A lot has been made of the so-called Chinese property bubble. And after 2008, when America’s subprime bubble was the straw that broke the camel’s back, who can blame those who see China as low-hanging fruit? In the hedge fund world, both Hugh Hendry and Jim Chanos (among others) are significantly outperforming the market by shorting Chinese companies.
But the naysayers will be proven sorely wrong.
There are many differences between the Chinese situation and the American one but there is one that outsizes all the others. Over-inflated American (and by-extension, Western) property was being used as a spring-board to fund consumption. Growing home equity allowed real-estate owners to remortgage, and use their surpluses to buy boats, cars and trips around the world; i.e., living beyond their productive means. Once the property bubble burst, not only were many home-owners left underwater, but all of that excessive consumption came to a halt, with a significant negative effect on GDP. China simply doesn’t have that problem. The Chinese nation and its government are not net-borrowers but net-savers.
In addition, there is no evidence that China has the same problem with widespread securitisation that America had in 2008. The subprime bubble created huge systemic risk in the financial sector by bundling up subprime debt in mortgage-backed securities and collateralised debt obligations, and spreading it around American and European balance sheets. This made the system very fragile — as a few defaults, could lead to a global cascade of margin calls and defaults.
In fact, Chinese leverage levels are dropping.
Chinese firms are generally in good financial conditions. The latest data suggests that Chinese companies actually have seen their leverage ratios decline in the past three years, on the back of strong profitability and retained earnings. Most sectors have seen a decline in leverage. Property development was the only main sector that shows the opposite trend of rising leverage but it accounts for only about 6% of total loans. In fact, the average leverage ratio of Chinese companies is one of the lowest among key economies and emerging markets. At the same time, they have maintained one of the strongest profitability.
Chinese GDP (and profitability) is ballooning (and will continue to do so) because of global demand, even on the back of the recessions in Europe and America. That’s because China does everything much more cheaply, and so now controls crucial supply chains in components and products. Now that the world is flat, manufacturing such components in other places is not economically viable, so the supply chains no longer exist, and manufacturing-oriented labour markets are stagnating.
China’s good fortune is its high population levels and high population density.
It is expensive to move products around. This means that if you have a factory, you want to locate it close to where your customers are, to avoid paying a bunch of shipping costs. Now consider two factories. The workers in the first factory will be the consumers for the second factory, and vice versa. So the two factories want to locate near each other (“agglomeration”). As for the workers/consumers, they want to go where the jobs are, so they move near the factories. Result: a city. The world becomes divided into an industrial “Core” and a much poorer agricultural “Periphery” that produces food, energy, and minerals for the Core.
Now when you have different countries, the situation gets more interesting. Capital can flow relatively easily across borders (i.e. you can put your factory anywhere you like), but labor cannot. If you start with a world where everyone’s a farmer, agglomeration starts in one country, but that country gets maxed out when the costs of density (high land prices) start to cancel out the effect of agglomeration. As transport costs fall and the economy grows, the industrial Core spreads from country to country. Often this spread is quite abrupt, resulting in successive “growth miracles” that get faster and faster (as each new industrial region starts out with a bigger global customer base). The evidence strongly indicates
that agglomeration is the driver behind developing-world growth.
Looking at global population density — with American taxpayers subsidising the cost of a flat global marketplace — where can we expect productivity to agglomerate?
Of course, China does have a property bubble and a scary-sounding $1.6 trillion in local government debt. But $1.6 trillion of local government debt is still significantly less than China’s dollar and treasury hoard. The bottom line is if that China’s real estate market collapses, China can bail itself out with money it has saved from the prosperity years, not through new debt acquisition. This was the lesson of John Maynard Keynes — governments should save in the boom years, to spend in the bust years and even-out the business cycle — a lesson which seems lost on Western policy-makers, who seem to believe that you should borrow massive amounts every year.
So taking the absolute worst-case-scenario, China has plenty of leeway to bail itself out. Of course, this would mean China might decide to liquidate a significant amount of its treasury holdings — especially seeing as bonds are at all-time highs.
Could such a liquidation be the event that finally bursts the Treasury bubble, sending yields soaring and making it much more difficult for America to acquire new debt?
With 10-year yields now well below 2%, that sure looks like a bubble to me.