The warnings of successful shorts like Jim Chanos, old Asia hands like Frank Verneroso, and economists like Victor Shih and Michael Pettis have failed to curb enthusiasm for the belief that the rise of China is inevitable and unstoppable. As someone who was deeply involved with Japan when it was seen as destined to replace the sclerotic US, I’ve learned to regard more or less straight line growth projections with considerable skepticism. (Update: I think the US is a mess, but that does not mean that the China bull case is not a tad overdone)
China has accomplished the impressive feat of bringing literally hundreds of millions out of poverty in a comparatively short time frame. It has also studied the Japanese playbook and managed to avoid some of its pitfalls (of course, it has the advantage of not being a military protectorate of the US), in particular refusing to liberalize its financial markets (some accounts of the Japanese bubble and burst give considerable weight to overly rapid deregulation and the growth of what was then called zaitech, or financial speculation). is also hostile to neoclassical economists.
China escaped much of the impact of the global financial crisis by ramping up investment even higher than its pre-crisis level. It now has investment approaching 50% of GDP, an unheard of level on a sustained basis. A big chunk of that is housing related (housing is an estimated 13.5% of GDP), and prices have long been considerably out of line with incomes, a telltale sign of a bubble. In Beijing, admittedly one of the hottest markets, an average priced new apartment was equal to 57 years of average worker savings (and if you tried to pay for it with a super-long dated mortgage, you’d be in hock even longer, since you would also need to cover the interest charges).
Another warning sign is inventory overhang; the Wall Street Journal reports tonight that Standard Chartered forecasts that level of unsold apartments in secondary cities will amounts to roughly 20 months of sales by year end (and that’s before considering that many of the apartments are being acquired as investments rather than for use).
The Journal story tonight provides evidence that the Chinese housing market is going into reverse. A nine-city price index by the firm Dragonomics shows housing prices in April 4.9% lower than the level a year prior (the increase in 2010 was 21.5%). A consultancy, Sofun, has property prices rising an average of 5.1% over the past twelve months, but that represents a slowdown. Standard Chartered projects that housing prices in some second-tier cities will fall 10% to 20%.
The Wall Street Journal describes the broader ramifications:
Real estate is a foundation of China’s phenomenal growth record in the past two decades, and its health is crucial to China’s construction, steel and cement sectors. Real estate is also a favored investment of Chinese looking to get better returns than bank deposits pay. Local municipalities and provinces depend on rising prices for land sales as well to fund infrastructure projects….
If the Chinese housing market slows faster than people had expected, the impact would be felt in a number of markets that export heavily to China. Many Latin American and African economies have shifted their focus toward Chinese demand for their raw materials, and many Western firms, including U.S. retailers and fast-food chains, now bank on Chinese consumers feeling wealthier to make up for stagnating sales elsewhere. Also, plans by local Chinese governments to improve infrastructure loom large for heavy-equipment makers like Caterpillar Inc.
And this development comes on top of other signs of economic slowdown:
Last week, two surveys of purchasing managers showed a slowing of manufacturing activity.
China, the world’s second-largest economy after the U.S., grew at 9.7% in the first quarter from a year earlier. In late May, Goldman Sachs lowered its estimate of Chinese second-quarter growth to 8% from its previous estimate of 8.8% as the government continues to tighten monetary policy to fight inflation and import demand from the U.S. weakens.UBS economist Tao Wang says she thinks the price decline will be short-lived as Chinese investors, with few other options, will again pour money into real estate and as local governments push up the price of land they sell to developers. Real-estate prices will rise for another three to five years, she estimates. A sharp fall then would batter investors, banks, construction firms and other sectors.
In other words, when this party ends, it’s likely to get pretty ugly.