The old saying in financial markets is that when the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold, but what happens when China gets the sniffles?
Nervousness about China’s outlook is a persistent theme for investors and economists, who worry a slowdown in growth will take the bottom out from under the Australian economy.
The latest bout of anxiety is linked to the country’s property sector: home prices have been falling and the rapid construction of so-called ghost cities to stimulate the economy has created oversupplies in some areas.
That has already had an impact on Australia in the form of reduced demand for iron ore, which combined with a ramp up in supply by BHP and Rio Tinto and the like has seen the price of the commodity plummet to five year lows.
And a prolonged slide in home prices could have serious repercussions; global bank HSBC says a 20 per cent slide in prices that lasted 12 months would wipe two full percentage points off China’s GDP growth, which would have wide reaching repercussions.
But University of New South Wales economist Tim Harcourt said the weaker housing market is by design.
“I think in some ways the Chinese want the property market to cool down a little bit,” Mr Harcourt told AAP.
Chinese authorities have been trying to restrict the flow of money into the property sector in recent years in an effort to limit price speculation by investors, which means there is plenty they can do if they wanted to help the market rebound.
For instance, they could lower interest rates or relax rules requiring those buying their second home to stump up a deposit of at least 70 per cent.
But HSBC Australia chief economist Paul Bloxham said a downturn in property prices in China wasn’t anything unusual.
“It is worth keeping in mind that this is the third time in a period of seven years where you have seen house prices declining, so it’s not an unfamiliar thing for China to have,” he said.
In the longer run, both Mr Bloxham and Mr Harcourt are upbeat about the outlook for China and say Australia will continue to reap the benefits of its economic expansion.
Mr Bloxham, for one, thinks the outlook for Australia’s iron ore is better than many believe.
He said China still had plenty of building to do and the recent price slide should see higher cost producers overseas shut down.
“Our view is that China actually still has a fair bit of investment to do because it still has a very large proportion of its population living in rural areas,” he said.
In the longer term, Mr Harcourt said China’s transition to a consumer-driven economy should see the rewards spread to more Australians than ever before.
He said the shift would create opportunities for service-based businesses and food producers, while education and tourism providers are also likely to benefit.
“It may be that the spread of the Chinese bounty for Australia will be wider because it won’t just be BHP and Rio getting all the benefits.”