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The Chinese Recovery: Stepping on A Bounding Mine

Fall & Rise

In 2007, unsustainable levels of debt in many economies triggered a near collapse of the global banking system that, in turn, triggered a major slowdown in growth.

The unprecedented external demand shock, with sharp decreases in consumption and investment from synchronous deep recessions in the developed world, affected the Chinese economy. The sudden and precipitous fall in exports led to a significant slow down in China’s stellar growth rates in 2008 triggering sharp declines in stock and property markets.

Job losses in export-intensive Guangdong province were in excess of 20 million migrant workers. Workers and students entering the workforce were unable to find work. Fearful of social instability, the Beijing government moved quickly to restore rapid growth.

Panicked government spending and loose monetary policies increasing available credit is currently driving China’s recovery, contributing between 75-90% of China’s growth of 10+% in 2009. In the Great Recession, Chinese exports (around 35-40% of the economy) decreased by around 20% implying that the non-export part of the economy grew strongly.

In 2009, new loans totalled around $1.5 trillion. This compares to total loans for the full 2008 year of around $600 billion. New lending peaked at a staggering 25% of China’s GDP. Once, the budget deficit is included the Chinese economic stimulus effort was around 15% of GDP.

The availability of credit fuelled rampant speculation in stocks, property and commodities. Estimates suggest that around 20-30% of new bank lending found it way into the property and stock market, driving up values. China’s recovery, in turn, underpinned the recovery in commodity prices and economies dependent on natural resources. In parliamentary testimony, Reserve Bank of Australia Assistant Governor Philip Lowe highlighted the extent to which Australia, a major trading partner of China, was reliant on Chinese demand. Lowe noted that 23% of Australia’s total exports went to China in the most recent quarter, up from 4% 10 years ago. China now also takes 80% of Australia’s iron ore exports and 20% of coal exports.

While a significant part of the importation of commodities is restocking depleted inventory, abundant and low cost bank finance combined with a deep seated fear of the long term prospects of U.S. Treasury bonds and the dollar has encouraged speculative stockpiling artificially boosting demand.

Lock & Load

Government spending and bank loans has resulted in sharp increases in fixed asset investments (over 30% up on 2008). A major component is infrastructure spending which accounts for over 70% of the Chinese government’s stimulus package. In 2009, investment accounted of over 80% of growth, approximately double the 43% average contribution over the last 10 years.

Infrastructure investment is adding to production capacity in a world with sluggish demand and major over-capacity in many industries. In the absence of sufficient domestic demand, the production may be directed into exports increasing the global supply glut and creating deflationary pressures.

Progress on shifting the emphasis to domestic consumption has been disappointing. Government incentives, in the form of rebates for purchases of high value durables such as cars and white goods, has increased consumption in the short run (up 15% on 2008). But, over the last 25 years, Chinese consumption has declined from around 50% to its current levels of 37%.

The current expansion in lending also risks creating China’s own home grown banking crisis with a rise in non-performing bank loans. The problems of bad debts from loose lending are not new. In the 1990s, similar credit expansion led to an increase in bad debts. The big state-owned Chinese banks had to be substantially recapitalised and restructured at significant cost to the State in a series of steps that ended as recently as 2004.

Chinese bank regulators are concerned that new lending is being used to finance real estate and stock market speculation rather than productive purposes. They have moved to try to reduce speculative lending but it is likely that the central bank will resolutely maintain its moderately loose monetary policy because of uncertainties in the external and domestic environment.

On 24 August 2009, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was reported as saying: “China will maintain its stimulative policy stance because the economy, far from being on solid footing, is facing fresh difficulties, … Beijing would ensure a sustainable flow of credit and a ‘reasonably sufficient’ provision of liquidity to support growth… ‘We must clearly see that the foundations of the recovery are not stable, not solidified and not balanced. We cannot be blindly optimistic…Therefore, we must maintain continuity and consistency in macro economic policies, and maintaining stable and quite fast economic growth remains our top priority. This means we cannot afford the slightest relaxation or wavering.’”

