Michael Pettis: The Chinese Rebound Will be Short

Cross posted from MacroBusiness

Exclusively from Michael Pettis’ newsletter:

While analysts are still arguing over whether or not growth in the first half of 2012 was lower than the already-low reported numbers (I think it was, and for reasons see Kate Mackenzie’s quick summary in the Financial Times), I expect, as I discussed in the previous issue of this newsletter, that over the next three months we will see a rebound in Chinese GDP growth as investment expands. The leadership transition, after all, is in October, and no one in power wants to see the ten-year period under the leadership of President Hu and Premier Wen end with an economic whimper, especially after the very distressing political scandals we have lived through this year.

I don’t think, however, that any rebound or recovery will last more than one or two quarters, and even then it is going to be a very tedious and lop-sided recovery. Not only may we see reduced lending in July, for example, but even with renewed growth I expect manufacturers and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are likely to see little to no relief – in fact manufacturing profits will probably continue to drop and bankruptcies among SMEs will continue to rise over the rest of this year. Last week’s Financial Times had an interesting piece on depressing prospects for regions that depend heavily on SME:

China’s overall GDP figures give reason enough to worry about its economic slowdown. But the story is even more worrying at a local level.  In Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in Guangdong province, GDP growth in the first half of this year hit a three year low. Its expansion of just 2.5 per cent shows the pain China factories are feeling as the engine driving the world’s second biggest economy begins to misfire.

Guangdong’s purchasing managers index in July also fell for a fourth consecutive month to 50, slightly lower than the national reading of 50.1 (where the 50 mark differentiates contraction from expansion). 

Small and medium sized enterprises are suffering most in the slowdown. Nearly half of the guarantee companies in the Pearl River Delta are losing business, according to the Security Times, citing a survey by the Guangdong Credit Guarantee Association. The guarantee businesses fell by 25-30 per cent, suggesting a sharp reduction in the finance available to SMEs in Guangdong.  Credit guarantee companies are not willing to bear the high risk of guaranteeing corporate debt in an uncertain economic outlook, said Li Sicong, executive chairman of the Association.

How do we get a rebound in growth without improving prospects for SMEs? Probably because the only sure way to pump up the economy is for Beijing to encourage infrastructure spending at the local and municipal levels, a very inefficient kind of growth, and one which will probably spur even more real estate development. This pumps up unnecessary infrastructure investment, but little of the benefits end up with consumers or with the companies that serve them. Goosing infrastructure investment is, however, pretty much the only economic policy tool Beijing has.

Any recovery, unfortunately, will reverse at least the little bit of rebalancing that may have occurred in the first two quarters of the year. Since there is nonetheless a real possibility that for the first time in seven years Beijing was actually able to engineer a partial rebalancing of the economy, this is I think a pretty good sign that the incoming leadership is serious about rebalancing and that they understand that rebalancing necessarily comes with a cost. For these reasons I suspect that the recovery itself will be temporary, and that growth will slow again, perhaps in the first quarter of next year.

Of course while they finally begin seriously to manage the transition process – which in the best of cases I think is going to be far more difficult than most people, including the more pessimistic of the economic policymakers, think it will be – China’s leaders are desperately hoping for some kind of stability in the external sector. Not only does China need export growth to remain high in order to reduce pressure on suffering SME’s and manufacturers, but capital flight has become such a big problem that only a large current account surplus can keep domestic liquidity growing enough to grease the wheels of the transition.

And liquidity seems to be tight. As it is, a lot of the recent loan growth, especially in June, has been in the form of very short-term lending, and this clearly isn’t the optimal way to fund infrastructure investments, all the more worrying since so much of the debt already on the balance sheets of the banks may be unrepayable. What’s more, while it looks like July lending among the Big Four banks is up sharply – maybe even double – from June (during which month total loans were up much more than expected), loan growth among the small banks (the Big Four account for 30-40% of total lending) is probably down, so that loan growth in the month of July is likely overall to disappoint.

…When you are concerned about a borrower’s credibility, you should not just look at outstanding obligations under current conditions. You should also worry about outstanding obligations in case of a likely adverse shock.
When we think of Spanish government debt, for example, we don’t just think of the current debt load of 69% of GDP (or wherever it has climbed to since the end of last year), or even of the contingent liabilities from provincial debt and non-performing loans. We must also be concerned about the self-reinforcing relationship between the debt and the currency.

If Spain were to leave the euro, in other words, because much of its debt is external debt denominated in euros, any devaluation of the new currency (let’s call it the peseta) would cause a corresponding increase in the debt burden. The peseta could easily lose 50% of its value, for example, in which case the external debt burden would double its share of GDP.

There is a self-reinforcing relationship between the two. Since investors are aware of the risk, the worse the debt-enhancing impact of a devaluation, the more likely the devaluation is to occur, and the higher the external debt, the greater the actual devaluation will turn out to be. We saw this most spectacularly in Argentina, whose debt-to-GDP ratio, if I remember correctly, was “only” around 53% in the period just before the December 2001 corralito and debt default, which was itself followed immediately by the January 2002 devaluation. An earlier, equally spectacular case was that of South Korea in 1997. Its relatively small external debt burden before November 1997 became unbearable just one month later after the forced devaluation of the Korean won.

What does this have to do with China? Perhaps quite a lot, given the many pro-cyclical structures embedded in the country’s economy and balance sheet. If we assume that China will have no problem sailing through its economic rebalancing, the European crisis, and everything else, then clearly we don’t need to worry about anything. But if China’s rebalancing is accompanied by a sharp slowdown in economic growth, or if it occurs during a worsening of the European crisis – both very likely scenarios – then we need to think about what the debt burden will be under those conditions.

