Whither China?

By John Mauldin

Now let’s turn to China. I received this report from Simon Hunt (who is based in London, and who makes my travel schedule look positively pedestrian). Besides being an expert on the copper market he is a serious student of China, travelling there often. He has developed a number of very insider contacts over the years. The more I read Simon, the more I take seriously his analysis. He is very contrarian, but he seems to be getting a lot of things right. So let’s see what he has to report back from his latest visit to China.


CHINA VISIT: ECONOMIC REPORT

By Simon Hunt

In all likelihood, China has entered the most critical and taxing period since the country was reopened to the outside world in the 1970s. Domestically, there are a slew of issues, any one of which could create instability. These issues include:

  • Home affordability
  • Leadership instability
  • A potential if not actual housing bubble
  • The rising income and wealth differential between those who have made it and those who have not
  • The country’s continued dependence on exports as its principal driver of growth
  • Cheap credit, which punishes savings and encourages investment/speculation
  • The misallocation of capital that springs from the previous factor
  • Local/provincial government indebtedness
  • A new assertiveness and arrogance at all levels
  • Policy making that focuses on short-termism without addressing structural and longer-term issues, etc.
  • Impact of rising wages
  • Energy intensity
  • Role of foreign companies
  • Resource dependability – water, raw materials, etc.

The list could go on, but these issues are evolving at a time when the global environment is fraught with difficulties and uncertainty, making policy making within China that much more complex. The infighting within the leadership, which goes beyond the normal tensions that often occur during the period leading up to a change in leadership (due in 2012), is making policy management more difficult and has led to conflicting views being expressed by various factions, in the media.

Few can know the full story of what goes on within the State Council, but there appears to be a battle royal being fought over the real estate sector. There are those within the leadership who are concerned that average home prices have gotten too high for most first-time buyers (see our previous visit report). They want to see average prices fall by 10-20% across the country. Against this group are not just real estate developers but local governments and many others within Beijing. This group, of course, depends for much of their revenue, or in the case of developers, their profits, on rising land and building values. In fact, local governments depend on land sales for one-third of their revenues. In 2009, land sales brought in RMB 1.6 trillion, compared with a total budget income of RMB 3.3 trillion. Moreover, land is the most-used collateral for bank loans; its value is thus crucial to the credit edifice.

Many local governments have not adhered fully to the new restrictions imposed by the central government on the real estate sector. This has infuriated those in Beijing who are determined to encourage a fall in home prices. In effect, what is being seen is a battle between central and local governments. In our view, this is a fight that central government cannot afford to lose.

The scale of speculation in real estate is enormous. There is a total of 64.5 million apartments and houses lying purchased but vacant in urban China, about five times the surplus in the USA, according to an economist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

A report written by the National Bureau of Economic Research in July this year provides interesting data on China’s housing market. Real housing prices have risen by 140% since the first quarter of 2007. In the first quarter of this year, house prices rose by a record 41%, since when it appears that prices have stabilised but not fallen. Price increases have not been driven by any shortage in housing. In five of the eight markets that the authors of the report studied, the net new number of housing units provided since 1999 was at least as large as the net increase in the number of households. In the three others, the relatively modest gap does not explain the huge rise in home prices.

In Beijing, there has been an almost eight-fold increase in land values since 2003, but since the end of 2007 land prices have nearly tripled. The impact of rising land prices on home and apartment prices has been equally great. From 2003 to 2007, the ratio of land-to-house values hovered between 30% and 40%, but since then it has doubled to just over 60%. The report also found that when a central government state-owned enterprise (SOE) was a winning bidder for land, prices rose by about 27% more than if they had not been involved, thus showing the influence that SOEs bring to bear on land values, an influence that grew in 2009 when they became more active. A separate report shows that so far this year 82% of Beijing’s land auctions have been won by SOEs.

