Wednesday, August 6, 2014

China’s bad dream



Since his first address as China’s President last year, Mr Xi Jinping has been espousing the so-called Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation and individual self-improvement.

But the imperative of addressing the unprecedented amount of debt that China has accumulated in recent years is testing Mr Xi’s resolve — and his government is blinking.

The Chinese government’s uncertain ability — or willingness — to rein in debt is apparent in its contradictory commitment to implement major structural reforms while maintaining 7.5 per cent annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

Given that China owes much of its recent growth to debt-financed investment — often in projects such as infrastructure and housing, meant to support the Chinese Dream — any effort to get credit growth under control is likely to cause a hard landing.

This prospect is already prompting the authorities to delay critical reforms.

To be sure, China’s debt-to-GDP ratio, reaching 250 per cent this month, remains significantly lower than that of most developed economies. The problem is that China’s stock of private credit would normally be associated with a per capita GDP of around US$25,000 (S$31,200), almost four times the country’s current level.


There are strong parallels between China’s current predicament and the investment boom that Japan experienced in the 1980s. Like China today, Japan had a high personal savings rate, which enabled investors to rely heavily on traditional, domestically-financed bank loans.

Moreover, deep financial linkages among sectors amplified the potential fallout of financial risk. And Japan’s external position was strong, just as China’s is now.

Another similarity is the accumulation of debt within the corporate sector. Corporate leverage in China rose from 2.4 times equity in 2007 to 3.5 times last year — well above American and European levels.

Nearly half of this debt matures within one year, even though much of it is being used to finance multi-year infrastructure projects.

Making matters worse, much of the new credit has originated in the shadow-banking sector at high interest rates, causing borrowers’ repayment capacity to become overstretched. One in five listed corporations carries gross leverage of more than eight times equity and earns less than two times interest coverage, weakening considerably these companies’ resilience to growth shocks.

To be sure, China’s situation is more extreme than Japan’s. At its peak, Japanese investment stood at 33 per cent of GDP, compared with 47 per cent in China.

This is a substantial difference, especially considering that China’s per capita GDP amounts to only 19 per cent of Japan’s at its highest level, and that its debt has already reached 60 per cent of Japan’s. Moreover, the accumulation of debt in China — 71 percentage points of GDP over the past five years — has been far sharper than in Japan, where the debt level grew by only 16 percentage points over the five-year period before its bust.

That is all the more reason to believe that Japan’s experience can provide important insight into the risks that China faces.

After Japan’s bubble burst, annual GDP growth, which averaged 5.8 per cent in the four years preceding the bust, plummeted to 0.9 per cent for the next four years.

With bad debt left to fester on banks’ balance sheets, growth vanished and deflation set in. While private debt as a share of GDP stabilised, public debt increased by 50 per cent in the five years after the bust.


The collapse of China’s credit bubble is likely to cause annual GDP growth to drop to 1 to 2 per cent, on average, for the subsequent four years, assuming a 2 per cent annual decline in capital expenditure and a still-respectable consumption-growth rate of 3 to 5 per cent. Consolidated public-sector debt would rise to 100 per cent of GDP.

This is a relatively modest prediction. Without automatic stabilisers or a strong financial-stability framework underpinned by deposit insurance, coping with the downside risks of the potentially destabilising financial reforms that the government is pursuing will be difficult enough; a credit shock could prove disastrous.

China’s debt tipping point is to be found in its massive real-estate bubble. The investment bank UBS said new urban housing supply has far exceeded marginal underlying demand from urban population growth. Indeed, almost half of the formal increase is not an increase at all, but merely recognition of rural workers who have been living and working in cities for some time.

The impact of a sharp decline in real-estate prices would be far-reaching. After all, property collateral is the bedrock of the Chinese financial system, with estimates of banks’ direct and indirect exposure to real estate ranging from 66 to 89 per cent of GDP.

Complicating matters further is the government’s lack of options for stabilising property markets.

In fact, a key part of the problem is that China’s response to cyclical weakness always entails more housing construction.

China’s lack of automatic stabilisers places the tension between reform objectives and growth imperatives in sharp relief.

The only way for the government to shore up growth in the short run is to pursue more debt-driven stimulus, as it did earlier this year.

But this will also cause China’s debt burden to continue to grow, with bad debt increasingly crowding out good credit.

If China’s leaders continue to choose debt-fuelled growth over reform, they will only delay, and possibly prolong, the inevitable slowdown. That would turn Mr Xi’s Chinese Dream into a more elusive prospect.



Gene Frieda is a global strategist for Moore Europe Capital Management.

[I'll admit I do not understand all the above, and I have questions as to whether China's growth is indeed "debt-fuelled." Which is not to say that I question if it is true, but that I have no idea whether it is true or not.

But what is clear is that there has been over-construction of homes, with ghost towns and even ghost cities where residency rates are very low.

What is also undeniable is the prevalence of "Shadow banking". But by it's nature, it is impossible to gauge its reach or dominance.

And, China Watchers have always been concerned about the stability of a society that is placated by high-speed (8% or more) growth.

And many have predicted doom and gloom if China's growth ever falters.

The analysis above compares China's current situation with Japan's in the 1990s. If true and relevant, that would be cause for worry.

Of course, China is not going to roll over and play dead.

What is the relevance of the huge US debt that China has? What if China uses those to keep their economy going? Is it even possible? (Somehow I think it is not possible, but I do not know for sure, I can only compare with Japan which is also quite wealthy as a country - at least I have that impression - but who nonetheless was not able to prevent the "lost decade".). 

There are three possibilities.

One, the above is true, but it is only part of the truth and China has other resources and instruments to "save" themselves. (such as their substantial state/foreign exchange reserves).

Two, the above is false and a fabrication of anti-China propagandists.

Three, the above is mostly true and sufficiently true that China will falter in the near future.

One and two would have consequences, but the signs are already there. And we are sort of prepared for an ascendant China. China Ascending would be more committed to the status quo, to peaceful negotiations to maintain a stable environment for prosperity.

What about possibility 3? What if their ascension is interrupted? What if they falter?

If China falters, would they be more aggressive or less aggressive? 

In the South China Sea, they could do a Galtieri - initiate actions that would result in a war or military confrontation that would distract the citizens from the faltering economy. In fact, war might help their economy, justify debts, grow their manufactury.

An ascendant China may provoke some anxiety, but a faltering China may be more unpredictable.]

No comments: