Less than a month after Goldman stunned its Wall Street peers when it slashed its Q3 China GDP forecast to just 0%, forecasting no growth in the world’s second largest economy, Goldman has done it again and in a note published late on Sunday, not only does the bank admit that China has entered a phase of “temporary stagflation”, but in a tone that is almost apologetic as Beijing will likely take great offense at this provocation, the bank cut its 2022 GDP forecast form an already low 5.8% to just 5.4%.
Goldman first summarizes the stagflationary dynamics of the recently concluded third quarter, in which just Chinese real GDP growth slowed to a 0.8% annual rate while at the same time, PPI inflation reached 10.7% yoy in September, the highest on record.
However, and this is where Goldman is ever so sorry for offending Beijing with its “math“, Goldman’s Hui Shan writes that this “stagflation” is very different from the experience of the US and other developed countries in the 1970 (spoiler alert: it actually isn’t different at all as we explained in “Is Stagflation Here: Comparing The 2020s With The 1970s…“).
Goldman then spends the balance of the note not so much focusing on China’s deep economic problems, as much as apologetically explaining (to anyone who will listen), why these challenges are so transitory, they can effectively be ignored. As Shan writes, “the weakness in Q3 growth was driven by a number of factors, including the August Covid outbreak that impacted many provinces, the sharp slowdown in the property market, and the energy shortages and power cuts in late September. We think the Covid outbreak probably played the biggest role in negatively impacting Q3 activity, followed by property and energy.”
It gets better: to make sure the message is received loud and clear in Beijing, Goldman goes so hyperbolic as to call events in Q3 a “perfect storm” (which of course is unpredictable, so it’s not Beijing’s fault for what is taking place in the economy). Here are Goldman’s key observations on this topic:
The weak Q3 growth was driven by a number of factors – Covid outbreaks and chip shortages that the government has less control over on the one hand, and property tightening and power cuts that are mostly policy-driven on the other. The September activity data show evidence on the combination of various shocks to the economy (fig.3) For example, catering sales (i.e., restaurant services) rebounded sharply in September after slumping in August on Covid lockdowns in multiple provinces. Auto production and sales remained soft on chip shortages. Property sales continued to drop on the government’s deleveraging efforts and lending restrictions. Output of high-emission products such as steel and cement fell sharply on the “dual controls” of energy use and severe coal shortages which led to power cuts and production halts in these sectors.
After the anemic sequential growth year-to-date (averaging only about 2% annualized rate), the Chinese economy appears to have gone from a positive output gap at the end of last year to some excess capacity in Q3.
Looking across different sectors, Exhibit 5 shows that, with the exception of agriculture, all industries are currently at or below trend level of output, assuming a pre-Covid sector-specific trend. In the case of leasing and commercial services (e.g., travel agencies and large conferences), hotel and restaurant services, and other services (e.g., household cleaning services), the negative output gap remains significant. Eighteen months after the onset of the Covid outbreak early last year and with no end of the “zero Covid” policy in sight, activity in these sectors is at risk for longer-term scarring effects.
Household consumption was the hardest-hit part of the economy last year on both lower income growth and a higher saving rate. By Q3, household saving rate has mostly normalized to its pre-Covid level, falling from a peak of 35% in 2020Q1 to 30% now (Exhibit 6). The main constraint to consumption is income growth. As of Q3, the growth of household disposable income averaged only 6.6% per year over the past two years, compared to 8.8% in 2019. Among different sources of income, growth of business income underperformed the most, averaging 3.6% per year over the past two years compared to 8.0% in 2019 (Exhibit 7).
In other words, China’s stagflation is “temporary” and should reverse soon. Until it does, however, Goldman is tracking the contribution of housing to GDP growth, and calculates it as subtracting 0.5% from Q3 GDP. The bank admits that it expects “even bigger drags in the coming quarters.”