Price-to-rent values in Beijing and seven other large markets across the country have increased from 30% to 70% since the start of 2007, and current price-to-rent ratios imply very low user costs of no more than 2-3% of house value. Very high expected capital gains appear necessary to justify such low user costs of owning. The report continues with calculations suggesting that even modest declines in expected appreciation would lead to large price declines of over 40% in markets such as Beijing.

In summary, against a background of cheap money and plenty of credit, house prices across the country have become unaffordable to most first-time buyers. In Beijing, for instance, average house prices have been between 14 and 15 times incomes for the past three years, but rose to 18.5 times in the first quarter of this year. If average home prices do not fall significantly across the country, the risk is that Beijing will be forced to tighten policy another notch. A softening in monetary policy is likely only if average home prices fall within the 10-20% range.

This is what the policy fight is all about, because if these price developments continued unchecked the leadership would risk encountering social instability. Workers everywhere are demanding higher wages. The demands are not just amongst the SMEs and foreign companies, but within the SOEs. We understand that a significant number of SOEs have seen de facto strikes, just not in name. The workers clock in, go to their stations, put down their tools, and clock out without doing any work.

The list of grievances is long, with rising wages being one. How government deals with this situation remains to be seen. We were reminded that in 1989 it was only when the workers joined the students that an explosive situation developed. No one is expecting anything remotely similar, but these developments do illustrate the tensions lying beneath the surface which the leadership is having to grapple with.

Politics in China is all about maintaining social stability. The demographics of the country are forcing the leadership into a new economic model, which will be partially driven by the level of average wages over the coming five years being at least double that of the last five years.

Dr Clint Laurent of Global Demographics has consistently stated that China’s statisticians have overstated the country’s birth rates since 1990. This implied, as he said in a paper in 2005, that China’s labour force would peak at 770 million in 2008, falling to 690 million by 2025. Another major consequence is that the important age group of 20-39 peaked in 2000 at 458 million and by this year will have fallen by 4%.

The consequences of these demographic changes are immense. First, wage inflation will be a given, not just in the private and foreign sectors but amongst the SOEs, as we mentioned earlier. Second, it means that manufacturers will introduce automated machinery to reduce the workforce (the new booming sector) and improve productivity. Third, rising wages lay the foundation for better consumer spending; though households, as in the past, will have to cover the losses racked up by local governments, according to Michael Pettis, a visiting professor in Beijing. Fourth, disposable income in the rural sector is improving. This development, combined with subsidies granted to rural households for buying a range of household appliances, has lifted the demand for these products in rural areas. Nonetheless, it is human nature that when a gift is offered there is a rush to buy, so how long the subsidies will affect sales of appliances is a moot point.

Finally, policy makers know that the time has come when the country’s dependence on exports for growth must be replaced by domestically driven growth that focuses on consumer spending and not fixed-asset investment. Local coastal governments, however, will fight to see that exports from their regions continue to drive their own growth; but their success will depend on global trade.

Much of the surge in exports so far this year has been due to the replenishment of inventory within the distribution and sales channels and to the expected increase in export prices out of China. Inventory replenishment has now run its course in Europe and the USA. Given the expected slowing of consumer spending in the US in the second half of this year, some inventory liquidation might actually be seen. Even so, exports from China should weaken sharply by year-end.

The move to de-peg the RMB from the US$ gives Beijing the flexibility to either appreciate or depreciate the currency depending on global conditions. Any appreciation will be modest given the small margins that most exporters enjoy. If our profile of the world economy is even half correct, we should expect to see the RMB depreciate against the US$ and other currencies post-2012.

Wage inflation threatens to feed into general inflation. Food prices remain quite stable overall for now, but there is a risk that they will be rising by year-end. Vegetable prices are rising sharply, according to friends who shop every week. Meat prices are stable for the time being, but wheat prices had risen well above the government’s sale price of RMB1800, to over RMB2350, when we last looked. Friends fear that food prices will be rising in the fourth quarter, with some economists predicting that CPI will be increasing at a 5% rate by then. We are told also that the cost of getting an electrician, plumber, etc. in to do odd jobs has doubled over the last year in Beijing and other major cities. Our general take is that China is on the threshold of seeing an overall increase in the cost of living. Whether it shows up in official numbers or not, households will feel it.

