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Friday, 25 May 2012

Is the Economist wrong?

That got your attention!  Well there has been a flurry of news and reports about China including a special report and lead piece just out from the Economist (more on this later).  To understand it all (given it has been a cyberspace minute since the last post) it's probably worth having a catch up.....

Rolling news feed
Although the quantity of news peaked recently, the underlying story is in a pattern to what has gone before.  Data for output, production, activity and spending in April (and on early figures, May) indicated declines, weakness and contraction, prompting the Central Bank (the People's Bank of China) to cut domestic banks' reserve requirements as stimulus, as commentators renewed fears of a bursting property bubble and contracting money supply.  Ratings agencies issued warnings on the property and banking sectors and more companies were impacted by accusations of fraud.  Commodity companies and resource exporting nations were nervous, while Wen Jiabao sought to reassure all that a sensible course would be steered.  Chinese banks didn't lend much money to anyone (and here), while Chinese consumers looked like they weren't buying much of anything.  As Ken Rapoza of Forbes explained, it is like 2008 all over again with the Chinese government poised to launch fresh stimulus measures like infrastructure investment, except this time they may not be effective (or possible).

Time for a challenge
Not a problem! says the Economist in its full feature just out.  Despite facing significant problems, the last article in the feature contends, China will "handle" weak demand and a poor financing environment and is "more resilient than its critics think" for now.  A bit of context is useful here - this is the first time in a while the Economist has started to address arguments about weakness as it previously maintained a position that there hasn't been substantial over-investment in China's economy and that China is following a "well-worn development path".  However looking at some of its arguments and its previous analysis seems to suggest otherwise.

When it last looked at Chinese over-investment in 2009 (as taps turned on after the 2008 stimulus were in full flow), it closely predicted the rate of growth of investment (over 20% when adjusted) and stated the benchmarks for assessing effectiveness were whether the new investment added useful capacity to a sector which needed it - in short, whether the investments efficiently allocated capital.  The verdict at least from anecdotal evidence is surely not, the new investment did not entirely add capacity which is useful now - Chinese shipyards are shuttered, Chinese steel firms are entering into other businesses like pig farming and the investments into rail have seen episodes of corruption and safety concerns on a monumental scale, most recently with concern about safety and performance issues with new rail line equipment.

In a subtle shift, the Economist's latest argument sidesteps the issue by saying that although not all of the very large investment may have been productive:

a) the investment did go somewhere and it wasn't so big,
b) it was inevitable given the country's savings rate and
c) it wasn't a complete waste because there were underlying productivity gains.

Hence the metaphor of China's economy being like the fictional character Robinson Crusoe who builds a not very useful canoe using primitive methods - at the end of the day he still built a canoe.
A product of China Inc?
There is a fundamental flaw in this analysis in that it fails to distinguish between the efficient, private and export-focused parts of the Chinese economy, and the inefficient, public and domestic parts of the economy.  Walter and Howie explain in their book Red Capitalism how the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) which now dominate the Chinese economy were aggregated together in the early 2000s combining small and inefficient regional entities and how they have remained inefficient compared to the entrepreneurial and small to medium enterprises which have traditionally had an export focus.  The Economist recognises that if these private firms or SMEs had had a greater share of the investment it would have been more efficient, but what it doesn't say is that this allocation has made the Chinese economy less resilient and is indicative of long-term policies which have made the Chinese economy less resilient.  In particular:

a) the investment went to inefficient locations i.e. SOEs and was big, relative to the SME sector;
b) the country's savings rate was made high by specific financial policies (financial repression) and the Chinese economy is locked into the policy's effects; and
c) while productivity has risen on average capital and investment has mostly flowed to those parts of the economy which are unproductive.

To modify the Economist's metaphor, it is more realistic to think of the Chinese economy operating on a beach in which Robinson Crusoe has been slaving away building a useless but very big canoe, while a modern and efficient maker of speedboats nearby has closed due to a lack of funds.

It's been well discussed about the clear division in the Chinese banking system between regulated banks which mostly lend to SOEs and the smaller unregulated operations or "shadow banks" which have traditionally stepped in to finance SMEs.  Attempts have been made to reconcile the two systems or to look for new sources of capital altogether (such as a bond market for SMEs).  But more immediately there are pressing concerns as to the stability of those intermediaries which have accepted risks of SMEs and Patrick Chovanec has put out an article taking a look at China's credit guarantee companies - the "least understood part of the shadow banking system" which he compares to AIG.

And just like the collapse of AIG during the 2007-8 global financial crisis, the broader picture of the Chinese economy is one of increased risk.  Michael Pettis confirmed some of his earlier forecasts for the Chinese economy in a recent post, in particular and in opposition to the Economist, that China does have a serious debt and/or over-investment problem with investment being misallocated "on a massive scale".  His prediction on falling consumption has been seen and the underlying cause, financial repression remains in place.

Financial repression encompasses measures used by governments to direct flows of money in their economies but as Pettis and Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute have made clear, the measures of financial repression in China are wrongly set and will compromise the Chinese economy.  Pettis calls it the "heart of China's problem", while Lardy's 2008 paper attributes repression as the cause for pretty much every macroeconomic problem in the Chinese economy, including the shadow banking system, low consumption and the inability to reduce exposure to the export economy.  The net effect? A handicapping of growth - Pettis has a 2 way bet with the Economist on the prospects of the Chinese economy and Pettis is on the bearish side.  My money's with Michael.

Fall of the Redback?
Analysis of what is going on with China's currency will come soon (no room now unfortunately!).  However there has been some reports this week of Yuan / Renminbi weakness.  Just to refresh, the official line is that the Chinese currency continues its glorious path to attaining reserve currency status and breaking into the dominant position for global trade settlements (cue inspirational video from the FT) - with the US hoping for some corresponding appreciation to give their exporters some relief.  Seeds of doubt from the FT - falling export orders seem to be leading to a shortfall of dollars at the People's Bank of China while the acute risk of capital flight which Victor Shih first raised in 2008 has attracted some comment too - something Shih said, could attract an "enormous impact".

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