Monday, September 17, 2018

New Reality of China’s Failing Economy Is Coming Soon

I’ve written for years that Chinese economic development is partly real and partly smoke and mirrors, and that it’s critical for investors to separate one from the other to make any sense out of China and its impact on the world.

My longest piece on this topic was Chapter Four of my second book, The Death of Money(2014), but I’ve written much else besides, including many articles for my newsletters.

There’s no denying China’s remarkable economic progress over the past thirty years. Hundreds of millions have escaped poverty and found useful employment in manufacturing or services in the major cities.

Infrastructure gains have been historic, including some of the best trains in the world, state-of-the-art transportation hubs, cutting edge telecommunications systems, and a rapidly improving military.

Yet, that’s only half the story.

The other half is pure waste, fraud and theft. About 45% of Chinese GDP is in the category of “investment.” A developed economy GDP such as the U.S. is about 70% consumption and 20% investment.

There’s nothing wrong with 45% investment in a fast-growing developing economy assuming the investment is highly productive and intelligently allocated.

That’s not the case in China. At least half of the investment there is pure waste. It takes the form of “ghost cities” that are fully-built with skyscrapers, apartments, hotels, clubs, and transportation networks – and are completely empty.

This is not just western propaganda; I’ve seen the ghost cities first hand and walked around the empty offices and hotels.

Chinese officials try to defend the ghost cities by claiming they are built for the future. That’s nonsense. Modern construction is impressive, but it’s also high maintenance. Those shiny new buildings require occupants, rents and continual maintenance to remain shiny and functional. The ghost cities will be obsolete long before they are ever occupied.

Other examples of investment waste include over-the-top white elephant public structures such as train stations with marble facades, 128 escalators (mostly empty), 100-foot ceilings, digital advertising and few passengers. The list can be extended to include airports, canals, highways, and ports, some of which are needed and many of which are pure waste.

Communist party leaders endorse these wasteful projects because they have positive effects in terms of job creation, steel fabrication, glass installation, and construction. However, those effects are purely temporary until the project is completed. The costs are paid with borrowed money that can never be repaid.

China might report 6.8% growth in GDP, but when the waste is stripped out the actual growth is closer to 4.5%. Meanwhile, China’s debts grow faster than the economy and its debt-to-GDP ratio is even worse than the U.S.

All of this would be sustainable if China had an unlimited ability to rollover and expand its debt and ample reserves to deal with a banking or liquidity crisis. It doesn’t. China’s financial fragility was revealed during the 2014-2016 partial collapse of its capital account.

China had about $4 trillion in its capital account in early 2014. That amount had fallen to about $3 trillion by late 2016. Much of that collapse was due to capital flight for fear of Chinese devaluation, (which did occur in August 2015 and again in December 2015).

China’s $3 trillion of remaining reserves is not as impressive as it sounds. $1 trillion of that amount is invested in illiquid assets (hedge funds, private equity funds, direct investments, etc.) This is real wealth, but it’s not available on short notice to defend the currency or prop up banks.

Another $1 trillion of Chinese reserves are needed as a precautionary fund to bail-out the Chinese banking system. Many observers are relaxed about the insolvency of Chinese banks because they are confident about China’s ability to rescue them. They may be right about that, but it’s not free. China needs to keep $1 trillion of dry powder to save the banks, so that money’s off the table.

- Source, James Rickards