maxine Waters of California, the top Democrat on the House financial services committee. She too has called for the bolstering of Biden’s executive order to include more oversight of mainstream investment products.
Enforcement could be tricky, legal experts say.
“It’s the beginning of a whole new chapter of disentangling,” John O’Connor, the C.E.O. of J.H. Whitney Data Services and a former special consultant to the Defense Department’s business board, told DealBook. Washington and Beijing are in a continually escalating state of tensions, he said, and “these moves and countermoves have profound business consequences.”
Montana’s big climate case
Monday’s landmark court decision in Montana could have ripple effects on how companies and governments are held accountable for climate change. A judge found that the state’s failure to consider the impact of warming temperatures when approving fossil fuel projects was unconstitutional in a region known for its stunning natural beauty and deep coal reserves.
The case was the first of its kind to go to trial in the United States, and the verdict was a rare win for environmental activists. Brought by plaintiffs ranging in age from 5 to 20, it centered around Montana’s constitution, which explicitly guarantees residents “the right to a clean and healthful environment.” The plaintiffs argued that this clause was violated by a 2011 state law, crafted by Republican lawmakers, that prevented officials from weighing climate change when reviewing large energy projects.
Montana’s attorney general called the ruling “absurd” and vowed to appeal it, which would send the case, Held v. Montana, to the state’s Supreme Court.
Similar cases are winding their way through the courts nationwide. States and cities are suing oil giants like Exxon, Chevron and Shell for damages from climate calamities. And individuals are seeking compensation from governments, claiming that they have enabled the fossil fuel industry and have failed to protect their citizenry.
Young people are at the center of the legal strategy. They are the plaintiffs in lawsuits in other states where, as in Montana, environmental protections are enshrined in state constitutions. Climate litigation has also exploded around the world since the 2015 ratification of the Paris climate accord, in which 195 countries vowed to reduce their emissions.
The decision could influence other cases, Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told The Times. “This was climate science on trial, and what the court has found as a matter of fact is that the science is right,” Burger said, adding that “other courts in the U.S. and around the world will look to this decision.”
Where are Buffett and other big investors putting their money?
The world’s biggest investors, including Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, disclosed their latest strategies in quarterly 13F regulatory filings on Monday, revealing the businesses they’re favoring (and those they’ve soured on) as stocks pull back from a bull-market rally in the first half of the year.
Here are some of the big themes from the filings:
Despite soaring mortgage rates, Berkshire Hathaway is betting big on housing. Mr. Buffett’s investment firm disclosed $800 million worth of new positions in the homebuilders D.R. Horton, NVR and Lennar (as of the end of June). It cut its stakes in Chevron, General Motors and Activision Blizzard.
Doubts are creeping in about tech stocks. The Nasdaq 100, which comprises the biggest of the big-cap technology firms, is up nearly 40 percent this year. But some notable hedge funds, including Tiger Global Management and Maverick Capital, have cut their exposure to highfliers such as the chipmaker Nvidia, Tesla and Meta Platforms.
Michael Burry is bearish on the markets — again. Mr. Burry, whose strategy was memorably featured in “The Big Short,” is down on China — Scion Asset Management, his firm, liquidated its positions in JD.com and Alibaba — and regional banks, selling off holdings in PacWest and First Republic. He also disclosed he’s shorting the S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100, a move that generated plenty of buzz on social media.
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