NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: New year sure to fire up China's economy

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The Year of the Fire Monkey kicks off this week bringing with it risks of financial volatility - at least according to its traditional characteristics. Photo / Michael Craig
The Year of the Fire Monkey kicks off this week bringing with it risks of financial volatility - at least according to its traditional characteristics. Photo / Michael Craig

The Year of the Fire Monkey kicks off this week bringing with it risks of financial volatility - at least according to its traditional characteristics.

"Could be good, could be bad but won't be boring" seems to be the key theme. As predictions go this is a sitter for the Chinese economy in 2016.

We're only a month into the year and already China is shaping up as a big driver of global volatility.

New Zealand has benefited greatly from the relationship but it is becoming clearer that being closely tied to China's fortunes does come with some risks.

With the dramatic swings of the Shanghai stock exchange, and perhaps even more directly than slowing GDP growth, New Zealand business faces the challenge of adapting to sweeping regulatory changes as officials in Beijing use their extensive powers to try and stabilise the economy.

We've seen the dramatic impact that rule changes can have on small sectors with the swift reactions to infant formula scandals.

The pressure on Chinese officials to improve food safety standards has also created border issues for our meat exporters and even seen New Zealand mineral water knocked back for not meeting the right standards for the right category.

The big issue right now concerns attempts by the Chinese Government to stem the outflow of cash from the country.

The general direction of official policy for the past few years has been for the liberalisation of capital controls.

The Chinese want to see the yuan accepted as a global currency and that means eventually allowing it to be freely traded.

That has led to expectations that we'll see increasing flows of money from China invested in markets around the world - including New Zealand.

But the speed and scale of the outflow of capital in the past year has spooked officials.

It is estimated that US$1 trillion left China's shores last year as investors panicked about a hard landing for the economy.

This has put Beijing in a difficult position. Changing official direction on the open yuan policy and putting hard restrictions on capital would be tantamount to admitting defeat.

Instead there has been talk from the People's Bank of China of a "severe crackdown" on illegal currency transactions and a "strengthening of checks" on the validity of transactions.

The net effect of this is it will be more difficult for many to get money out of China. The crackdown - without changing official policy - will also send a strong signal to a Chinese public which is highly attuned to these kind of proclamations.

Fewer will try to move money through official channels and as the grey areas become more risky we may see a spike in the proportion of black market. To whatever extent Chinese foreign investment was driving a spike in Auckland house prices we could now see that abate.

The shift in attitude to capital outflows is another timely reminder that, for a very big country, behavioural change can happen very fast in China.

In reality there is little we can do from New Zealand to influence Chinese policy.

Business and regulators just need to be alert to the trends and issues which drive public policy in China.

The country may not have democracy in the form we know it, but public opinion holds a great deal of sway with a regime that takes a great deal of pride in public order.

As China steps up efforts to maintain order in a slowing economic environment we may see more dramatic moves shaking things up in our part of the world.

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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