The centralised control structure of the Chinese economy has allowed rapid action to be taken to avert the slowdown in growth. In July 2009, Su Ning, Vice Governor of the Chinese Central Bank People’s Bank of China observed: “… ‘the mind and action’ of all financial institutions should ‘be as one’ with the government’s goal, and financial institutions should properly handle the relationship between supporting the economy’s development and preventing financial risks.” Even if execution is not in question, the appropriateness of the policy measures and the sustainability of the recovery are unclear.

Statistical Feelings

There are also concerns that Chinese statistics are unreliable and frequently manipulated by officials to meet political and personal objectives. One unexplained and nagging discrepancy is the difference between reported growth figures and electricity consumption. It is difficult to reconcile falls in electricity consumption with continued robust economic growth.

Even China’s state-controlled media has become increasingly skeptical about the accuracy of statistics. In recent polls, a high percentage of the population doubted official data.

International commentators have become concerned about the quality of the economic data. Commenting on the time taken by China’s National Bureau of Statistics (“NBS”) to compile growth data, Derek Scissors, from the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, wryly observed: “Despite starkly limited resources and a dynamic, complex economy, the state statistical bureau again needed only 15 days to survey the economic progress of 1.3 billion people.”

In response, the NBS launched a campaign - “Statistical Feelings: We have walked together – Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of New China” - to increase confidence in its work. The campaign has already produced memorable slogans and poems. “I’m proud to be a brick in the statistical building of the republic.” “I can rearrange the stars in the sky because I have statistics.”

The problems extend to financial information as generally accepted accounting principles are not generally accepted in China. Writing in the 17 August 2009 New York Times, Mark Dixon, a mergers and acquisition advisor in China, expressed surprise that revenue and cost gymnastics were not included as an official event at the Beijing Olympics.

Bounding Mines

China’s $2 trillion foreign currency reserves, a large proportion denominated in dollars, is generally cited as a sign of economic strength. It may have limited value. They cannot be liquidated or mobilised without massive losses because of their sheer size. Increasingly strident Chinese rhetoric reflects rising concern about the security of these dollar investments as the U.S. issues massive amounts of debt reducing the value of Treasury bonds and the currency.

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao has expressed concern: “If anything goes wrong in the U.S. financial sector, we are anxious about the safety and security of Chinese capital…” In December 2008, Wang Qishan, a Chinee vice-premier, noted: “We hope the US side will take the necessary measures to stabilise the economy and financial markets as well as guarantee the safety of China’s assets and investments in the US.”

Yu Yindong, a former adviser to the Chinese central bank castigated the U.S. over its “reckless policies”. He asked Timothy Geithner, the U.S. Treasury Secretary to “show us some arithmetic.” At the University of Beijing, Mr. Geithner obliged indicating that the U.S. intended to reduce its budget deficit to 3% of GDP from its current level of 12% eliciting sceptical laughter from students.

China’s position is similar to that of a bank or investor with poor quality assets. China is trying to switch its reserves into real assets – commodities or resource producers where foreign countries will allow.

In the meantime, China continues to purchase more dollars and U.S. Treasury bonds to preserve the value of existing holdings in a surreal logic. On the other side, the U.S. continues to seek to preserve the status of the dollar as the sole reserve currency in order to enable the Treasury to finance America’s budget and trade deficit.

Every lender knows Keynes’ famous observation: “If I owe you a pound, I have a problem; but if I owe you a million, the problem is yours.” Almost 40 years ago, John Connally, then the U.S. Treasury Secretary, accurately identified China’s problem: “it may be our currency, but it’s your problem.”

The Chinese used to refer to dollars affectionately as mei jin, literally “American gold”. Chinese investments may not be the real thing – merely iron pyrite, fool’s gold.

China’s position is like that of an unfortunate who has stepped on a type of anti-personnel mine, known as a ‘bounding mine’. The mine does not explode when you step on it. Instead, it trips when you step off it as a small charge propels the body of the mine into the air where the explosive charge bursts and sprays fragmentation at a height of around 3 to 4 feet (1 to 1.3 metres). China, in building and investing its massive foreign exchange reserves in dollars and U.S. Treasury Bonds, has stepped onto the mine and it cannot step off without serious damage!

© 2010 Satyajit Das

Satyajit Das is a risk consultant and author of the recently published Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives - Revised Edition (2010, FT-Prentice Hall).