Like a bear in a China shop

@lamonicabuzzMarch 29, 2012: 1:16 PM ET
China's stock market has cooled off on renewed fears of a hard economic landing. But U.S. stocks continue to sizzle. How much longer can that last if China's growth does slow?

China's stock market has cooled off on renewed fears of a hard economic landing. But U.S. stocks continue to sizzle. How much longer can that last if China's growth does slow?

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Contact lenses, diamonds and boiled eggs are things that are better hard than soft. But economic landings in China? That's a different story.

There are increasing concerns that China's economy, while still growing at a pace that's the envy of just about every other nation, may cool off more quickly than hoped. Chinese stocks have been crushed in the past few days as a result.

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The Shanghai Composite (SHCOMP) is down more than 5% in just the past five days and is now up only about 2% year-to-date. That lags the gangbuster performance of the U.S. stock market this year. But China's market had been rising in tandem with the S&P 500 (SPX) until the hard landing fears cropped up.

Shares of Chinese companies that trade in the United States have suffered too. Industry leaders Aluminum Corp. of China (ACH), China Eastern Airlines (CEA), China Telecom (CHA) and oil company CNOOC (CEO) are just a few examples of Chinese companies that have tumbled in the past few days.

Is there reason to be worried? Yes. The latest reading on manufacturing in China was weaker than expected. In addition, key companies in important sectors in China have been reporting disappointing earnings lately. And that's really spooked the global markets.

After mining company Jiangxi Copper reported a drop in earnings Wednesday, copper prices fell more than 2%.

Demand for copper is often viewed as a telling predictor of economic growth as the commodity has a wide array of industrial and manufacturing uses. This relationship has even earned the red metal the nickname Dr. Copper among traders, in that copper has a PhD in economics.

And with copper used in various parts of home construction as well, diminished demand for copper in China may be a sign that the housing market in China may very well be a bubble about to burst.

If Jiangxi were the only Chinese company posting subpar results, investors might have been able to write off the news as an anomaly. But Angang Steel reported a big net loss for the second half of the year Wednesday. And Air China, the country's largest airline, reported a slump in profits in 2011 and warned that passenger growth may slow this year.

A hard landing in China is certainly more possible now given the economic woes of Europe, the biggest market for China's exports. But it also begs the following question. Just what would be a hard landing for China anyway?

China's gross domestic product rose at a rate of 9.2% in 2011. By way of comparison, GDP in the United States was up just 1.7% last year. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao rattled investors earlier this month by saying that China's new GDP growth forecast for 2012 is 7.5%, down from an earlier prediction of 8%.

So would a hard landing be growth below 7.5%? That seems silly. Perhaps GDP of only 6%? That would be a sharp deceleration, but it would still easily outpace growth in the entire developed world.

Nonetheless, the China slowdown fears are undoubtedly picking up. As such, investors will need to keep a close eye on U.S. companies with big exposure in China, such as fast food chain Yum! Brands (YUM, Fortune 500), construction equipment giant Caterpillar (CAT, Fortune 500) and chipset manufacturer Qualcomm (QCOM, Fortune 500).

But it's not just companies with close ties to China that could be at risk if China's economy slows further. The whole market could be in trouble.

Keep in mind that one of the arguments for the market rally this year is that the economies of emerging markets will stay healthy and help prop up the more tepid economies of the United States, Europe and Japan. That's far from certain now.

China isn't the only economy starting to lose steam. Brazil's GDP is slowing and the country's central bank has been aggressively slashing rates as a result. India's GDP grew at its lowest rate in three years during the fourth quarter of 2011 -- although it was still up a relatively strong 6.1%.

That may not bode well for U.S. markets.

Ashraf Laidi, chief global strategist with City Index, a research firm in London, pointed out in a report Thursday that the last five times stock markets in the so-called BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China peaked during the past few years, a sell-off in the markets of developed nations soon followed.

"If there is a prolonged decline for the BRIC nations, the U.S. will not be immune," Laidi said in an interview.

A possible solution to China's slowing growth would be for the People's Bank of China to follow the lead of Brazil, not to mention the Federal Reserve and ECB, and start to lower interest rates.

But any monetary easing from China also risks devaluing the country's yuan. That could spark a currency or trade war -- especially since many outside of China already accuse the nation of artificially keeping the yuan low to make the price of exported goods cheaper.

So the best that the U.S. can probably hope for is that China's economy continues to grow close to the pace that Wen predicts it will. If it doesn't, the global recovery could quickly unravel ... because if you still believe in the myth of decoupling, I've got a unicorn to show you.

Best of StockTwits and reader comment of the week. Linux is hot. Big-box electronics retailing is not.

Nils1975 Citi raises $RHT PT to $68 from $59. That billings growth acceleration to 31% y/y is the story here. Stock not expensive on cash flow (23x).

techinsidr: One of the best stories in tech over the last 5-10 years $RHT RT @furrier: Red Hat reaches a milestone - $1billion

The growth of Red Hat (RHT) is stunning. The stock surged 15% Thursday as its annual sales topped $1 billion. Red Hat is a 2000 tech bubble survivor. The stock went public in 1999 and surged more than 270% on its first day! And while Red Hat is still well below its all-time high, the stock has rewarded anyone who was wise enough to buy it after the Nasdaq bottomed in 2002.

ivanhoff $BBY is stuck in the middle of nowhere. They can't compete with $AMZN or $WMT on price. They can't beat the experience that $AAPL deliver.

retail_guru Street may 'love' store closures but its 10% of their large stores. Expected 2-4% comp dip will make it 3rd year in row of down comps $BBY

Best Buy's (BBY, Fortune 500) shares plunged nearly 10% Thursday on the news of the store closures and weak results. Competition from Amazon (AMZN, Fortune 500), Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) and Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) is brutal.

I speculated a year ago that Best Buy may eventually be a good LBO target if it keeps struggling. With a market value now below $8.5 billion, it might finally be close to being cheap enough for private equity firms to consider a deal.

Finally, I am out tomorrow -- as well as next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So here is an early reader comment of the week. It's from Keith Williams about the Nike (NKE, Fortune 500)-Reebok lawsuit over Tim Tebow apparel.

"solution to Nike/Reebok issue: #Tebow becomes "QB Formerly Known as Tebow", represented by a symbol evoking faith & football."

Well-played. Although depending on how the Jets use him, maybe he should be "The Tebow Formerly Known as a QB? The Tebow fascination amuses me to no end. When he has half as many Super Bowl rings as fellow NY quarterback Eli Manning, let me know. That would be a reason for his jerseys to sell so well!

The Buzz will return April 5.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks. To top of page

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