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How China is perceived carries enormous weight
By John Authers

Over the next few days, the Financial Times will be holding a series of "Great Debates" in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, asking whether China will be a superpower in 2020.

Viewed from New York, it seems a strange question. The investors in what is still the world's biggest financial centre are acting on the assumption that China is already a superpower, if not a hyperpower. They have been doing so for some time. And perceptions are important: if people believe you are a superpower, they will let you behave like one.

The perception that China is a superpower is now deeply ingrained in US popular culture. Late-night comedy shows recycle jokes about the amount of money the US has borrowed from China. Conspiracy theories about the Chinese currency, which has been kept fixed against the dollar for almost two years now, and about Chinese foreign reserves are omnipresent. If China wanted, it could sell its Treasury bonds and crash the US economy, the theorists say - neglecting to mention that such actions would wreak deep damage on the Chinese economy as well.

It is plausible to view all the ebbs and flows of risk appetite of the past few years as emanating from China. A local bubble in Shanghai stocks accompanied the top of the global credit market, and it burst just before the world's stocks peaked in October 2007. Almost a year later, the Chinese stock market was the first to turn and then lead the world's markets out of their post-Lehman slump. With the Chinese authorities committed to aggressive new spending, and slashing the price of money, it appeared that at least one global economic superpower was able to respond to the crisis.

In the rally of 2009, countries and markets could almost be put on a continuum according to their exposure to China. Those who most benefited from Chinese growth, such as Latin American commodity exporters, or the countries on the Pacific Rim that export goods to China, have done best. Those in most direct competition with China have seen the least impressive rebounds.

World markets then ran out of steam and started to move sideways in the autumn, as China began, ever so slowly, to put on the brakes, with technical measures such as adjusting the reserves that banks were required to hold. This spoke to fears. The first was that China must at some point exit from easy money. This might be called the "business as usual" fear - traders never like the part of the business cycle when rates are rising.

The second, much greater fear is that China has created a bubble and is now trying to get that bubble to deflate gently. Few things are harder to do. But both in stock markets and real estate, at least when viewed from a distance, the risks seem real. Per capita spending on real estate has grown at 27 per cent a year during the past decade. Even when starting from a very low base, this sounds like a bubble.

The parallel with Japan 20 years ago is also discouraging. Then Japan, like China now, had an economic model that seemed unstoppable. It responded to the Black Monday market crash of 1987 with cheaper money - and suffered a market implosion a little more than two years later. All of this helps explain how Chinese fears helped halt the world stock rally in the autumn.

If there is an argument against China's status as a market superpower, it comes from the past few months. Stocks in Shanghai headed downwards in the summer and continue to lag stocks in the US, which have returned to full robust optimism in the past few weeks. Greece, and not China, has been the focus of investors' concerns during this year's sell-off and subsequent recovery.

Does this mean that China no longer preoccupies investors? No. The latest numbers from China suggest neither an acceleration nor an imminent collapse, which is reassuring. Its huge trade surplus is narrowing. The authorities appear to be preparing to let the currency appreciate a little, which is just what many in the west want. Retail property sales have dropped a little in the past few months, while the relatively subdued performance of the stock market at least suggests once more that prices are staging a calm retreat from bubble-like conditions. In short, those worried about a bursting Chinese bubble had reason for more hope in the past few weeks. That is a factor in returning global optimism.

None of this means that the risk of a bursting Chinese bubble has gone away. It remains a possibility, and if it were to happen, there would be every reason to expect a return to crisis conditions across the world. But investors now think China might, somehow, be able to make a bubble deflate slowly. That remains to be tested, but the belief in the country's economic superpower status remains firmly intact.

