Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Xie: Trapped in a Property Bubble

By Andy Xie 01.10.2010 18:32
When China's real estate bubble finally bursts while exports become less competitive, the consequences could be severe.

The next 10 years will be more challenging than the past decade. Indeed, unless economic policies are adjusted, China's inflated real estate market could suddenly shrivel while the decade is still young.

China's market share gains in global trade and foreign direct investment due to low costs and rising global demand drove the nation's success. But China is no longer the lowest of the low-cost producers, and it's unlikely to gain market share. Moreover, global demand isn't likely to rise as fast as before; expect economic development at one-third previous speeds.

The biggest risk to China's economy is the desire to maintain past economic growth rates by maximizing investments in property -- an unproductive asset. It supports short-term growth by sacrificing long-term growth as capital's average productivity declines over time.

Local government performance in China is measured according to GDP and fiscal revenue. Property development can achieve high numbers for both quickly. This is why property's share in China's capital allocation is rapidly rising as prices appreciate and volumes increase. This is a politically driven bubble -- and it's already massive. Unless the trend is reversed by reforming incentives for local governments, China's property bubble could mushroom in two years from what's now a dangerous level. The burst could happen in 2012, endangering social and political stability.

The first decade of the 21st century began when an IT bubble burst. It was laced with 9-11 and SARS, and ended with a global financial crisis. It was a horrible decade. Now, much of the world has stagnated or regressed. Western prosperity mid-decade turned out to be a mirage manufactured on Wall Street.

The West didn't accept the need for adjusting living standards as emerging economies caught up, which led to a delayed bubble that made the problem bigger. Now the West, particularly the United States and Britain, faces a terrible decade ahead.

Amid the horror, China has risen like no other. Its GDP in dollars has quadrupled while exports quintupled. Adjusting for dilution due to dollar's external depreciation and internal inflation, from outside looking in, China's economic strength has still more than doubled in real value. It is an unprecedented accomplishment for such a massive country. And the primary drivers of success were gains in global trade and investment market share.

Low base, reform and luck could explain China's success. When the Asian Financial Crisis hit more than a decade ago, China chose not to devalue to maintain competitiveness but lowered state sector costs. When the global economy normalized, China became more competitive. Joining the World Trade Organization was an insurance policy that maximized low-cost benefits, and China's global market share tripled. Internally, China built infrastructure for growth without inflation that could erode competitiveness. The policy mix was perfect.

Neither competitiveness nor winning share in a shrinking market can guarantee growth. But by increasing consumer debt, the United States sustained demand while losing in areas of global investment and income. The credit bubble maintained global demand while China's market share gained rapidly. It was a lucky break for China, but now it's run out. The 2008 financial crisis means the United States is likely to cut debt-financed consumption with half as much growth over the next decade, while Europe and Japan are likely to have zero growth.

Meanwhile, China over the past five years has seen rising prices for production factors such as labor, raw materials, land, environmental control and taxes. These prices had been stable previously. Now, wage costs for export factories have roughly doubled in yuan terms, as have raw material prices. Before the Asian Financial Crisis, China's wage costs were half of Southeast Asia's. Now they are twice as high. Bangladesh's wage costs are even lower. It's likely China will lose market share to these low-cost competitors.

Two of three factors for the past decade's success are gone, so China needs to depend more on improved efficiency for growth. But instead, the recent trend seems to be going the other way. Rising costs and weak demand are making manufacturing less profitable. Hence, capital investment is weak, as reflected in weak equipment import data.

Most local governments seem to embrace property development as a growth savior. But shifting surplus capital into property is likely to lower future growth by decreasing average capital efficiency. This deters consumption development by increasing property expenditure expectations, and threatens financial stability by increasing loan levels, using overvalued land as collateral.

Other Asian economies such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan failed to shed export dependency and develop domestic growth. Periodic spikes in consumption are usually due to asset inflation. Once a country loses export market share on rising costs, it stagnates because property bubbles during high growth periods deter consumption while overwhelming the middle class with housing expenses. China may be following the same path: Despite a decade of talking about promoting consumption, that share of GDP has been declining year in, year out.

Japan stagnated roughly at per capita income of US$ 40,000 over the past two decades. Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have stagnated at about US$ 20,000 for the past decade. Stagnation at such high income levels doesn't seem bad. However, China's size means its exports face challenges at much lower per capita income levels. Unless China changes its growth model, it could stagnate at a much lower level.

