Investors Will Be Parched if China Tightens Monetary Spigot

TAIPEI, Taiwan ( TheStreet) -- China's central bank added liquidity of 662 billion yuan before the spending blitz around the Lunar New Year holiday in February. Then last week it sucked 910 billion yuan right out. Is Wall Street the next place to feel the drain?

The sudden and record-high drain, equivalent to $146 billion, scared financial markets in mainland China and in Hong Kong, where many of the country's most vibrant firms are listed.

Things are still pretty loose in China on the whole. Interest rates are affordable. But after the new leadership picked in November formally takes control this month and examines the overall economy, it may decide to tighten things. Shifts in world monetary policy and an ongoing fight to rein in China's housing prices would add pressure to make a squeeze.

Then again, Chinese officials may decide just to leave things alone.

Whatever happens, the liquidity drain in February fanned fears of a tightening of China's monetary policy and led to three days of stock market declines in late February.

As of Wednesday, mainland China's A shares had fallen about 5% since the Lunar New Year holiday ended on Feb. 18.

Hong Kong's H-shares, all issued by Chinese companies, slid almost 6% over the same period. More fear, let alone the reality, would further pressure H shares, which are considered attractive to offshore portfolio investors who are keen on China.

Eventually, declines in stock prices would leech into New York stock exchanges because investors worldwide look to China for economic direction. U.S. multinationals are also tethered to Chinese suppliers. If those suppliers are depressed, the market may wonder about the welfare of their New York-listed customers.

So far, financial analysts aren't reading too much into the liquidity drain or any follow-up. It's just an offset, some argue. For more than a decade the government has encouraged consumer spending over the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, be that for travel or family banquets. It naturally wanted more money in the system ahead of the Feb. 9-18 festivities this year.

But the analysts are not ruling out policy rate hikes in line with those approved by foreign central banks to keep the fast-growing economy from dangerously overheating.

Chinese leaders are also still looking for ways to keep housing prices in check so homes remain affordable to the middle class. New control measures could make lending tougher.

Analysts expect no massive new tightening move for the short term, as the economy is performing with few shocks. Further holding things steady, most Chinese companies are expected to report so-so to upbeat 2012 earnings. And then the government will probably clarify its monetary policies next week when China's parliament-like National People's Congress holds its mores important meeting of the year.

The market also has dropped to "near technical support levels" already, says Herbert Hui, research director with DBS Vickers Securities in Hong Kong.

The longer term is harder to forecast. I go with this cautious view from Lorraine Tan, director of Asia equity research at S&P Capital IQ, also in Hong Kong: "We think monetary and fiscal policy is likely to remain on course until around May after the new government steps in and data releases in March and April provide a clearer demand picture."

By then, it might not just be China's economy affecting Chinese monetary policy.

"If there is any movement in interest rates, it will more likely reflect tweaks in reaction to regional central bank movements so that the risk of hot money inflows is curbed," Tan says. "So in other words, a bit less accommodation by the People's Bank of China in 2013 would not surprise us."

At that point, expect Chinese domestic A-shares to fall further. That's not a biggie as just a handful of qualified foreign investors can buy those.

But if the slump extends to Chinese firms listed in Hong Kong, investors would naturally hold or sell.

And if the malaise spread to Wall Street, it would most likely hit companies reliant on China. You might check, for example, share prices of Boeing ( BA) and General Motors ( GM).

Boeing has sold 900 aircraft to China since 1972, with thousands more potential orders expected as the country adds airports -- and travelers. GM has seen China vehicle sales overtake U.S. sales. It's planning to build a third joint-venture factory in the country to serve expected growth in light commercial vehicles.

Falling share prices are one thing. Monetary tightening could also hit the Chinese partners of these U.S. companies if they're looking for loans to expand.

"As Chinese firms are usually the major suppliers to North American companies, their level of activity is often interpreted to correlate with the level of demand coming from New York-based firms," warns Wojtek Zarzycki, chief investment officer with Optimal Investing in Canada.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

Ralph Jennings is on LinkedIn.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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