So, for example, will commodity prices drop? I think they will, perhaps by as much as 50% over the next three years, and to the extent that there is still a lot of outstanding debt in China collateralized by copper and other metals (and there is), our debt count should include estimates for uncollateralized debt in the event of a sharp fall in metal prices. Will slower growth increase bankruptcies, or put further pressure on the loan guarantee companies? They almost certainly will, so we will need again to increase our estimates for non-performing loans.

Will capital outflows increase if growth slows sharply? Probably, and of course this puts additional pressure on liquidity and the banking system, and with refinancing becoming harder, otherwise-solvent borrowers will become insolvent. Will rebalancing require higher real interest rates, a currency revaluation, or higher wages? Since rebalancing cannot occur without an increase in the household income share of GDP, and since these are the biggest implicit “taxes” on household income, there must be a net increase in the combination of these three variables, in which case the impact on net indebtedness can be quite significant depending on which of these variables move most. Since I think rising real interest rates are a key component of rebalancing, clearly I would want to estimate the debt impact of a rise in real rates.

In another issue of this newsletter I will try to list more systematically areas where I think we should be concerned about inverted balance sheet structures in China, but my main point here is that very often – in fact in the majority of cases – debt crises catch us by surprise because there is a sudden and unexpected surge in debt caused by factors we hadn’t thought about. It is the sudden and unexpected explosion of contingent liabilities that generally precedes debt crises, and not the actual debt burden a year or two before the crisis, that ends up triggering the crisis.

Just remember the finger wagging and the self-satisfied lectures on banking and debt given by senior Spanish government officials and bankers to US and European bankers as late as 2009. No one thought Spain had a problem until debt suddenly emerged from every nook and cranny as a response to the adverse shock Spain was undergoing. Some analysts will complain that it is very difficult to figure out all the contingencies in any country, so acknowledging the possibility adds nothing to the quality of our analysis. But they are dead wrong. An experienced balance sheet analysts can easily tell when overall a country’s balance sheet is more inverted or less inverted, and in the former case he must always assume that the potential for a debt crisis is much greater than the raw debt numbers suggest.

By the way I am not suggesting by any means that Beijing’s current debt level is unsustainable, but I do think it is hard to argue that it has not been rising at an unsustainable pace in recent years. What is more, in every single case in history that I can remember, during a great liquidity-driven bubble, debt structures became increasingly inverted and risky, especially in poor, developing countries, and more especially in countries whose rapid growth is driven by rapid investment growth funded by a financially repressed banking system. The reason should be obvious – when the cost of capital is artificially repressed, economic entities tend to overuse capital as an input. Perhaps that has not happened in China in the past decade, but if it hasn’t, China would represent a truly unique case in history.

We need to be worried about debt, in Europe and the US of course, but we need also to be worried about debt in China. The deleveraging process in any country always results in much slower growth than during the period in which debt was rising quickly, and what matters is overall deleveraging, not just government debt. At some point we will see deleveraging in China, and this must affect growth. Misallocated investment funded by debt means that losses have occurred and one way or another they will eventually be recognized. The recognition of the losses can be postponed for a time, by the simple expedient of not recognizing non-performing loans, but at some point, and usually at the worst possible time, they will be recognized.

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    1. They didn't leave me a choice

      My extracted sheep entrails show a rapid growth of bacteria. That means that growth shall be eternal.

    2. Tim

      Yeah, well most investors have some sort of speculation that is tied to China, so this is a very useful article to most investors.

      I’m sorry you don’t have any capital to speculate with.

      This analysis is also very consistent with that provided by Mr. Hui at Humble Student of the Markets blog, which tends to be correct in hindesight far more often than not.

      1. jake chase

        Tim, if your speculations are dependent upon China growth you’re doing it the hard way. In thirty years of speculation I have never given China a serious thought, although I do wish the Chinese could find a way to make products fit for their intended use.

        I bet you find cnbc enlightening and provocative, right?

        1. Steve

          @jake chase – then why are you reading a 2,000 word blog about China’s economy? Other than to troll I mean.

          Quit mentioning CNBC on a page that contains Prof.Pettis’s work, and go back to your all-local sheep farm.

  1. financial matters

    Very nice analysis.

    Interesting to me is “interest rates are a key component of rebalancing, clearly I would want to estimate the debt impact of a rise in real rates.”

    Even though ‘rebalancing’ implies that China and the US move in somewhat opposite directions to rebalance trade relations, I think the average US citizen would also benefit from higher interest rates as this would help them save more safely and help inhibit asset bubbles. Maybe somewhat implying that real ‘rebalancing’ might involve rebalancing between the 99% and the 1%.

    Also I found interesting “loan growth among the small banks (the Big Four account for 30-40% of total lending) is probably down”

    Does this include the apparent ‘shadow’ banking system where non banking companies are making loans into the burgeoning real estate business? Somewhat similar to GMAC

    Nice ending very applicable to the US and Europe..

    “”The recognition of the losses can be postponed for a time, by the simple expedient of not recognizing non-performing loans, but at some point, and usually at the worst possible time, they will be recognized.””

  2. BigEd

    “Goosing infrastructure investment is, however, pretty much the only economic policy tool Beijing has.”

    The Chinese have a much more powerful bazooka available to them that they have used to great effect in the past — — devaluation of their currency.

  3. cbu

    Spending more on healthcare and education is another option. Per capital spending on those is pathetic. How about spending on adult care facilities? Training more doctors and nurses? China really needs those for a more senier sociaty. Claiming infrastructure is the only opition just does not sound right at this stage of China’s development.

  4. dexter bland

    Best summation of the situation in China I have read. With another week or more of hindsight events seem to be playing out as described. Watch out for collapsing SOEs in near future, China already holding out its hat for foreign investors to recapitalize its banks.

    Well lets see.

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