Property prices: The average price-to-rent ratio of China’s eight key cities is 39.4 times – this figure was 22.8 times in America just before its housing crisis. Corriente argues: “Lacking alternative investment options, Chinese corporates, households and government entities have invested excess liquidity in the property markets, driving home prices to unsustainable levels.” The result is that the property is out of reach for the majority of ordinary Chinese.
Banking: As with the credit crisis in the West, the banks’ exposure to the infrastructure credit bubbles isn’t obvious because the debt is held in Local Investment Companies – shell entities which borrow from Chinese banks and invest in fixed assets. Mr Hart reckons that ‘bad loans will equal 98pc of total bank equity if LIC-owned, non-cashflow-producing assets are recognised as non-performing.’
The result is that, rather than being the ‘key engine for global growth’, China is an ‘enormous tail-risk’.
(Louise Armistead, The Telegraph, “Hedge fund manager Mark Hart bets on China as the next ‘enormous credit bubble’ to burst.” Nov. 29, 2010)
The markets may damn well prove Mark right, along with a host of other managers who either jumped on his bandwagon or reached the same conclusions independently; but it seemed downright crazy in 2010 to think that the main driver of global growth could abruptly become its biggest threat within a few short years.
On a personal note, I obsessed over China’s culture, economy, and political system for years in college and then witnessed the country’s transformation firsthand during my time at Shanghai’s Fudan University in the summer of 2007. Then and later, I marveled at China’s strength relative to the developed world and the seemingly invincible central government’s ability to keep the economy chugging along with credit growth and fixed investment while it hoped for the return of its developed-world customers then mired in the Great Recession.
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear … but I had to accept that Mark could be right. He had clearly identified a major imbalance which has continued to worsen over the last few years, and now we are just waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Four years later, Chinese production is slowing in the shadow of a massive credit bubble and in the face of aggressive reforms.
Disappointing investment returns are revealing broad-based capital misallocation; property prices are cooling (relative to other countries); and commodity stockpiles are mounting.
With China’s new policy of allowing defaults (historically, China’s default rate has been 0%), there is a real risk that follow-on events could spin out of control, raising nonperforming loan ratios and sparking a panic as bank capital is significantly eroded.
In the meantime, the renminbi is trading down, most likely due to an intentional effort by the People’s Bank of China to aid in the slow unwinding of leveraged trade finance.
Now the signs of a Chinese slowdown (and thus a global one, as the world is geared to 8% Chinese growth) are clear, and people around the world are meeting uncertainty with emotion. With that in mind, let’s dig into the data that really matters and try to get to the heart of China’s dilemma.
China’s Minsky Moment?
“China is like an elephant riding a bicycle. If it slows down, it could fall off, and then the earth might quake.” – James Kynge, China Shakes the World
After 30 years of sustained economic growth topping 8% and a successful bank cleanup in 2000, the People’s Republic was well on its way to blowing through the “middle income trap” and transitioning to a more advanced consumption-based economy. But then in 2008 the banking crisis in the United States abruptly ushered in a painful era of balance sheet repair across the developed world and delivered a demand shock to emerging markets. Rather than allow the Chinese economy to fall into recession at such an inconvenient time, the Party leadership sprang into action to stimulate demand with its largest fiscal deficit in more than 60 years and to mobilize bank lending with historically low interest rates and enormous liquidity injections.
As you can see in the charts above, China’s total debt-to-GDP (including estimates for shadow banks) grew by roughly 20% per year, from just under 150% in 2008 to nearly than 210% at the end of 2012 … and continued rising in 2013. Even more ominous, corporate debt has soared from 92% in 2008 to 150% today against the expectation that China’s government would always backstop defaults. That makes Chinese corporates the most highly levered in the world and more than twice as levered as US corporates, just as corporate defaults are happening for the very first time in more than 60 years.
By another measure, China has accounted for more than $15 trillion of the $30 trillion in worldwide credit growth over the last five years, bringing Chinese bank assets to roughly $24 trillion (2.5x Chinese GDP) and prompting London Telegraph columnist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard to tweet John and me a short message: “China riding tail of $24 trillion credit tiger. Tiger will eat Maoists.” And to that, I would respond that I hope the tiger doesn’t find its way to France. (You can follow John and Worth on Twitter at @JohnFMauldin and @WorthWray.)
Looking further into the debt problem, China is steadily incurring more and more credit for less and less growth – suggesting that the newer debt is less productive because it is being put to unproductive uses – as you can see in Chart 2 above. That explains why many analysts believe China’s official reported nonperforming loan ratio of 1% is more like 11% – or more than 20% of GDP.
Furthermore, China’s incremental capital/output ratio rose from 2.5x in 2007 to almost 5.5x in 2012. That means it takes more than twice as much debt to generate a given improvement in growth as it did before the debt binge began; and as an aside, the interest burden on China’s total debt, at 9.2%, is higher than in the US in 1929 and near the peak interest burden in 2008. Moreover, debt-service costs in China are more than double the total interest burden seen at any time in the last 100 years of US history.
China’s massive debt build-up since 2008 looks like the perfect recipe for a particularly destructive banking crisis; but as George Soros explains, “There are some eerie resemblances with the financial conditions that prevailed in the US in the years preceding the crash of 2008. But there is a significant difference, too. In the US, financial markets tend to dominate politics; in China, the state owns the banks and the bulk of the economy, and the Communist Party controls the state-owned enterprises.”
It will be a difficult balancing act, but China’s ruling elite doesn’t appear to be in denial about its debt problem, as we have come to expect from the United States and the Japan of old. In fact, it seems the new government under President Xi Jinping is intent on popping the domestic debt bubble and allowing widespread defaults rather than continuing to leverage the system into an unmanageable crisis or a Japanese-style stagnation. The trouble is, their efforts may be too little too late to manage a gradual deleveraging from a massive debt bubble. They are about to perform a dive off the high board that has never been attempted, with the whole world watching.
Among the various reforms set forth in last November’s Communist Party Third Plenum, ranging from financial liberalization to a crackdown on corruption and pollution, the greatest challenge will be gradually deleveraging the Chinese economy without throwing growth into a tailspin. Wei Yao and Claire Huang at Societe Generale argue that the Chinese government must approach the deleveraging process in three steps:
The first step is to stall credit