The overwhelming desire for getting rich quick dominates every nook, fissure and strata of Chinese society. Such desires cannot be fulfilled; the terrible logic of economics is that money must circulate. Creating bubbles can temporarily blind people to this logic, as overvalued assets substitute for money to fill psychological needs. This is why, whenever conditions permit, China seems to have asset bubbles.

Bubbles exaggerate reality but are not formed out of thin air. Cheap money and strong growth are the usual ingredients for bubble-making. Both existed over the past five years. But now, China depends entirely on cheap money to support overvalued assets. Cheap money came from past exports and was warehoused in banks. Cash also came from hot money inflows due to the yuan's peg to the dollar and weak Fed dollar policy.

Neither money source is sustainable. The dollar has bottomed. The Fed will begin raising interest rates in 2010. The combination of China's strong loan and weak export growth is reducing bank liquidity, but inflation soon may force China to tighten anyway. The cheap money may not last long.

China's exports are recovering from a low base – a trend that may last through 2010. But one should not confuse low base recovery with a revival of past trends.

The high export growth era is over for three reasons. China's market share in global trade is twice as big as its GDP share. The odds are low that China could continue to expand its market share. Second, the tide won't rise as fast as before. The Greenspan era saw a credit bubble supercharge western consumption, but the bubble has burst. Odds are that future trade growth will be half or less as in the past. Finally, a western employment crisis will lead to protectionism targeting China. Other developing countries may gain market share at China's expense.

One possible way to prolong the bubble is to appreciate the currency, as Japan did after the Plaza Accord, to contain inflation and attract hot money. Such a strategy will not work in China. Japan's businesses were already at the cutting edge in production technologies and had pricing power during currency appreciation. They could raise export prices to partly offset currency appreciation. Chinese companies don't have such advantages but rely on low costs to compete.

After export-led growth peaks, consumption is the alternative to sustaining growth at a lower rate. This transition would require a wholesale change in the political economy. The key is to increase middle class disposable income and lower consumption costs. No East Asian economy has made this transition.

China has been trying to promote consumption for a decade. However, consumption's share of GDP has declined annually. The reason is the policy environment has been squeezing China's nascent middle class through high property and auto prices along with high income tax rates. China's disproportionate dependency on exports and withering consumption components are results of national policies, not the peculiar characteristics of Chinese households.

A large, vibrant middle class is the foundation of a stable, modern society. China's policies rightfully care for the lower class. Yet the semi-market economy offers a few spectacular gains from arbitrage and speculation. Society is drifting toward a small, super-rich minority along with a small -- possibly less than 20 percent of the population – yet heavily burdened middle class, and a vast, low-income majority. Such an income structure cannot support a balanced economy, forcing export dependence.

China's rapid economic growth has spawned millions of white-collar jobs: managers, engineers, accountants and bankers. Such jobs should provide middle class income for buying property, cars and vacations. However, property prices have increased more rapidly than middle class income, increasing fear of the future.

China's property market is creating winners and losers based on timing. All other factors – including education and experience -- have been marginalized as the economy rewards speculators. And as more play the game, the speculator ranks rise and fewer people work, perhaps contributing to a labor shortage.

In the previous decade, the West refused to acknowledge its competitiveness problem and created a bubble to hide it. I am afraid China could try the same in the next decade, and the consequences could be serious. Fear of consequences could lead many to argue for sustaining the bubble, but that worsens the problem.

During a bubble period, most people think nothing will bring it down. But bubbles always burst, and the longer one is prolonged, the more severe the consequences. Oversupply or rising interest rates will bring down China's property bubble. The former brought down the U.S. bubble, and later Hong Kong's.

China's banks always seem ready to roll over credit lines for developers during market downturns. Hence, supplies tend to dry up during market downturns, preventing price adjustments. Such manipulation has created a speculative psychology that theorizes the government would never let prices fall. When speculators think prices won't fall, speculative demand lasts as long as banks have the liquidity.

The liquidity environment, however, is likely to turn against the bubble soon. The killer is inflation driven by a surge in money printing. The average lag between currency creation and inflation is 18 months in the United States. China's lag could be two years since the government uses subsidies to suppress inflation. By 2012, China could experience 1990s-like inflation. And that's when the property bubble will probably burst.

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