NPC Dedication of Francis Asbury statue, Washington, DC 1924
The present Chinese leadership appears to be trying to gain (regain?) more -if not full- control over the country’s economic system, while at the same time (re-)boosting the growth it has lost in recent years.
President Xi Jinping, prime minister Li Keqiang and all of their subservient leaders – there are 1000’s of those in a 1.4 billion citizens country- apparently think this can be done. Yours truly doubts it.
As I’ve repeatedly said over the past years, I don’t think that they ever understood what would happen if they opened up the country to a more free-market, capitalist structure. That doing so would automatically reduce their political power, since a free market, in whatever shape and form, does not rhyme with the kind of control which the Communist Party has been used to for decades, and which the current leaders have grown up taking for granted.
I don’t think they’re fools or anything, just that their -preconceived- ideas of power don’t rhyme with the kind of economy Beijing, starting with Deng Xiao Ping, has created. In particular, they have allowed other segments of society to accumulate great wealth, and with wealth comes power.
And in fine Pandora’s Box fashion, it’s very hard, if not impossible, to reverse the process. This failure to grasp to what extent these ‘market liberation’ policies have had a Sorcerer’s Apprentice effect, may, if not must, lead to utter chaos and worse…
A closely related failure is that the rulers have allowed the shadow banking system to grow to ginormous proportions. Likely, in their eyes this ‘merely’ helped the economy grow at double digit speed for years, and they could stop it at will. But something else was growing along with it: the power of the shadow banks -and the people behind them-, both economic and political. Which is not acceptable in a one party rules all system.
And so there is a crackdown going on, presented as ‘reform’, and shadow bank loans have indeed diminished. But that is hurting the economy much more than it heals it. And so measures are reversed on the fly.
The official line is that China has to become a more consumer based economy, if only because exports are not what they used to be, due to lower living standards in the major customer economies in the western world.
The first part of the private citizens’ segment of this shift was the housing boom. Though the Chinese are traditionally strong savers, certainly compared to for instance Americans, they did borrow a lot, got into debt, to fund their real estate purchases. The first part of the problem is that not exactly all of that was borrowed from ‘official’ banks. The second is that home prices are now falling in most cities.
The Chinese are not only known as savers, they’re also notorious gamblers. That accounts for a substantial part of the housing boom, but it accounts even more for what came when that boom started fainting: stock market insanity. A craze that was fully encouraged by Beijing. As Bloomberg put it the other day:
[..] government officials and state media have encouraged the rally. China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported last week that the advance in stocks has further to go, while the China Securities Regulatory Commission has said that market gains reflect support for the economy.
Private investors, grandmas and teenage granddaughters, still believe Beijing controls the whole game. They undoubtedly must also think Xi and Li will make the housing sector rise from its ashes. This is a huge risk for the Communist Party. But they must have the illusion that they got it down. Government and citizens all believe.
The past few days have seen 2 notable companies, Hanergy Thin Film Solar and real estate/electronics conglomerate Goldin Group, lose about half their market cap within a day, for a total loss of some $50 billion. In Hanergy’s case, it reportedly took less than half an hour. And yesterday, Joyou, a Chinese branch of German bathroom giant Grohe, went straight from $400 million to just about zero.
It looks like all Beijing has left in its arsenal is extend and pretend. The question is, does it have the gunpowder to do that? While tons of people habitually point to Beijing’s $4 trillion sovereign bonds stock, they may not be a cure-all.
The same people might want to consider to what extent the Chinese growth ‘miracle’ has been funded by debt. By the printing press. And while they’re at it, they may want to ponder what’s going to happen to that debt, now growth has started sputtering.
There seems to be a consensus that Chinese debt is somewhere in the range of $28 trillion, which is almost twice US GDP, and almost three times Chinese GDP. And for all we know the debt may be much higher still. All we really have is official numbers, plus a few ‘indirect’ data. One thing we do know is that Beijing will always make everything look better than it is. Every politician does.
