China is due to report third-quarter gross domestic product data on Wednesday, and there are fears that the figures will disappoint. But then, nobody really trusts the official figures anyway; so, no matter how good (or bad) they turn out to be, investors will try to look beyond them to guess where the world's second-largest economy is going.
One other area to look at carefully is inflation. The world has been in disinflation mode for so long that a few pieces of news out of China that otherwise would have at least raised interest are now going almost unnoticed. (To be sure, the drama surrounding Brexit also serves to distract attention from China).
The first piece of important news, released last week, is the fact that Chinese producer price inflation went positive for the first time since 2012. You could take this to mean that Chinese factories are confident enough to put up prices for the first time in four years -- which is hardly bad news.
The second bit of news has to do with looking deeper into the trade data. By some metrics, these were far worse than expected, with exports plunging by 10% and imports unexpectedly shrinking in September.
Still, commodity imports held up "rather well," Caroline Bain, senior commodities economist at Capital Economics, said.
She noted that China's copper ore imports were still growing at almost 30% year on year, while coal and iron ore imports were also strong in September. This ties in with PMI data in the month, which showed factory activity expanding, Bain added.
A third ray of light could be coming from the Chinese labor market. Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics, said the demand-supply situation has stayed favorable for employees, with wage increases running at 7% to 8% in the second quarter.
A job market that is tilted in the employee's favor means wages are likely to keep increasing; this would continue to push producer prices higher.
All these developments show that China is likely to export inflation, rather than disinflation, to the world markets for the first time in years.
This would normally be bad news, as it makes things more expensive for consumers, but we don't live in normal times. Major central banks have tried every trick in the book to boost inflation, because it is the only way the massive overhang of debt can be reduced without outright defaulting on it.
The re-ignition of inflation would achieve that goal. Inflation also flatters GDP growth figures, as inflationary expectations make people go out and buy durable goods now rather than later to preempt price increases.
While it is true that persistently high inflation cuts into living standards and lowers purchasing power, for a short while it can deliver a boost to the economy. But what does it mean for investors?
Equities are usually the asset class that does best in inflationary times, while cash and bonds suffer. Among sectors, the financial sector -- which has been unloved for so long -- could finally become attractive to investors again, as banks benefit from higher net interest margins.
One big caveat to all this is the fact that the Chinese currency is depreciating. This could scupper this scenario and even reverse it, as a weaker renminbi exports deflation, not inflation.
A weakening currency may help China's fight to remain competitive for the short term, but it would hurt its main export markets over the long term. Still, with a mountain of debt to service, this is a development China should avoid at all costs. Its policymakers are probably aware of that.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Real Money at 8 a.m. on Oct. 17.
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