China: Debt is Up, Trade is Down

I am still working on my piece on the global savings adjustment and will probably post it in the next week or so. The main point is to discuss what the implications are for China if we see simultaneously over the next few years an increase in US savings and a reduction in global investment. For today I wanted to discuss some of the economic data coming out of China as well as a couple of debt-related issues.

US debt and the dollar

But first, a quick digression. Today’s Financial Times has an article titled “Fears over US sovereign debts unfounded” which, as the title implies, argues that “Fears of a crisis of confidence in the US sovereign debt market – and a subsequent dollar collapse – are unfounded.” On a related note Bloomberg has an article today which notes that “Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said the dollar is in ‘good shape,’ further affirming that there’s no substitute for the world’s reserve currency.”

It’s great that commentators are coming back, however temporarily, to a sense of reality and common sense. There never was likely to be a crisis in the ability of the US government to fund its deficits, and all the pleading to foreign governments to continue purchasing dollar assets was based on very fundamental misunderstandings of both the form of the global adjustment and the functioning of the global balance of payments. For the former, the problem we are facing is that as Asian savings soared over the past decade, they were accompanied by a collapse in US savings. This is not a coincidence. An increase in savings in one part of the world requires a reduction in another, and causality can work either way, so please dear readers spare me the whose-fault-is-it outrage – it is not relevant here. The point is that without a marked increase in global investment, one requires the other.

The collapse in US savings was unsustainable, and it is now reversing. This creates a problem of excess global savings, which means financing deficits for creditworthy governments is not going to be a problem and will not result in soaring real interest rates. In fact Paul Krugman has a brief piece, based on numbers from Brad Setser, that shows the explosive rise in US government debt is more than matched by the contraction in household debt.

This is just another way of saying the same thing. Of course I will add my by-now-tiresome point that we do not have to worry about discretionary decisions by foreign governments as to whether or not they will continue financing the US fiscal deficit. Foreigners do not finance fiscal deficits. They finance current account deficits, and one (the current account deficit) cannot occur without the other (the financing). As long as the US runs trade deficits with China (or Russia or anyone else), those deficits will be financed, and the only thing that will stop that is a contraction in the US trade deficit, which is actually expansionary for the US economy and will reduce the need for fiscal expansion.

Remember, the US can force foreigners to invest $2 trillion a year in the US by the simple expedient of running a $2 trillion annual trade deficit. But this cannot possibly be a good thing. If we want the trade deficit to go down, we must also want foreign financing of the US to go down by exactly the same amount. This is not high-falutin’ economic theory, it is rather an arithmetical necessity. (By the way I tried to explain something related this Saturday when, on CCTV9’s Dialogue, two points were made – that the contraction in the US trade deficit was causing great pain in China, and that Chinese officials were warning the US government sharply to reduce its fiscal borrowing. China cannot ask both that the US slowdown its contraction in consumption and that the US government slowdown its fiscal expansion. It is precisely the growth of the US fiscal deficit that will cause a slowdown in the contraction of US net consumption.)

The second point, that the dollar is still in “good shape” as the world’s dominant reserve currency, should be obvious. I have not gotten around to writing why all these spectacular (or spectacularly reported) moves by China and others to “undermine” the reserve status of the dollar – announcements by Putin, currency swap arrangements between China and a host of countries desperate for cash, the announcement by a major Chinese banks that it will make the RMB available for international transactions, and so on – are all of almost no consequence except to the paranoid. At some point I will write more about it.

Debt and risky debt structures are rising

Let me turn to debt. Last week Andrew Batson had a very interesting, and very important, I think, article in The Wall Street Journal, discussing the impact of the stimulus on the government’s real debt position. “The cost of China’s stimulus program,” he writes, “is turning out to be much larger than official figures indicate, raising the stakes for the government’s attempt to restart high growth through massive borrowing.” He points out that a lot of the spending is being funded by provincial and municipal borrowings and by corporate borrowings, “virtually all of which are indirectly backed by local governments.”

He concludes: “As the central government is ultimately liable for those hidden debts, China’s total state debt is closer to 35% of GDP than the 18% shown by official figures.” In fact I have always argued that other not-yet-recognized liabilities, such as hidden municipal and government debt, the bankrupt AMCs, and other non-recognized debt, probably means that real government debt levels are higher than the official numbers by at least 15-25% of GDP, which suggests that, correctly counted, government debt levels may now be approaching 50-70% of GDP. If we throw in the possibility that the current bank-lending spree is also likely directly or indirectly to add to government debt burdens in the future (contingently, through a rise in NPLs), I would not be surprised if policy-makers are already starting to consider the possibility of a debt problem at the central government level. I am not saying that this must happen, but only that it is easy to construct some fairly plausible scenarios, involving the continuing global adjustment and the concomitant Chinese adjustment, that can easily suggest a debt problem.

