Michael Pettis On ‘A Best Case Scenario’ For China

Michael Pettis is Professor of Finance, Guanghua School of Management, Peking University, author of The Great Rebalancing: Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy,  Avoiding the Fall: China’s Economic Restructuring and The Volatility Machine: Emerging Economics and the Threat of Financial Collapse. This morning, Michael Pettis sent his latest missive on China ‘best case scenarios’ to subscribers, and below we excerpt a small portion (with permission) on that topic.

Also read Michael Pettis On The Dilemmas Of Chinese Devaluation and China Re-balancing: Michael Pettis On The Six Different Paths

Michael Pettis on “best case” transition

“best case” transition will consist of an orderly adjustment, low unemployment as demand creation shifts from capital-intensive investment to labor-intensive consumption, GDP growth rates of around 3-4%, and household income growth rates of 5-7%.
I have always thought that the soft landing/hard landing debate wholly misses the point when it comes to China’s economic prospects. It confuses the kinds of market-based adjustments we are likely to see in the US or Europe with the much more controlled process we see in China. Instead of a hard landing or a soft landing, the Chinese economy faces two very different options, and these will be largely determined by the policies Beijing chooses over the next two years. 

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Beijing can manage a rapidly declining pace of credit creation, which must inevitably result in much slower although healthier GDP growth. Or Beijing can allow enough credit growth to prevent a further slowdown but, once the perpetual rolling-over of bad loans absorbs most of the country’s loan creation capacity, it will lose control of growth altogether and growth will collapse. 

The choice, in other words, is not between hard landing and soft landing. China will either choose a “long landing”, in which growth rates drop sharply but in a controlled way such that unemployment remains reasonable even as GDP growth drops to 3% or less, or it will choose what analysts will at first hail as a soft landing – a few years of continued growth of 6-7% – followed by a collapse in growth and soaring unemployment. 


The best-case scenario
Although I am still cautiously optimistic that Beijing will pull off an orderly rebalancing, I want to stress that the scenario described above is not my predicted scenario. It is, instead, an examination of the best case of an orderly transition towards a more balanced economy.
As regular readers know I am not very comfortable making predictions, preferring instead to try to understand the structure of an economic system and work out logically the various ways in which that system can evolve. The description above is one of the ways in which it can evolve, and because I think this is probably the best-case scenario, I thought it might prove useful as a way of framing thinking about the adjustment process for China.
One caveat: This is not necessarily the best-case assumption. I can make certain assumptions, which I haven’t made because I believe them to be implausible, although not impossible, that lead to a better outcome. If the global economy were to recover much more quickly than most of us expect, and, much more importantly, if Beijing were to initiate a far more aggressive program of privatization and wealth transfer than I think politically possible, perhaps transferring in the first few years the equivalent of as much as 5% of GDP, the surge in household income could unleash much stronger consumption growth than we have seen in the past. This could cause GDP growth over the Xi administration period to be higher than my 3-4% best-case scenario.
The amount of the direct or indirect wealth transfer from the state sector to ordinary households is, I
think, the most important variable in understanding China’s adjustment. The pace of growth will be driven largely by the pace of household income growth, which will itself be driven largely by the pace of direct or indirect wealth transfers to ordinary Chinese households. If we could guess this right, much else would almost automatically follow.