Questions concerning China and its economic future kept the market’s exuberance in check this week. Given that China is key to most global growth forecasts, any hint of a slowing of the Chinese economic engine is taken seriously. This week we received a bit of bad news.
Over the last seven years Chinese government central planners have established a stated economic growth rate for China’s economy of 8%. This week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao set a growth target for his nation’s economy at 7.5% for 2012, which is half a percent lower than targeted.
At the same time, government forecasters in Australia indicated that iron ore exports may decline by as much as 8.5% this year. China was once again the culprit since it is a large consumer of Aussie iron ore. Iron ore is one of the main inputs in the production of steel. At the same time, Australian BHP Billiton, the world’s biggest mining company, predicted that China’s steel production is slowing as the country switches its focus from exports and massive building projects to the Chinese consumer and domestic consumption
Shaving one half of one percent off an economic forecast may not seem like a lot, but when the world’s stock markets are priced to perfection, any ill wind that may blow quickly accelerates to gale force among market participants.. The Chinese stock market nose-dived on the news. That market, which had experienced fabulous gains from 2003 through 2008, has languished and has largely been excluded from the rally in stocks that we have experienced since 2009.
To its credit, the U.S. stock market weathered the news quite well. It simply stalled the equity rally for this week. Although somewhat muted, sentiment is still at or close to highs that have traditionally signaled market corrections. In addition, The Chicago Board of Trade’s Market Volatility Index, called the VIX, has hit lows that have not been seen in years. Volatility has been the watch word of the markets over the last two years. The price of the VIX today would indicate that investors are expecting smooth sailing into the future with no clouds upon the horizon.
The S&P 500 and NASDAQ Indexes are having their best quarters since the second and third quarters of 2009. Europe’s problems also appear to be behind us although lingering concerns over the financial shape of Portugal contributed to this week’s nervousness. European exchanges had their worst week of the year with a decline of 4% overall. We will see if the U.S. market can decouple from the kind of profit-taking that is occurring across the Atlantic.
The recurring theme among everyone I talk to is when a pullback will occur. It was the topic of an entire evening’s dinner conversation on a recent trip to Manhattan. Various members of the financial community gave their forecast. . None present expected the markets to continue higher. That, my dear reader, is an important contrary indicator. I suspect that there are still a lot of investors, both retail and institutional, who are underinvested in equities and are just looking for a chance to put more money into the market.
Since there will always be those who will jump the gun, any minor decline continues to be met with a wave of buying from those still sitting on the sidelines. I expect that absence any more bad news, the markets will continue to experience shallow pullbacks followed by a slow grind higher. I feel fairly confident that somewhere out there a sell off is coming but exactly when is simply too hard to predict.