My concerns of course were not made more palatable after I saw a very interesting article in last week’s Caijing (and what other magazine would have reported this?), with the unsettling subtitle “The property market bubble burst last year, but developers are still afloat thanks to governments, banks and a ’subprime’ solution.”

The article notes how unlikely it is that the massive contraction and the difficulties in last year’s property market were not accompanied by high-profile failures among property developers. This is because, they explain, “local governments and banks have intervened to prop up Chinese property developers following last year’s sharp contraction in the real estate market,” and they show how this has happened.

Focusing on the case of Greentown China Holding Ltd, a large property developer that nearly went bust, they write:

Greentown faltered in the fourth quarter 2008 and stood on the brink of liquidation early this year. But it survived after a bank agreed to refinance foreign debt and a local government approved a grace period for land payments. Moreover, trust funds that use what at least one expert called a “subprime” scheme offered flexible financing for development projects.

Shou said his company has dodged the crisis. But he admitted that pulling through 2008 was extremely difficult. Indeed, Greentown saw a 10 billion yuan gap between its 2008 sales target and actual results. And debt payments loom for 2009.

The article’s authors, Zhang Yingguang and Gong Jing, go on to draw the unwelcome conclusions:

Industry executives think similar, short-term rescues for major property developers have occurred more frequently in recent months than generally acknowledged. For evidence, they point to the absence of high-profile failures in the industry.

This suggests that there are a lot of very dodgy debt deals out there that are based on nothing more than hopes and prayers. This doesn’t imply, of course, that all these deals will go bad. What I am worried about is something a little different – the highly pro-cyclical nature of these deals. If China recovers, these deals will probably do fine and will be repaid, and so will never show up as contingent debt, but if economic conditions deteriorate of course that is precisely when they will go bad.

And of course that is precisely when we most desperately don’t want them to go bad. Throughout history credit bubbles always end up, in their later stages, with these kinds of highly pro-cyclical structures (read about investment trusts in the 1920s for example, or the Japanese real estate and lending markets in the 1980s, or, in case you’ve already forgotten, the sub-prime market not so long ago). As long as economic conditions and liquidity-driven asset prices continue to improve, these highly unstable structures survive and prosper, but just when you most desperately want to avoid their breakdown, when conditions turn nasty, they come crashing down on you. These kinds of structures are what I call in my book (The Volatility Machine) highly “inverted” structures and they systematically increase volatility by reinforcing both good times and bad times.

Recent economic data

Finally, as everyone knows by now, a number of economic indicators were released last week, some good some bad. Some of the good news, according to an article in the South China Morning Post, was:

The National Bureau of Statistics said in Beijing that annual industrial output growth rebounded to 8.9 per cent in May from 7.3 per cent in April, outpacing a median forecast of 7.5 per cent. Annual growth in retail sales rose to 15.2 per cent in May from 14.8 per cent in April, slightly ahead of forecasts, partly due to a moderate pace of deflation.

For all of last year, retail sales were up 21.6 percent. Together, the two read-outs suggested a 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.5 trillion) government stimulus plan, allied with consumer spending, is starting to overcome weak global demand for the exports that powered the country’s breakneck growth in recent years.

Accompanied by the rise in US retail sales, this indicated to many that the Chinese stimulus package is working and that the global and Chinese economies may have bottomed out. In the author’s words, “A growing conviction that the global economy is starting to claw its way out of the deepest recession in six decades has seen stock markets rallying strongly from the depths plumbed in March, while hopes of burgeoning demand have driven prices of oil and industrial metals to multi-month highs.”

The next bit of good news was mainland investment levels. According to another article in the same paper:

Mainland investment surged in May on the back of government pump-priming and a recovery in the property sector, providing fresh evidence that the world’s third-largest economy is leading others on the path to recovery.

Investment in urban areas in fixed assets such as apartment buildings and roads rose 32.9 per cent in the first five months from a year earlier, compared with a 30.5 per cent rise in the first four months, t he National Bureau of Statistics said on Thursday.

Economists said that translated into a 40 per cent leap in May alone. Adjusted for inflation, the increase was even greater because mainland prices have been falling for several months.

Actually I think this is not good news at all. To me it indicates nothing more than that if you pump enough money into investment, investment will rise. A much more important question, and one of course not addressed by the data, is whether pumping money into investment is the best way to force the necessary adjustments in the Chinese economy, and whether this does not represent a ‘doubling up” of china’s bet on the global recovery. That is something only time will tell, and I have written about this enough times elsewhere to leave it at that.

The bad news is that, according to a release today by the Ministry of Commerce, foreign direct investment in the mainland dropped 17.8% year-on-year in May for the eighth straight monthly fall. Honestly I don’t think this is such a big deal except to the extent that it gives us a “businessman’s” view of economic prospects in China that is very different from the economic-recovery view so popular in the Chinese (and foreign) press, although of course it may simply reflect the desire abroad for cutting exposure and cutting capacity.

