China Demand is Sagging

The bears are back in the metal markets, and one of their prime motivators is this year’s dismal prospects for China. A note in the FT’s Unhedged today explored the country’s “impossible trilemma” of achieving 5.5% GDP growth, reaching a stable debt-to-GDP ratio, and meeting zero-COVID initiatives. When you combine this with the reality that China demand is already sagging, you have a real recipe for disaster.
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The article also mentioned how the typical “get out of jail free card” won’t work for China. This usually consists of pouring debt into low productivity real estate and infrastructure projects. However, that will trash their debt-to-GDP growth limits. This would also be futile given the ongoing zero-COVID lockdowns, which are estimated to cover some 300 million people. After all, who is going to buy a new house if they are locked in their current one?

Destina/Adobe Stock

Dismal Numbers and Little Optimism

April’s data was, to quote the FT, “horrendous:”

  • Retail sales were down 11% from a year earlier, against an expected decline of less than 7%
  • Industrial production dropped 2.9%.
  • Manufacturing was particularly weak, with auto production falling by 41%.
  • Export growth was 4%, a screeching slowdown from 15% growth in March.
  • Real estate activity collapsed, with new construction falling by 44%.

On top of all this, credit growth has stubbornly refused to accelerate. It’s worth noting that this is despite policy moves such as last month’s reduction of banks’ reserve requirements. Meanwhile, household loans are falling, medium to long-term corporate loans are falling, and the issuance of government bonds is slowing. This all points to lower investment and activity.

China’s extremely strict zero-COVID policies are finally showing signs of reducing infection rates. And while Shanghai has announced that it will begin easing restrictions, major changes are unlikely to take place before the Presidential elections in Autumn. For that reason, we can expect consumer and corporate spending to remain cautious (and growth to remain tepid).

With China Demand Down, Exports Are Way Up

All in all, it’s no wonder then investors’ view of metal demand is pessimistic. While China’s metals production has recovered strongly from last year’s power restrictions, demand has not. As a recent report by Reuters states, metal is flowing out of the country at unprecedented rates.
Indeed, exports of all metals increased significantly this year. Even in the case of metals like copper and nickel, where China remains a net importer, the net import ratio has fallen.

  • In March, China exported 45,260 tons of primary aluminum. This represents the highest monthly total since April 2010, despite a 15% export tax.
  • Simultaneously, exports of semi-finished metal have surged. With little demand in the domestic market and most Chinese mills on short-term leads, the outbound flow rose 18% to 5.5 million tons last year. In the first quarter of this year, that figure added another 23%.
  • Refined Lead exports also increased to 98,000 tons last year and 38,000 tons in just the first three months of 2022.
  • Even Zinc exports are up. As with aluminum, this is in spite of a 15% export tax due to high energy content. In fact, export figures for the first quarter of this year were more than double what we saw through all of 2021.

These levels of surging exports are only possible because domestic primary and semi-finished prices in China are lower than in the rest of the world. Why are they lower? Because demand is lower. This may be good for consumers benefiting from supply in an otherwise constrained global market. However, it does not speak to China’s growth prospects, especially when the rest of the world is doing relatively well.

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