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Michael Pettis: What Does A “Good” Chinese Adjustment Look Like?

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What Does A “Good” Chinese Adjustment Look Like? by John Mauldin, Mauldin Economics

People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason. But the privileged also feel that their privileges, however egregious they may seem to others, are a solemn, basic, God-given right. The sensitivity of the poor to injustice is a trivial thing compared with that of the rich.

– John Galbraith, The Age of Uncertainty

Malinvestment occurs when people do stupid things with free money. One of the characteristics of malinvestment is its dominance; i.e., other investments have little chance of competing. Malinvestments always bust and end in liquidation.

–  Joan McCullough, writing yesterday in her daily commentary

Worth Wray and I have been writing for some time now about the problems that are developing in China. Worth is somewhat more pessimistic about the outcomes than I am, but we agree that China is problematic. China is the number one risk, in my opinion, to global financial economic stability, more so than Europe or Japan, which are also ticking time bombs.

I contend that Xi and Li are the most radical leaders of the Chinese nation since Deng Xiaoping, with the emphasis being on Xi. He is shaking up the current power structure by going after some of the entrenched leaders for corruption. He has earned rebukes from a former president for his actions in op-eds in the Financial Times. This is extraordinary pushback and clearly shows that what is happening is beyond the normal regime-change shakeups we have seen in China.

For today’s Outside the Box, we turn to my friend professor Michael Pettis to get his latest take on China. Michael’s biography describes him as a “Wall Street veteran, merchant banker, equities trader, economist, finance professor, entrepreneur – iconoclast – Michael Pettis is a unique individual living and working in China, at the heart of the world’s most exciting and vibrant economy.” He is certainly all that and more and just an all-around fun guy to hang out with. I mean, where else do you get a professor who also helps found an indie rock club in Beijing? I should note that he is a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. He is published everywhere and gets to talk to “everyone” in China. So I pay attention to what Michael Pettis says when it comes to China. Michael writes a free blog but also has a subscription service that you can get to on his website.

He posted a blog on Monday asking the question, “What does a ‘good’ Chinese adjustment look like?” Which of course assumes there might be a bad Chinese adjustment.

And while the consequences of a smooth transition would be important for those who live in China, the consequences if Xi and Li get it wrong would be significant for the world. We need to be paying attention. This piece is a good overview of what “we” would like to see happen. But as Michael points out, there are some in China who very much don’t want our favored scenario to play out.

For most of the Western world, summer is officially over with the beginning of September, although technically the equinox will not arrive for another 20 days. For the most part, I enjoyed a lazy Labor Day (apart from the obligatory workout), ending with a cookout by the pool with family and friends, joined by David Tice (formerly of the Prudent Bear and my neighbor in the building) and his crew.

My kids gave me a lot of grief because I mentioned Henry’s birthday last week as being his 31st. It is his 33rd. In my defense I at least got the birthday part right. I cannot believe how fast my kids are growing up / have grown up. To see them interacting as adults is both pleasurable and unsettling. I don’t feel any older than they look, although my body complains every now and then and more than it used to. But I know that technically speaking I am anywhere from 29 to 45 years older.

But for the nonce I think I will ignore the technical part and go with my feelings. At least until reality issues a true wake-up call.

Your not ready to give up the game analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

What does a “good” Chinese adjustment look like?

By Michael Pettis  |  September 1, 2014
Michael Pettis’ China Financial Markets

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.

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.

A “soft landing” would, in this case, simply be a prelude to a very serious and destabilizing contraction in growth. Rather than hail the soft landing as a signal that Beijing is succeeding in managing the economic adjustment, it should be seen as an indication that Beijing has not been able to implement the reforms that it knows it must implement. A “soft landing” should increase our fear of a subsequent “hard landing”. It is not an alternative.

Surprisingly enough, until the announcement last month that Zhou Yonkang was under investigation, Premier Li has been pretty insistent that China will make its 7.5% growth targets, even as many analysts have lowered their expectations (Moody’s and the IMF are now saying that 6.5% is a possibility), and it is clear that President Xi is taking far more responsibility for and control of the economy than any recent president. My guess is that as the problems of the real estate sector kick in, with lower prices causing a drop in real estate development, which matters for employment, we are likely to see additional stimulus spending aimed at managing the threat of unemployment and, perhaps more importantly, at managing the possibility of rising anger among provincial elites as the glorious prospect of easy money continues to retreat.

This, to me, is the explanation for the rather surprising insistence by Premier Li in June that 7.5% GDP growth was a hard target. GDP targets are part of domestic signaling about the expected pain of adjustment. I suspect that lower growth targets are likely to generate greater opposition.

