Before starting on the subject of debt I wanted to make a quick reference to something sent to me by Charles Horner, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. I am glad to say that the overinvestment thesis is much more widely acknowledged today than it was even two or three years ago, but one myth, I think, is that most of the overinvestment excesses in China are concentrated in the real estate sector. I have always argued that it is infrastructure where the most amount of investment has been wasted.
Its impossible to prove one way or the other, but Horner sent me a paper in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, by Oxford’s Bent Flyvbjerg, with the rather alarming title “Survival of the unfittest: why the worst infrastructure gets built—and what we can do about it”, which suggests why we need to be so worried about infrastructure spending in China – aide from the fact that the numbers are simply huge.
In the paper Flyvbjerg looks at infrastructure projects in a number of countries (not in China, though, because he needed decent data) and shows how the benefits of these projects are systematically overstated and the costs systematically understated. More important, he shows how these terrible results are simply the expected outcomes of the way infrastructure projects are typically designed and implemented.
It is not a very happy paper in general, but I am pretty sure that many people who read it probably had a thought similar to mine: if infrastructure spending can be so seriously mismanaged in relatively transparent systems with greater political accountability, what might happen in a country with a huge infrastructure boom stretching over decades, much less transparency, and very little political accountability? Isn’t the potential for waste vast?