The spectre of the Chinese slowdown loomed large over one of Asia’s biggest trade gatherings, as the reality of a “new normal” for the economy began to sink in.
Commodity traders voiced anxiety as to the continued slump in prices, while bankers bemoaned the lack of activity in commodity finance markets.
Jayant Menon, lead economist at the Asian Development Bank, expressed concern for the impact on the Asean trading bloc, which has become intrinsically linked to China’s economy. China is the largest trading partner for the group as a whole and for each of its member states, while it has also been the biggest investor in the bloc.
“Previously we looked to Asia as a buffer, but it’s not immune anymore,” Menon told the audience at GTR Asia Trade Finance Week in Singapore. “We now hope the US recovery will lead to a return to growth.”
Insurers said that the risk perception of China is growing around the region, with the latest economic problems coming after a litany of scandals in the commodities sector and amid a reported power struggle in the upper echelons of the Communist Party.
Xavier Farcot head of risk underwriting for Coface Asia Pacific said that defaults relating to China have been on the rise and said that the country certainly carries a higher risk rating than it did a year ago.
The slowdown in Chinese construction has hammered prices in iron ore, steel, copper and other key markets. Paul Gardner, global head of structured commodity finance at Westpac also laid the blame at the feet of producers, which have refused to cut production, despite a surplus of commodities on the market.
In the iron ore sector alone, the world’s largest mine – the Roy Hill facility at Pilbara, Western Australia – is set to start producing this year. This will compound prices, which have hit near-decade lows in recent weeks.
On the sidelines of the event, some delegates said that they are receiving frequent calls from clients wondering how they can get their money out of China, with a lack of transparency as to the reality of the economic situation being blamed for the panic.
Others are looking to China’s next policy moves with fear. It’s thought that as part of the next Five Year Plan, to be announced in October, China will attempt to move towards a more climate-friendly economy. Part of this will be a move away from coal, with Brahim Zerouki, commodity trading director at PetroIndia Utama in Jakarta, saying that China is likely to become a net exporter of coal, after years of heavy consumption.
After years of relying on the rising Chinese tide to lift all ships, Asian trade has begun to face up to a future which is altogether less certain.