Certainly it does seem that growth has temporarily bottomed out. According to this June’s Financial Times, “Expenditure by local and central governments in China jumped nearly 25 per cent from the same month a year earlier, a sharp acceleration from the 9.6 per cent growth registered in the first four months of the year, according to figures released by the finance ministry,” and HSBC’s Flash PMI index suggests for the first time in six months that there has been an expansion in manufacturing, although the flash index is, of course, preliminary and may be revised.

Can Beijing rein in credit?

There should be nothing surprising about the improvement in some of the numbers. The “soft landing” that we are seeing is a consequence of credit growth. It means that it is proving politically hard to implement reforms as quickly as some in the administration would like, and it also means that we are getting closer to debt capacity constraints. We would be better off with the long landing scenario, in which GDP growth rates drop sharply but manageably by 1-2 percentage points every year.

I have written many times before that what will largely determine the path China follows is the political struggle the Xi administration will have in imposing the needed reforms on an elite that will strongly resist these reforms – mainly of course because these reforms must necessarily come at their expense. As an aside my friend, Ken Miller, with whom I was having a very different discussion last week, just sent me one of his favorite John Galbraith quotes (from The Age of Uncertainty) that seemed apropos.

People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason. But the privileged also feel that their privileges, however egregious they may seem to others, are a solemn, basic, God-given right. The sensitivity of the poor to injustice is a trivial thing compared with that of the rich.

Although I don’t think China’s economy is adjusting quickly enough, especially credit growth, I remain cautiously optimistic that Beijing knows what it must do and will be able to pull it off. In an older issue of my blog, I tried to place the last 3-4 decades of Chinese growth in a historical context that recognizes four different stages of this growth process. By doing so I try to show how China’s own recent history can help us understand how to consider the policies President Xi must implement.

The first stage of China’s growth story, which occurred mainly during the 1980s, consisted of liberalizing reforms that undermined the Communist elite and which were strongly opposed by them. Because power was highly centralized under Deng Xiaoping, however, including a loyal PLA, he and the reform faction were nonetheless able to force through the reforms.

The next two stages of growth, I argued, required policies that had a very different relationship to the interests of the Chinese elite. Because they involved the accumulation and distribution of resources to favored groups whose role was to achieve specific economic targets, they helped to reinforce the wealth and power of a new elite, many of whose members were, or were related to, the old elite. Not surprisingly this new elite strongly supported the growth model imposed by Beijing during these stages.

The fourth stage, I argued, is the stage upon which we are currently trying to embark. In an important sense it involves liberalizing reforms similar politically to those that Deng imposed during the 1980s, making it vitally important to their success that the current administration is able to centralize power and create support to overcome the inevitable opposition, which it seems to be doing.

This is why, even though Beijing doesn’t seem to have yet gotten its arms around the problem of excess credit creation, I nonetheless think it is moving in the right direction. For now I would give two chances out of three that Beijing will manage an orderly “long landing”, in which growth rates continue to drop sharply but without major social disruption or a collapse in the economy. In this issue of the newsletter I want to write out a little more explicitly what such an orderly adjustment might look like.

Will financial repression abate?

The key economic policy for China over the past two decades has been financial repression. There have been three components to financial repressive policies. First, by constraining the growth of household income and subsidizing production, China forced up its savings rates to astonishingly high levels. Second, by limiting the ways in which Chinese households could save, mostly in the form of bank deposits, Beijing was able to control the direction in which these savings flowed. Finally, Beijing controlled the lending and deposit rates and set them far below any “natural” level.

Very low interest rates had several important impacts. First, because they represented a transfer from net savers to net borrowers, they helped to exacerbate the split between the growth in household income (households are net savers) and the growth in GDP (which is generated by net borrowers), and so led directly to the extraordinary imbalance in the Chinese economy in which consumption, as a share of GDP, has declined to perhaps the lowest level ever recorded in history.

Second, by making credit extremely cheap for approved borrowers, it created among them an almost infinite demand for credit. Financial repression helped foster tremendous growth in economic activity as privileged borrowers took advantage to borrow and invest in almost any project for which they could get approval.

Third, when China desperately needed investment early in its growth period, this growth in economic activity represented real growth in wealth. But low interest rates, along with the moral hazard created by implicit guarantee of nearly all approved lending, led almost inevitably to a collapse in investment discipline. Financial repression has been the main explanation for the enormous misallocation of capital spending we have seen in China during the past decade.

This is why understanding financial repression is so important to understanding

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