Much more interesting to me is the trade data. According to an article in Thursday’s People’s Daily:

China’s exports and imports shrank for the seventh month in row in May, the General Administration of Customs said on Thursday. Exports fell 26.4 percent in May from the same period a year ago to 88.758 billion U.S. dollars. Imports were down 25.2 percent to 75.36 billion U.S. dollars. The trade surplus was 13.39 billion U.S. dollars.

The decline in exports and imports in May were worse than the 22.6% fall in April’s exports and the 23.0% drop in April’s imports, although Goldman claims that the decline is more or less flat if measured on a seasonally-adjusted basis.

April’s and May’s trade surpluses ($13.1 and $13.4 billion) were substantially below the equivalent numbers last year ($16.7 and $20.2 billion), so from that point of view we can argue that China is finally starting to reduce the negative net demand it provides to the world. Two caveats are in order, however. First, for the first five months of the year, China’s trade surplus is still up more than 13% compared to last year – $89.1 billion in 2009 versus $78.6 billion in 2008.

Second, imports would have fallen much faster except for the surge in commodity imports. Jamil Anderlini at the Financial Times gives one, benign, explanation for the surge:

Chinese import volumes of many commodities and natural resources surged in May, indicating a rebound in infrastructure building. That supported figures on Thursday showing fixed-asset investment was 32.9 per cent higher in the first five months of the year, compared with the same period in 2008, an implied rise of 38.7 per cent in May alone from a year earlier.

Keith Bradsher, in an article in Wednesday’s New York Times gives possibly a very different explanation:

Strong buying by China has helped lift commodity prices around the world this spring, but growing evidence suggests that a sizable portion of this buying has been to build stockpiles in China, and may not be sustainable.

At least 90 large freighters full of iron ore are idling off Chinese ports, where they face waits of up to two weeks to unload because port storage operations are overflowing, chief executives of shipping companies said in interviews this week. Yet actual steel production from that iron ore is recovering much more slowly in China, and Chinese steel exports remain weak.

Commodities and shipping executives describe Chinese stockpiling in recent months of a range of other commodities as well, including aluminum, copper, nickel, tin, zinc, canola and soybeans. Starting in April, China began stockpiling significant quantities of crude oil.

There have been rumors and some evidence of stockpiling for months, and if this is the case, and of course if the stockpiling is not sustainable, then the import numbers are likely to have been artificially boosted. Real demand by China for foreign goods will have actually been much lower.

Of course all of this has a trade impact. Regular readers don’t need me to rehash the arguments. Suffice it to say that the Chinese fiscal stimulus, rather than an adjustment to the new economic realities, in my opinion, is still based on boosting production and investment and constraining consumption, in spite of statements to the contrary (for example today’s People’s Daily has another front page article in which Premier Wen “stressed the importance of promoting domestic consumption”).

Unless the world recovers rapidly and sustainably and, more importantly, US consumers return to the heady days of financing their consumption by binge borrowing, we are going to need to see a greater trade adjustment in China. Trade tensions are not improving. Last week I had dinner with a very senior China manager at a large German company and he told me expected anti-dumping suits to surge in the first quarter of next year. As if to beat him to the punch yesterday’s Financial Times came up with this story (“China accused of predatory pricing practices”):

India’s small and medium enterprises have warned that they are suffering because of cheap imports from China. They are urging New Delhi to accelerate anti-dumping investigations and impose tougher safety and quality checks on Chinese products.

The appeal for greater government protection came amid rising tensions between New Delhi and Beijing over trade, after a high-profile dispute over an Indian ban on Chinese made toys. India’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry said on Sunday that a survey of 110 small and medium-sized manufacturers found that about two-thirds had suffered a serious erosion of their Indian market share over the past year, because of cheaper Chinese products.

In its statement, FICCI said the Chinese imports were between 10 and 70 per cent cheaper than comparable Indian products, a price differential that it said was “huge and difficult to explain”. Amit Mitra, the FICCI’s secretary-general, said Indian industries were being hurt by “typical Chinese predatory pricing” intended to drive rivals out of business so that Chinese companies could capture the market – and then raise prices to more normal levels. The bite was felt by companies in a range of sectors, including processed food, light engineering, building materials and heavy engineering, chemicals and textiles, FICCI said.

The fact that Indian wages are lower than Chinese wages is probably not enough to compensate for China’s much better infrastructure, but there are other reasons for the price differential. I discussed some of these reasons in an entry earlier this month.

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About Michael Pettis 166 Articles

Affiliation: Peking University

Michael Pettis is a professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets. He has also taught, from 2002 to 2004, at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management and, from 1992 to 2001, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

Pettis has worked on Wall Street in trading, capital markets, and corporate finance since 1987, when he joined the Sovereign Debt trading team at Manufacturers Hanover (now JP Morgan). Most recently, from 1996 to 2001, Pettis worked at Bear Stearns, where he was Managing Director-Principal heading the Latin American Capital Markets and the Liability Management groups.

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