I have recently been talking about my worries regarding the third-largest economy in the world, Japan. However, the second-largest economy has now exhibited signs that sent off an alarm bell in my mind.
Last week late at night (morning in China), the country reported manufacturing numbers that disappointed analysts. The numbers showed that the economy appeared to be heading toward a recession, and stocks tanked. Most of the media focused on the large sell off in Chinese stocks and the poor numbers.
However, a more frightening omen appeared that night. Within a few hours after the numbers came out and stocks dipped, interbank lending rates shot up. At one point, the rate of the Shanghai Interbank Offered Rate (Shibor) reached as high as 25 percent after starting the day near 5 or 6 percent. In short, Shibor is the rate at which banks lend each other money.
Besides a few websites, very few people in the financial media even discussed this problem that night. Media outlets did widely report it the next day, but they were lucky it was not too late.
After Lehman Brothers collapsed, interbank lending rates shot up as high as 4 percent (a far cry from 25 percent in the Shibor). Banks were no longer willing to lend to each other, and economists across the aisle believe that if the Federal Reserve had not pumped in massive amounts of money, the U.S. economy would have collapsed.
This very well could have happened last Wednesday night when everyone was paying attention to the wrong data.
There are two lessons from here.
First, the financial media, like all other businesses, is for profit. They need headlines that attract readers who subscribe or click ads. Most readers have no clue what Shibor is, therefore, it is a lot more interesting to focus on Chinese stocks down 10 percent then interbank lending rates. It is hard to believe that anyone who knows basic economics would have been more concerned about stock prices than a potential economic meltdown. Investors must sift through the news (and find alternative sources) where important facts are discussed, not what price Apple closed at yesterday.
Second, China has been experiencing a massive bubble over the past few years. The central bank in China stepped in last week to provide funding, but they warned that they wanted to crack down on speculative activity. As opaque as the U.S. government is, China is much more of a mystery. There is less data, and the data reported are many times inaccurate.
However, the fate of the world could depend on how the People's Bank of China navigates this crisis. It would be impossible to fathom many years ago, but the fate of the world is in the hands of China's central bank. As this week showed when nearly every asset fell, there is no place to run or hide.
Investors should give up praying for financial journalism as it is a lost cause, but they better pray the People's Bank of China makes the right moves.
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