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Beginning of the End for China’s Miracle Economy?

By The Noble Contrarian on August 12, 2011 in Other

In the past week I’ve read in the Wall Street Journal that ‘The Great Property Bubble of China May Be Popping’, a Grant’s Interest Rate Observer feature on why the China train is due to derail and numerous reports of slower export growth and reduced demand for commodities in the People’s Republic.

So is this the beginning of the end for Australia’s 17-year economic miracle?

Crises are unpredictable things. We look back now and see that the sub-prime crisis led to Lehman Brothers’ collapse, AIG’s demise and brought the global financial system to its knees.

But even after the losses began to mount on US sub-prime mortgages and funding markets began to freeze, putting the pieces together was no easy task. Global stock markets were hitting new all-time highs in late 2007, six months after the sub-prime market first blew up. It wasn’t until the Lehman collapse – a year later – that the consequences were finally understood.

I have been very concerned about China for more than a year now and addressed some of those concerns in previous editions of The Beast. Some of the problems – inflation, a property market bubble, reckless credit growth and an economy overly dependent on investment – seem to be coming to the fore. The property boom looks particularly scary. This from the Wall Street Journal:

“Beijing has one of the most expensive real-estate markets in the world relative to the income of its citizens. Calculations based on Soufun data show that in the opening months of 2006 an average-price new apartment in China’s capital would cost around $100,000 – the equivalent of 32 years’ disposable income for the average resident. By 2011, the average price had more than doubled to $250,000, but relatively modest increases in income mean it would now take 57 years of saving for the average resident to cover the cost.”

Remember that one of the reasons we’re not supposed to worry about a property market correction in China is that the Chinese buy their property with at least 40% deposits, and consequently the banking sector won’t be affected by a correction. Really?

Sure, savings rates are high, but how does anyone afford to buy houses at those prices without substantial amounts of leverage? Like everywhere else in the world, if the housing market collapses the banking and construction sectors will suffer with it.

Jim Grant, who in the latest edition of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer laments his own Federal Reserve’s attempts to play central planner and control asset prices and interest rates, gets to the root cause of China’s problems:

“Heavy duty money printing, wild and woolly lending, exchange-rate suppression, a closed capital account and price control – not the ideal combination of macroeconomic policies for a healthy and growing economy. They are, however, the policies dear to the heart of the Chinese overlords. Nemeses there will surely be, though on the gods’ own timetable.”

The Federal Reserve’s artificially low interest rates led to dramatic resource misallocation and, ultimately, a gigantic residential property bubble in the US. The Chinese authorities don’t only control the interest rate but all facets of the economy. That can only lead to resource misallocation on a much grander scale. Quoting Grant again, “manipulate enough prices and before you know it, the bullet trains, sans passengers, are streaking from empty city to empty city past idle steel mills and untenanted shopping malls.”

I don’t know if the latest data represents a well-managed brake applied to the Chinese economy or the first wobbles of a derailment. I do know it’s not a train I want to be on.


  1. The beauty of China’s situation is that the government has a ridiculously large surplus to spend and an infrastructure plan that needs workers. It happened during the GFC and will happen whenever “the west” slows down over the next ten years.

    When China’s export/production side slows down, assets and workers are reallocated to infrastructure (roads, bridges, railways, dams, power plants, telecoms etc) projects. This isn’t a perfect transition, of course, but you can be sure they’ll keep buying all the commodities they can from us with their over-valued US Dollar bonds and putting their population to work.

    Sure, some people will suffer when bubbles burst but, as a nation, China will soldier on building enough infrastructure to shield us from the worst in the next ten years of (likely) financial mayhem in the US and Europe.

    When the dust settles, I believe China will be in better positioned to dominate the world’s production landscape – through improved infrastructure, education, experience – than it has ever been before.

    ps. it wasn’t artificially low interest rates that led to a US property bubble, it was the fact that people who had no prospect to repay mortgages were given access to credit en masse.
    pps. If you restrict property supply in highly sort after locations where foreign investment is in the mix, prices (obviously) bubble in that location.

    Posted by: Lloyd | August 16, 2011, 3:14 PM |

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