From the Dutch tulip craze of 1637 to America’s dot-com bubble at the turn of the century, history is littered with speculative frenzies that ended badly for investors.
But rarely has a mania escalated so rapidly, and spurred such fevered trading, as the great China commodities boom of 2016. Over the span of just two wild months, daily turnover on the nation’s futures markets has jumped by the equivalent of $183 billion, outpacing the headiest days of last year’s Chinese stock bubble and making volumes on the Nasdaq exchange in 2000 look tame.
What started as a logical bet -- that China’s economic stimulus and industrial reforms would lead to shortages of construction materials -- quickly morphed into a full-blown commodities frenzy with little bearing on reality. As the nation’s army of individual investors piled in, they traded enough cotton in a single day last month to make one pair of jeans for everyone on Earth and shuffled around enough soybeans for 56 billion servings of tofu.
Now, as Chinese authorities introduce trading curbs to prevent surging commodities from fueling inflation and undermining plans to shut down inefficient producers, speculators are retreating as fast as they poured in. It’s the latest in a series of boom-bust market cycles that critics say are becoming more extreme as China’s policy makers flood the financial system with cash to stave off an economic hard landing.
“You have far too much credit, money sloshing about, money looking for higher returns,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.” “Even in commodities where you could have argued there is some reason for prices to rise, that gets quickly swamped by a nascent bull market and becomes an uncontrollable bubble.”
In many ways, China’s financial landscape was ripe for another mania. New credit soared to a record in the first quarter, giving individuals and businesses plenty of cash to invest at a time when several of the country’s traditional sources of return looked unattractive.
Government debt yields were hovering near record lows, while wealth-management products and company bonds had been rattled by a growing number of corporate defaults. Stocks were still too risky for many investors burned by last year’s crash, and moving money offshore had become harder as the government clamped down on capital outflows.