Jim Chanos stated recently that he thought China was Dubai times 1,000. Many people have argued whether he is right or wrong since his comment. I noticed that the arguments on both sides seemed to have more of personal bias and do not provide statistics to support their argument. I thought the best way to see if Chanos is right is to examine his argument in a rational way and look at some numbers and compare them with the United States at the peak of its housing bubble.
I originally planned on writing this article with extensive data on housing metrics, loan metrics and other numbers to judge the validity of the argument. I wanted to compare China’s numbers with the numbers the United States had at the peak of the housing bubble, however it is very hard to get numbers so I had to piece together a few numbers that I got.
The average home to income ratio in Bejing is 27-1, while the national average might be lower, this statistic clearly indicates a bubble at least in Bejing. In the United States at the peak of the bubble the ratio was below 5%, five times less than the ratio in Bejing. This trend is clearly unsustainable and home prices will have to decrease to revert to a normal mean in Beijing. Another similar statistic that indicates a bubble is that home prices have been outpacing income rises. In the past six years “housing price hikes have outpaced income rises by 30 percentage points in Shanghai and 80 percentage points in Beijing” according to Business Insider. If wages do not increase at the same pace as home prices than property prices cannot continue increasing.
I recently read This Time is Different by Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart. The authors argue that every bubble is accompanied by a thinking this time is different, and a financial crisis is impossible. This thinking was very common in the United States only three or four years ago. People were convinced that housing prices would continuously increase. Whitney Tilson wrote that the rating agencies like Moody’s had various risk models, however every scenario assumed home prices would continue to rise! I think this thinking is currently how many investors feel about China.
The “this time is different” crowd has two main arguments as to why China will not experience a real estate crash and/or a financial crisis. The first argument is that China has huge foreign currency reserves and this will prevent a bubble. Thomas Friedman cited China’s two trillion dollar foreign currency reserves as a reason not to short the country. This argument makes little sense; Russia has one of the largest foreign currency reserves in the world, and has been severly affected by the global financial crisi. Russia’s GDP contracted 10% in the first three quarters 2009, and its stock market declined over 85% from peak to trough.
Furthermore, spending money will not help much in economic contraction. In the United States the Government has flooded the economy with trillions of dollars and the economy is still losing jobs a year later. In addition one of the causes of the bubble was China’s huge spending and flooding the economy, so how will spending more stop the bubble?
The second point the “this time is different” crowd will make is that China requires large down payments for homes. Therefore, it will take a larger decline in housing prices to put borrowers underwater. This is a valid point, however if home prices decline severely even with large down payments many home owners will be under water. According to Bloomberg, housing prices in Dubai have decreased by 52% over the past year. If China’s real estate is a bubble this decline could also happen in China, and many homeowners will be underwater. Therefore, even if down payments are a prudent policy to prevent bubbles there is only so much they could do. I am not arguing that China’s economy will definitely crash, I am only warning Buyer, Beware!!