Meanwhile, as the property market shrinks, and the overall economy is barely growing, PPI inflation soared in September, but here too Goldman expects CPI inflation “to remain muted in the coming months for two reasons. First, food and service inflation has little relationship with PPI inflation and is likely to stay low. Second, even at extremely high levels of PPI inflation, the pass-through into CPI inflation is fairly low: we estimate an additional 1pp increase in PPI inflation raises headline CPI inflation by 0.1pp.” It explains further below:
September PPI inflation reached the highest level since the data were available in 1997, raising questions about both the duration of the high PPI inflation and its potential passing through into CPI inflation which has remained low. On the first question, PPI inflation is likely to stay high in the near term, but should soften notably in six months on base effect. If prices were to remain unchanged from here, PPI inflation would drop to about 2% in mid-2022. On the latter, we expect the pass-through from PPI to CPI to be limited for two reasons.
First, CPI has three distinct components – food, non-food goods, and services (Exhibit 11). Food inflation and service price inflation are likely to remain low in the coming months on depressed pork prices (which dominate food prices) and negative output gap (which is a key driver of service inflation). Second, historically the sensitivity of CPI non-food goods inflation to PPI inflation is statistically significant but economically small. Exhibit 12 shows a nonlinear relationship where relatively mild year-over-year PPI inflation (i.e., between -5% and +5%) appears to have very little impact on CPI non-food goods inflation.
But even at more extreme levels of PPI inflation, the magnitude of the pass-through remains modest: an additional 1pp increase in PPI inflation from its currently elevated levels boosts CPI non-food goods inflation by 0.25pp which translates into 0.1pp for headline CPI inflation.
Goldman’s bottom line is
please don’t revoke our operating license in China for telling it how it is that things are bad but will get better soon because “unlike the stagflation of the 1970s, the very low growth and high inflation in China in Q3 were policy-driven (e.g., property tightening and decarbonization), partial (e.g., PPI only), and likely temporary (e.g., policies have already been adjusted to boost coal production and accelerate fiscal spending in Q4).” Again, all of this is a pure figment of Goldman’s goalseeking imagination. For a full picture of how the 1970s stagflation is ominously similar to what is going on now, read this.
In any case, with China’s economy now at stall speed, Goldman had a choice: bad news and even worse news, or good, if meaningless news and, well, worse news. The bank picked the latter writing that it now expects a sequential pickup in growth in Q4 – which by the way is unchanged from Goldman’s previous forecast – with year-over-year GDP growth to drop to 3.1%. However, while nobody cares about Q4 without the bigger picture, it was here that Goldman saved its worst news for last, warning that “long-term policy direction such as property deleveraging remains unchanged as evidenced by the latest news on starting property tax trials in select cities.” As such, the bank has slashed its 2022 growth forecast to 5.2% from 5.6% previously.
And, as was the case with Goldman’s overoptimistic 2021 GDP forecasts, expect many more GDP cuts as China’s economy gets dangerously close to a hard landing, if not outright crash. Not surprisingly, Goldman’s conclusion suggests as much:
Given the continued slowdown in credit growth – the year-over year growth in the stock of total social financing (TSF) dropped to 10.0% in September from 13.5% a year ago – and the “just do enough” approach of policymakers, we revise down our credit growth forecast to 10.5% for 2021 (previously 11.5%). This still implies a modest pick-up in sequential credit growth in Q4. In addition, we recently changed our monetary policy forecast and no longer expect a RRR cut in Q4. This is not a call on the broader monetary policy stance. Rather, recent communications by the PBOC suggest that the central bank is likely to use targeted liquidity instruments (e.g., SME and green financing relending programs) instead of broad-based RRR cut to replace the large amounts of maturing MLF loans.
Finally, Goldman looks at its downside case scenario (the onw which will happen), and says that “if growth were to deteriorate sharply, we believe the government will react decisively, especially as China prepares for next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics” (starting from Feb 4)and the 20th Party Congress (October/November). Spoiler alert: growth will deteriorate sharply from here, something which the PBOC clearly see and is why the central bank just injected a net $190BN in reverse repo, the biggest liquidity injection since January. Here, too, expect much more.
And while Goldman expects a sequential pickup inQ4, its year-over-year growth is poised to decline further. But under the “just do enough” mentality of policymakers, especially as the unemployment rate remains low despite weak growth, the bank warns that “growth headwinds are likely to linger and the slower-than-expected credit growth over the past few months should weigh on economic activity next year based on historical experience.”