Is China set to roar in commodities trading?
Although a huge buyer of commodities, Chinese futures markets don't set prices. London, New York, and Chicago do. A new Hong Kong exchange aims to challenge them.
As the world increasingly tilts from West to East, the corresponding economic shift has not been all-inclusive.Skip to next paragraph
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China, the world’s largest consumer of commodities, has largely been left on the sidelines with regard to the setting of global commodity prices.
In spite of this, exchanges in the West – such as those in London, New York, and Chicago – continue to drive price discovery, or the determination of the price of a commodity. The continued reliance on Western markets to set prices is the result of implicit trust in established legal systems and in the security of pricing contracts in a freely convertible currency: the US dollar.
Commodities futures form the backbone of the global marketplace since raw materials form the basis of everything on the market. As a result, commodities futures are used by many businesses to set prices and predict costs for an array of products, ranging from clothing to food to electronics. These futures are used by farmers to determine what to grow, and they are used by manufacturers to determine levels of production. Price discovery is the resulting price that is gleaned from current and anticipated supply and demand.
Since price discovery continues to be driven by a handful of markets in the West, markets in Asia are forced to take prices that are based on factors that do not take local or regional market conditions into account. This means that Chinese buyers are often forced to purchase commodities at prices that are artificially high since these prices do not reflect real supply or demand within China. From a Chinese perspective, it also means that prices fluctuate arbitrarily and without explanation.
The basic reason that China has been sidelined in price setting is that there is not a lot of faith in China’s adherence to the rule of law – something that isn't helped by the restrictions on the influx of foreign money and the lack of foreign players. China’s markets are inherently inward-looking and lack transparency.
It’s a missed opportunity for China because despite all of its buying power, it remains a follower, or a price taker. This leaves the country in an especially precarious position as its reliance on commodity imports only continues to grow.
In 2009, China consumed almost half of the world’s coal and steel and around 40 percent of its aluminum and copper. Project forward and by 2025, according to a report by McKinsey, it is estimated that China will have 221 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants, of which 23 will have populations over 5 million.
This continued drive toward urbanization on an unprecedented scale has already resulted in higher global demand for commodities, and with the additional burden of rising inflation, China can ill afford to remain on the sidelines when it comes to having more of a say in the setting of commodity prices.
Fortunately for China, it may soon wield more clout in the global commodity market.
On May 18, the Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange (HKMEx) opened for business after almost three years of planning. The exchange takes advantage of Hong Kong’s highly-regarded regulatory and legal environment to give China a globally significant futures exchange to challenge the global leaders in London, New York, and Chicago.
“Global demand for core commodities has in recent years been driven by Asia,” said Barry Cheung, chairman of HKMEx. “Our new platform will offer Asia a bigger say in setting global commodity prices.”
Indeed, HKMEx offers the advantages of the huge mainland exchanges minus their associated impediments. Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy under the post-1997 “one country, two systems” principle has granted it license to continue operating as a freewheeling capitalist haven where the rule of law is practiced resolutely.