中国何时成为超级大国?
作者:英国《金融时报》专栏作家 约翰•奥瑟兹

最近,英国《金融时报》在北京、上海和香港三地举行一系列“大辩论”(Great Debates),主题是2020年中国能否成为一个超级大国。

在纽约人看来,这是个不可思议的问题。在目前仍是全球最大金融中心的纽约,投资者一切行为的前提,都是中国已经是一个超级大国了——如果算不上超级强国的话。他们对中国形成这种观感已经有一段时间了。而观感很重要:如果人们认为你是一个超级大国,他们会让你像一个超级大国那样行事。

如今,认为中国是一个超级大国的观感在美国流行文化中已是根深蒂固。深夜喜剧节目一再炒冷饭,重复美国向中国借了多少债的段子。有关人民币——人民币钉住美元已将近2年——和中国外汇储备的阴谋论也无所不在。用阴谋论者的话说,只要中国乐意,它可以卖掉手中的美国国债,从而一举摧毁美国经济。可他们却只字不提,这样做同样会对中国经济造成严重损害。

认为过去几年风险偏好的盛衰全都源自中国的观点貌似有理。随着全球信贷市场升温,上海股市的泡沫日渐扩大,最后在2007年10月全球股市触顶前夕破裂。差不多一年后,中国股市又率先反弹,随后引领全球市场走出雷曼破产后的低迷期。随着中国当局承诺积极加大支出,并放宽货币政策,看上去至少还有一个全球经济超级大国有能力应对危机。

在2009年反弹期间,几乎可以根据各国及市场对中国的敞口,对它们进行排序。表现最好的是那些从中国经济增长中获益最大的,如拉美大宗商品出口国,或者向中国出口商品的环太平洋国家。而那些与中国处于最直接竞争的国家反弹幅度最小。

接着,随着中国采取调整银行储备金率等技术性措施,开始极其缓慢地踩刹车,全球市场后继乏力,于去年秋季开始失去势头。这反映了人们的诸多担心。首先,中国必然会在某一时间退出宽松货币政策。这或许可被称为“例行”担心——交易员从不喜欢商业周期中利率上升的阶段。

其次,人们更大的担心在于,中国已出现了泡沫,目前正设法让那个泡沫缓缓缩小。再没什么比这更难做到的了。但无论是股市还是房地产市场,风险都是切实存在的,至少从外界看来如此。过去10年,中国人均住房支出年增27%。纵使起点非常低,这听上去仍像一个泡沫。

与20年前的日本的类似之处也令人沮丧。当时的日本与现在的中国一样,经济模式看上去势不可挡。1987年“黑色星期一”市场崩盘后,日本的回应是让日元贬值,两年多一点后,该国市场也遭遇崩盘。这一切都有助于解释,人们对中国的担心,是如何在去年秋季阻止全球股市反弹进程的。

如果有证据驳斥中国是一个市场超级大国的说法,只可能出现在过去几个月。去年夏天,上海股市进入下行通道,目前表现仍继续落后于美国股市——过去几周,美国股市已恢复了坚定的乐观情绪。在今年市场先遭遇抛售、随后出现反弹期间,是希腊(而非中国)成了投资者关注的焦点。

这是否意味着中国不再是投资者的关注重点了呢?不。根据中国最新发布的数据,中国经济既没有加速、也没有即将崩盘的迹象,这令人安心。该国巨额贸易盈余正逐渐收窄。政府似乎正准备让人民币略微升值,而这正是许多西方人所期望的。过去几个月,零售房地产销售额略有下降,而股市相对低调的表现至少再次说明,股价正平静地挤出泡沫。简言之,那些曾担心中国的泡沫正在破裂的人,在过去几周有理由抱有更大的希望。这正是全球市场恢复乐观情绪的一个要素。

这一切并不是说,中国泡沫破裂的风险已经消失。这种可能性依然存在,而且一旦发生,人们完全有理由相信全球将再次陷入危机。但目前投资者认为,中国或许能够设法让泡沫慢慢缩小。这一想法仍有待检验,但投资者对中国已经是经济超级大国的信念仍丝毫没有动摇。

译者/陈云飞

 
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