A long-term concern is whether China has key resources to maintain the growth profile that the country has experienced over the last 40-odd years. Water may well be a key constraint. China’s water-resource capacity is only ¼ of that of the world average. In other words, the country has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of global water resources. The problem is compounded by the dispersion of those resources. The area around the Yangtze River accounts for 36.5% of the country’s land mass, but holds 81% of its water. North of the Yangtze River lies 64% of the country’s territory, but only 19% of its water resources.

A World Bank report shows that more than half of China’s 660 cities suffer from water shortages; and 90% of cities’ groundwater and 75% of their lakes and rivers are polluted. These are examples of the physical constraints on growth. China’s rapid pace of industrialisation has left the country with severe burdens and a massive clean-up, not just in urban areas but throughout the countryside. Water is a global depreciating resource, as William Houston and Robin Griffiths showed in their book Water: The Final Resource. History also shows that wars are fought over access to water.

Local government indebtedness is being exposed as a potential time-bomb, as one friend remarked to the writer. Whatever the correct figure, it is large and is in the range of RMB6 trillion to RMB11.4 trillion, equivalent to 71% of the country’s nominal GDP. Some reports suggest that banks will have difficulty recouping about 23% of what they have loaned out. The China Banking Regulatory Commission has told banks to write off nonperforming project loans by the end of this year.

No one should be surprised by these numbers. Back last October we were told – and we reported – that one-third of the fiscal stimulus and bank lending never went into the real economy. There are likely to be more hidden black holes.  One consequence is that credit is tight, with receivables mounting across a wide swath of manufacturing.

Markets will sense some of these uncertainties. In line with falling global equity markets, which should start very soon, the Shanghai and other Chinese stock markets are likely to fall sharply by year-end. This will take the stuffing out of consumers’ willingness to buy large-ticket items like cars and appliances. Already, so we hear, inventories of these items are growing within the distribution systems, with production levels likely to fall over coming months.

Many companies believe that the weakness now being seen is seasonal. But others, whose opinions we respect, believe that weakness will be seen at least until year-end. Prices of raw materials, semi-fabricated products, and finished goods are likely to start falling very soon. Instead of accumulating inventory, stocks within the entire manufacturing and distribution systems will be slashed, repeating to a lesser degree what occurred in the second half of 2008. Construction activity will continue to slow, notwithstanding the continued high rate of completions, consumer spending will slow also, exports will be weak in the fourth quarter, and growth of fixed-asset investment will be lower. By year-end, the psychology of businessmen and consumers will have shifted from optimism towards pessimism in line with movements in the Shanghai stock market. Real business activity will be pretty flat in the fourth quarter. The latest PMIs from the Government’s Logistical Office and from the HSBC both indicate a slowing economy. The former is geared more to the SOEs and the latter to the private sector.  The HSBC sub-index of new orders fell from 49.7 in June to 47.9 in July.

In summary, we doubt there will be any easing of policy until average house prices fall into the 10-20% range. China is transiting into a very difficult period as focus shifts towards sustainable domestic growth and away from short-term measures to defend the 8% GDP mantra. This transition is occurring when the existing leadership is preparing to give way to the new set in 2012, when social stability could be threatened if there are policy mistakes, when the rest of the world is starting to stand up to China’s increasing assertiveness, and when foreign companies are questioning their future in China. China will muddle through, but it won’t be an easy ride.

John Mauldin
John@FrontLineThoughts.com

John Mauldin, Best-Selling author and recognized financial expert, is also editor of the free Thoughts From the Frontline that goes to over 1 million readers each week. For more information on John or his FREE weekly economic letter go to:http://www.frontlinethoughts.com/learnmore.

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