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SHANGHAI/ SINGAPORE: The last great hope for China’s faltering post-pandemic rally is fading as the nation’s legion of small-time investors turns bearish on equities to double down instead on safer assets amid a stuttering economic recovery.

Brokers and money managers had expected billions of yuan in excess savings would find their way to the stockmarket this year as the economy gathered pace and enough uncertainty remained over real estate to leave equities the only game in town. Yet just as foreign cash has failed to materialise in China’s stockmarket, nervous households are also turning their backs to pile into bonds and deposits - leaving equity markets adrift.

After rallying 20% from October to January, Chinese blue chips are handing back gains and are down 1% year-to-date. The Hang Seng is at 2023 lows, and sovereign bond yields are falling. The easiest trade of the year is fizzling, and the lost momentum is keeping investors’ money out.

“I am quite disappointed,” said Eric Yu, a programmer in his 30s in Shanghai who’s been investing for around three years.

“I will not put any more money into stocks until all my losses are recovered,” he said. Rather, spooked by the spectre of tech layoffs and youth unemployment, he has been putting some half of his monthly income into wealth and deposit products.

“Safety is more important at this time ... I don’t want to lose my principal.” Interviews with a dozen more small investors showed the sentiment to be reasonably widespread.

China’s small investors are also such a large force - accounting for some 60% of turnover, according to China Securities Regulatory Commission Chairman Yi Huiman, compared with a JPMorgan estimate of less than 25% in the United States - that their lack of interest shows up in market data.

China’s securities margin trading balance, a measure of risk appetite, is hovering around one-month lows. Turnover in the A-share market is at the lowest level since early March.

Brokerage account creation, while volatile, likewise dropped off in April after promising momentum in February and March, China Securities Depository and Clearing data showed. Mutual fund launches, a proxy for investor interest, also fell away.

The broad Shanghai Composite trades where it did early in 2022.

“It is as if stocks are losing faith in the China recovery story,” said Grow Investment Group chief economist Hong Hao. Unusually, he noted, stocks have spilt from a years-long correlation with deposits and liquidity.

NOTHING BUT WAIT Investor enthusiasm has ebbed with softening economic indicators and a global backdrop of rising political tension and falling growth.

China’s April industrial output and retail sales growth undershot forecasts as the recovery turned wobbly. Loans have been sharply and unexpectedly falling, while Western efforts to reduce manufacturing reliance on China have gathered steam.

All of which has domestic investors saying they are too nervous to move much beyond deposits, which central bank data shows are swelling even faster than at the height of the pandemic a year ago.

“It’s quite hard to grasp investment opportunities this year as themes rotate so fast,” said one such investor, Wang Zaizheng. “I have turned more cautious...sentiment is weak and there are also policy and geopolitical risks.” To be sure, not every sign is negative and some see local investors’ return as a big boost that is coming eventually.

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