China's Super Golden Week
China's "National Day Golden Week" -- one of two annual week-long holidays in China -- is wrapping up. Sunday marked the founding of the People's Republic of China, a Gregorian calendar affair which occurs every October 1st. The lunar calendar determines when Mid-Autumn Festival lands, which this year, was on Wednesday. The fortuitous timing made it easier for vacations and traveling.
It made sense then that much of the coverage this week has reported that more than 700 million Chinese people were in transit this week, which if accurate, is nearly one in ten people on the planet. All of those travelers means a boon for tourism. China's National Tourism Administration reported (link in Chinese) that China's famous tourists spots had already received 227 million visitors who spent about $29 million USD. Most of the tourists decided to travel to southern provinces like Yunnan and Hainan, but Beijing received the most flights, which as of Sunday, totaled 587,000 flights.
Some nations have come to expect the added boost of Chinese consumer spending during this holiday. London's Hippodrome Casino, for example, expected up to 300,000 Chinese tourists over the weekend. Thailand typically receives the most Chinese tourists for Golden Week, and expected at least 600,000 tourists this year.
But for many, the holiday is more than tourism money and moon cakes. For centuries in the Koreas, China, and Vietnam, the full autumn moon signified the conclusion of harvest and a time for feasting and courting rituals. One of China's most-famous Tang dynasty poets, Li Bai, wrote an ode to the harvest moon saying, "I raise my cup, invite the bright moon; facing my shadow, together we make three."
Checking China's Economic Pulse
Ahead of the much anticipated 19th Party Congress, China's central bank moved over the weekend to allow commercial lenders to dish out more loans by cutting the amount of cash they have to keep in reserve. Christopher Balding, an associate professor at the HSBC School of Business at Peking University in Shenzhen noted that the cut "is clearly signifying additional concern about the sustainability of economic growth in China absent credit injections." In mid-September, the government took similar actions, seeking to stabilize the yuan, thus providing stability to the Chinese market. David Riedel, president and founder of Riedel Research Group noted that "Beijing is going to be very motivated to make sure that there's market stability and growth and positive news flow in and around the very important October Congress and political meeting."
China has gone to great lengths to ensure market stability and growth, which the World Bank seems to have an optimistic outlook on, having bumped up growth predictions for China from 6.5% to 6.7% for 2017, and from 6.3% to 6.4% in 2018. According to Purchasing Managers Indices (PMIs), a government survey which measures perceived changes in activity levels across China's manufacturing sector, the Chinese economy is improving, having jumped 0.7 points, to 52.4, the highest level it has been at since April 2012. The PMIs also indicated growth in external demand and production. However, it must be noted the PMIs measure sentiment, and not actual activity.
Despite the push for greater market stability and growth, a number of key credit rating agencies, notably S&P Global in September and Moody's in May, gave a credit rating downgrade to China. The rationale given for the downgrade is that campaigns to reduce debt risk are not working quickly enough and that credit growth is still too fast. However, China's Ministry of Finance has outwardly said was the wrong decision. Many speculate that such a move could destabilize the already fragile confidence in the yuan and increase lending costs. Further, Lu Zhengwei, Chief Economist with Industrial Bank in Shanghai, noted that "the slowdown has been stabilising, supported by a resilient property sector and a recovery in external demand. But the economy is still in a L-shape trajectory."
According to Chinese Beige Book International (CBB), a quarterly survey of thousands of Chinese Firms, "The worry is not how the economy is faring now, but where it is headed. Beneath substantial accomplishments lies a potentially darker story for 2018." CBB noted that despite reports of capacity cuts, firms participating in the survey noted that capacity and output are still on the rise. It was further noted that "demand and hot money inflows that kept prices rising in commodities, not capacity cuts as many analysts would have you believe. Neither trend was sustainable and now demand has clearly sputtered."
Although the outlook may look less than optimal ahead of the Party Congress, experts also point to the more optimistic side of the market, noting a number of bright spots in the development of the Chinese economy. Finance Professor Zhao Xijun noted that "China is on the way to creating some new growth engines, with signs of breakthroughs in the manufacturing of hi-tech aviation and aerospace products, satellites and other communications equipment." It will be interesting to see how China and the 19th Party Congress will direct policy to stabilize market growth, despite the recent economic setbacks and grimmer outlooks.
Cryptocurrency Sales Persist in the Shadows
This week, China's last major cryptocurrency exchange closed its doors. This move comes a month after Beijing announced a ban on initial coin offerings in early September. But despite market blips shortly after the ban was unveiled, analysts and commentators seem increasingly confident that growth of stateless currencies will be undaunted by state regulation.
From the look of the thriving Bitcoin markets, neither the presence of ICOs nor Blockchain - the technology underlying Bitcoin– is going to be stamped out of China anytime soon.
Reports indicate that savvy Bitcoin marketers have taken a turn for the clandestine, pivoting from glistening high-rises to golf courses and smoky Beijing clubs. An investigative piece by the Wall Street Journal details this dynamic, telling the story of a woman named "Ms. Zhang" who sold shares as a "financing project" for a logistics company. According to this report, "As China widens a crackdown on exchanges and attempts to limit private trading venues for digital currencies, clandestine sales pitches seeking as much as $100,000 per investor are taking place away out of regulators' sight, according to investors and traders. Some of the activity that used to take place on widely accessible online platforms is shifting to low-profile offices and online messaging services, as digital-currency promoters and investors try to get around the new curbs."
A separate report by Quartz gives readers an inside look at speakeasy-style "bitcoin clubs" that have popped up across Beijing. Here, enthusiasts continue to discuss projects and strike deals – but only if they are acquainted with the miners who run the place. The report notes that, although China's Bitcoin powerhouse BTCC was forced to close its china arm, it continues to run a global exchange. In such scenarios, the question of enforcement remains uncertain – with no physical element to such exchanges, plausibility deniability is always possible.
The popularity of Bitcoin and Blockchain in China has been sustained by systemic factors underlying Beijing's currency. According to an engineer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Eric Zhao, Bitcoin became popular almost by default because of the paucity of products for the Chinese retail investor. "There are not many good investment choices for common people in China. Many people worry about inflation and lots of people feel insecure about their financial status," he says. "They buy it simply because they believe it will appreciate in value." Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow specializing in Chinese internet finance at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington DC, added "[Chinese consumers] have had such limited channels for so long, and [bitcoin] was finally one that was not tightly controlled by the government."
On a cultural level, the owner of a glitzy Beijing bitcoin club adds, "In China, Bitcoin is one thing and in America and Europe it is another thing. Our government says bitcoin is not a currency, it is a commodity, so there is no chance it will compete with the renminbi. Bitcoin is a great idea, but in China we care more about Blockchain." So, as cryptocurrency investment moves into the shadows, and China continues to invest in Blockchain technology for purposes unrelated to cryptocurrency such as tax filing and invoice collection, Beijing is unlikely to succeed in "stopping the unstoppable."