But those who come later take courage from the skaters already there. Illogical though it is, they ignore the fact that their added weight is more – not less – likely to cause the ice to fracture.
Similar psychological forces are at work in economics. Mass participation bestows a perceived legitimacy, until the first loud crack in the illusion sends everyone scurrying for the sidelines. China is particularly susceptible to such dynamics because the thickness of the economy's supporting ice is obscured by opaque statistics and ambiguous official statements.
The alacrity with which China investors populate an idea and the speed with which they desert it puts a special premium on identifying the turning points in the economic cycle. One of these turning points is now upon us. For more than 18 months, investors both inside and outside China have been betting that the renminbi will appreciate sharply against the US dollar, to which its value is currently fixed.
But a significant appreciation is now less and less likely. The constellation of forces that made renminbi appreciation appear a foregone conclusion are now shifting their alignment. The current account is in deficit so far this year, suggesting that from a trade competitiveness perspective the renminbi is not undervalued. More important, however, are the changing dynamics surrounding inflows of so-called "hot money", a big part of total capital inflows.
For a start, the expression "hot money" was never accurate. It equates China's capital inflows to those suffered by South-East Asian stockmarkets in the lead up to the financial crisis of 1997. In fact, there are big differences; the speculative funds entering China have not, by and large, been destined for domestic stockmarkets but rather for the construction and real estate sectors.
But since April, Beijing has issued a series of administrative orders to cool down construction and property investments. Some developers have had their projects halted, others have found that bank financing has dried up. The cumulative effect has been that the enthusiasm of "hot money" investors has taken a beating and the number of projects open to them has diminished.
Such changes are set to show up in diminished "hot money" inflows, which have averaged between $10bn and $13bn a month this year. This, in turn, could mean that China's foreign currency reserves, the second largest in the world at $440bn, may start to expand less quickly month after month. This trend, over time, may convince investors that pressures on the renminbi to revalue are dissipating.
If the monthly additions to the country's foreign currency reserves start to diminish, then China will have less money with which to buy US treasuries and other developed world debt. Given that Beijing is the second largest buyer of US treasuries (after Japan), a sustained drop in purchases could add to pressures on the US Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. That could support the US dollar's value against other currencies, thereby bringing the renminbi up with it.
Whatever happens in the wider world, signs that China started to bring inflation under control in May could represent another turning point for the domestic economy. Month-on-month industrial product prices in May compared to April fell for the first time since July 2003 – suggesting that pressure on domestic interest rates to rise is easing. We will have to wait and see what happens in June and July, but if prices remain level or start to fall, then Beijing could avoid having to raise interest rates for the first time since 1995.
At the moment, the signs available to us add up to little more than the first audible crack in the ice. But if they are reinforced in coming months, they could precipitate a reversal in thinking on some of the key issues conditioning China's economic future. By this winter, the icy pond could once more be deserted.
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