I used to admire Chinese leadership.
Unlike our idiot lawyers and economists, the Chinese selected engineers and scientists as their leaders. I observed the Chinese tended to favor the long-term rather than the short-term, and that they made wise rather than politically correct decisions. Examples being their one child policy, low military spending, and heavy investment in hydro energy, rail, and other important infrastructure.
Now of course it is clear I was naive. The Chinese are repeating all of our mistakes, but on a larger scale. It makes no difference how leaders are educated, they will eventually succumb to the inherited behaviors common to all humans.
The main difference between us and them now is that they are “borrowing to employ” and we are “borrowing to consume”.
In his blog today Tim Morgan takes a close look at the Chinese economic miracle, or more accurately, the Chinese debt bubble.
Which is the world’s largest economy? Converted at market exchange rates, China ($11tn) is smaller than the United States ($18tn) but, on the PPP (purchasing power parity) basis of conversion widely regarded as superior, China (at $21tn) now takes the top spot.
In short, if the Chinese economy were to catch a cold, the world economy would be in for a bout of influenza at best, and could well face the economic equivalent of pneumonia.
The picture that emerges is quite extraordinary. Over the ten years between 2005 and 2015, GDP grew at rates of between 9% and 14% annually, not even stumbling materially during the 2009 global downturn. But debt has grown by between 17% and 35% of GDP each year, with the exception of 2009, when debt increased by 47% of GDP.
What this means is that, over a period in which reported GDP increased by RMB 40tn, debt expanded by RMB 129tn. This is a borrowing-to-growth ratio of 3.2:1, still reasonably modest by Western standards, but a far cry from past Chinese practice – back in 2005, the trailing ten-year (T10Y) ratio was only 1.67:1.
Unlike the Western economies, whose vice-of-choice is to use debt to fund consumption and inflate property markets, the Chinese bias is towards using debt for investment in capacity. In theory, capacity investment should be “self-liquidating”, because capacity increases should increase income, and thus fund the paying off of the initial debt. (This is contradistinction to consumer borrowing, which is “non-self-liquidating”).
But the self-liquidating characteristic of business investment depends on capacity expanding without depressing margins, something which happens when expansion creates major capacity surpluses. It is abundantly clear that Chinese PNFC borrowing has followed the course of excess, depressing returns in the process.
As a result, much of the Chinese business sector earns returns which appear to be well below the cost of debt capital. In this situation, an obvious remedy is to convert debt into equity. This, however, seems to have been tried, and failed, because it showed clear tendencies to crash the equity market.
The final sting in the tail of this analysis is that, if underlying GDP is a lot lower when stripped of the borrowing effect, debt ratios are correspondingly higher. On the SEEDS basis of computation, aggregate debt already stands at 385% of GDP (rather than the reported 246%), and is growing a lot more quickly than publicly available numbers indicate, adding around 43% of GDP (rather than 20%) annually.
With the export-based model faltering, and with a great deal of economic activity dependent on borrowing, China may have ceased to be the powerful engine of growth that is so customarily assumed.