Shadow Over Asia by Vitaliy Katsenelson, Vitaliy Katsenelson’s Contrarian Edge

Five years ago, almost to the day, I was interviewed by David Galland, who worked at Casey Research at the time. This interview covered three topics: the Chinese overcapacity bubble, the Japanese debt bubble, and my sideways markets thesis. Five years is a long time, but with the exception of updating some statistics (for instance Chinese debt has gone up fourfold since), I really would not change anything. I have not been writing much on Japan or China lately because things haven’t really changed much – their respective bubbles have just gotten much bigger.

I hope you enjoy this interview. Don’t kill your eyes; kill a tree (print it). Or you can watch a presentation I gave on the same subject at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (link here).

The Casey Report (TCR): Is China’s system better than everyone else’s? Is it really possible the Chinese economy can keep steamrolling along?

Vitaliy Katsenelson (VK): A few months ago, I watched a movie about Ayn Rand and it talked about how Americans in the 1930s looked at the Soviet Union’s flavor of managed economy as being superior to the American version of capitalism. At the time America was just coming out of the Great Depression, so that view made a lot of sense. So in the short run, and especially after the ugly side of creative destruction has paid us a visit, the grass of managed economy may look greener.

So when we look at China, the conventional wisdom says that the government is very, very smart, and therefore they can do a very good job in steering the economy in the right way. Chinese government may have the best intentions, its leaders may have IQs of 250 each on a bad day, but it is impossible to centrally manage an economy of China’s size.

I am a big believer that in the boxing match between a visible and an invisible hand, though the invisible hand may lose a few rounds, it will win the match every time. Last century we had the most amazing economic experiment take place when after World War II, Germany was split into two countries with different economic and political systems. But they were the same people, with the same language and culture, separated by a wall. We know how that story ended.

Of course, for a time, having government control over the levers of the economy can have advantages. For example, by taking prompt action, the Chinese government was able to pull the economy out of the recession remarkably fast, basically by fire-housing the stimulus package that was equivalent to 12% GDP. That’s the advantage. The only problem is that these kinds of short-term advantages come with long-term, painful consequences.

For example, when you have a huge government presence in the economy, you also have a huge bureaucracy, and bureaucracy brings corruption. This is one of the reasons why China is rated so poorly on Transparency International’s annual corruption rating. Corruption breeds misallocation of capital, because the capital flows not to the best use, but it basically flows to whatever the political connection or whatever the bribe is directed to.

In addition, when you have a government-managed economy, it creates excesses. China has huge excesses in the industrial sector, as well as in commercial and residential real estate. We see plenty of evidence of these excesses, but they are likely to be much greater than we can measure today as they are covered up by robust economic growth. The true magnitude of these excesses will come to the surface once the economy slows down.

TCR: According to their government, their GDP is almost back to where it was pre-crash. Why?

VK: Sure, the growth you see today in China is there, but it’s not a sustainable growth. It’s not a growth that you’ll see a few years from now. That is an important point for readers to understand.

TCR: Why is it not sustainable?

VK: Because the growth is being induced by government spending, by a misallocation of capital.

I’ll give you an example. The vacancy rate on commercial real estate in China is fairly high, but they still keep on building new office buildings because they think they will always grow. So therefore as long as they keep building, that activity will be registered as growth, until they stop. And when they do stop, they’ll drown in overcapacity, and they won’t be building new skyscrapers for a very long time.

TCR: We read that note you sent about the South China Mall, which is pretty stunning. It’s the second largest mall in the world but is mostly empty.

VK: That’s right. But as outrageous an example as the South China Mall is, there’s an even more outrageous example – namely that the Chinese built an entire city, Ordos, in Inner Mongolia for 1.5 million residents and it is completely empty. These are classic examples of the sort of excesses going on in China.

TCR: The equivalent of building bridges to nowhere, but on a very large – Chinese – scale.

VK: Exactly. There are no shortcuts to greatness. As long as they keep building new bridges, the economic numbers will register that there is growth, but at some point the piper will have to be paid, and these projects have a negative return on capital.

TCR: If China loses the manufacturing core of their economy, won’t they be in big trouble?

VK: Well, once you move manufacturing to other countries, it’s very difficult to get it back. So you could probably argue that China will maintain its manufacturing advantage for a while.

The problem with China is pretty much same as with any bubble. Though it may have had a solid foundation under it, it is simply a good thing taken too far. If you look at the railroad bubble in the United States, the country did need railroads, but we built too many.

The same thing happened with the technology bubble in 1998. The Internet was transformative to our economy, no question about it. But, again, it was taken too far.

There are some other countries that are lower-cost producers than China, but they probably can’t do it on the same scale that China can. But my point is that China is just a good thing taken too far, and if you add government involvement and corruption into the mix, you will get a bubble that is taken a lot further than you would normally expect.

One way of thinking about it is that the actions taken by the Chinese government, especially after the recent global recession, have basically supersized the bubble that was already forming.

Let’s try to understand why the Chinese government did the things they did. As everyone knows, the Chinese economy grew at a very high rate for a long period of time. When the global economy slowed down, their economy slowed down as well (though official numbers did not show it). The Chinese government is extremely concerned about the economy slowing down because that is likely to lead to political unrest. A lot of that potential friction comes because a lot of people moved from villages to the cities. China has an almost nonexistent social safety net

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