Risks Abound After Santa Claus Rally Lifts Stocks

By George Lei, Bloomberg Markets Live reporter and strategist

1. Chinese equities have enjoyed a stellar Santa Claus rally even though the country doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas. CSI 300 Index, the onshore benchmark, gained 2.8% in the final week of 2023 while the MSCI China Index soared 4.8% over the same period. The performance was the best in five months for both gauges. Investors have largely attributed the jump to bottom-fishing and year-end position adjustments, with some of the most battered sectors leading the year-end rally.

Despite last week’s bounce, Chinese shares remain the world’s biggest losers in 2023 and whether the rebound can last into the new year depends a lot on the all-important real estate sector. Wall Street, however, isn’t too optimistic. The slump in China’s housing construction will continue in 2024, dragging down economic growth while government efforts to stabilize the sector will be inadequate to reverse the downturn, according to the consensus from ten investment banks and brokerages including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and UBS.

Until the housing market turns around, any dip-buying in Chinese equities will more likely be a short-term trade than a durable investment theme.

2. Bureaucrats are still fumbling their policymaking even as top leaders urge them to “build the new before abolishing the old.” More than two years after a crackdown on the Internet and video-game sectors, vestiges of official disapproval remain, as evidenced by a raft of proposals to curb in-game spending and playing time just before Christmas. Some of China’s biggest online names shed $80 billion before recouping some of their losses.

The silver lining, however, is that officials seemed to quickly realize the damages done and reacted almost immediately to calm markets, short of an explicitly admission of mea culpa. On Dec. 25, regulators said they approved a record 105 games for domestic publication and promised to review their controversial proposals.

The media & entertainment sector remains a “timely buy” based on business cycle analysis, according to a research report from JPMorgan, which shrugged off the rout of game stocks. The sector’s forward 12-month P/E ratio now stands at a multi-year low of 11.8 times and the valuation gaps are at odds with a regulatory direction favoring large caps, analysts Wendy Liu and Alex Yao wrote last week. The US bank favors Tencent, NetEase and Baidu, all of which fell before Christmas and only one has recouped all its losses.

3. A plethora of domestic problems still weigh on the Chinese currency, preventing it from catching up with the dollar. In December, the onshore yuan rose merely 0.5% versus the dollar, which by itself tumbled more than 2%. The currency ranked as No. 23 out of 31 peers of developed and developing nations tracked by Bloomberg.

It is faring even worse against non-dollar peers, hovering near a four-month low on a trade-weighted basis according to a Bloomberg tracker of China’s trade-weighted yuan index. Most currencies of the nation’s major trade partners strengthened versus the greenback in December, led by a 5%-plus rally in the Japanese yen.

In the final days of 2023, Chinese banks slashed their deposit rates for the third time this year and PBOC-backed Financial News suggested on Wednesday more reductions to both deposit and lending rates are likely in the pipeline. With no end in sight to rate cuts from Beijing, expectations of Fed easing alone won’t be enough to boost the Chinese currency.


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