And we know that they have a substantial series of issues to deal with. In fact, there are so many it’s impossible to catch them all in one comprehensive essay. China’s not nearly as simple as Greece. Let’s try a few:
• China’s housing boom is deflating, with prices down up to 6% YoY in many places, though of course for now less severe in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. As one comment said recently, paraphrased: ‘there are no more buyers, everyone around here already owns property.’
• China is in the grip of a stock mania, with millions who are losing out on their apartment investments trying to make up for their losses with stocks. Many borrow heavily for their ‘profits’ (and not always from official banks). The stock mania is already popping as well. It will probably rise a bit more at times and at places, but exchanges that skyrocket when economies flatline or worse, will be smacked down by fundamentals at some point. That is true on Wall Street and in Europe, and it’s also true in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
IPO’s are falling out of the deep blue skies like so many frogs, and people seem to think there’s all this pent-up demand for them, but the Hanergy and Goldin examples should serve as huge red lights flashing. And besides: what does pent-up demand mean when people borrow substantial parts of credit used for stock purchases?
When you read that at the Shenzhen exchange, rallies of more than 500% aren’t unusual, and the 103 stocks listed trade at an average 375 times reported earnings, you should know you’re looking at an ordinary slot machine, not an exchange that reflects any underlying real economy.
• Local governments are heavily in debt to the shadow banking system. Their liabilities may well exceed $6 trillion The crack down on the latter does not change that. Beijing has introduced a swap system, where paper can be swapped for bonds of much longer maturity at lower rates, but that leaves the question of who’s going to pay the debt to the shadow system.
Do local governments now need to borrow more from state banks just to pay off their loans to the shadow banking system? Or are the state banks themselves going to pay the debt after the swap? Or is perhaps the PBoC itself going to pay off the shadow banks directly? It looks as if the swap measures, which are pretty absurd in themselves since they encourage more borrowing, do not -or hardly at all- involve the ‘shadow debt’.
• Chinese factory activity is contracting. This is not growth slowing down, this is negative growth. Chinese consumers don’t help to avoid this, because they’re not consuming. They are doing one of three things: pay off housing -margin- debt as prices are falling, go nuts for stocks, or they are saving. No consumer based society is in sight.
• Capital outflow was $159 billion in Q1. This should be a major worry for Beijing. It hurts China’s international financial position. The country’s also stuck in its US dollar peg, and it dare not risk get out because of the potential losses on its Treasurys holdings. It’s all nice and stuff that the IMF considers including the yuan into its SDR basket, but it’s not a one way street to glory, or to the demise of the USD as some would have you think, for that matter.
Meanwhile, China keeps investing billions abroad. Untold billions in Africa. $50 billion in Brazil to damage the Amazon even more, $60 billion in the new Silk Road project.
But where does that money come from? Why is there so little scrutiny of that? Why do we all allow the Chinese to purchase our homes and our land and our industries, and make them all more expensive for ourselves?
Given that $28 trillion debt load, how is this not monopoly money, and why couldn’t we just as easily print that ourselves?
Is this a sign of how great the Chinese economy is, or is it perhaps a sign of how awful our own economies are really doing, and how indebted we are compared to Beijing? Is it because they caused our manufacturing sectors to all but vanish? How and why can a country blow a $28 trillion+ debt bubble in a decade and proceed to use that debt to buy the world? What does that say about that world?
As for China itself, and the losses on homes and stocks that are in the offing, I’ve long been on record stating I can’t see how it will not descent into civil war, and I still don’t. As I said above, Beijing never understood what forces it unleashed when it started ‘freeing’ its market, and from what I can see, it still doesn’t.
Or maybe it has, and got too scared to call a halt to what’s happening. That recent sudden permission for all 1.4 billion Chinese to open 20 stock trading accounts may be an act of desperation, as it came when real estate prices started tanking. But Xi and Li still must know, and fear, what awaits them if and when those stocks and apartments start their descent into hell.