A MATTER OF MOMENTUM
A long time ago, a certain rock band released an album titled Three of a Perfect Pair. I’ve never heard the album, but I now know the feeling – because here is Part 4 of the Storm Front trilogy.
To explain, I saw Storm Front as a three-part investigation. It would look at why there might be a financial crash in China; at what its broader implications might be; and at what reactions might be appropriate. Since then, readers have made some very important points; the broader debate is accelerating; and market indicators are making my timing look either good or fortuitous.
As we know, the Chinese stock market keeps trending down, even though the authorities have thrown at it, not only the kitchen sink, but the full might of Chinese law. In itself, this isn’t too important. China’s stock market is pretty modest in comparison with the economy and, in any case, the Index has only surrendered part of its earlier gains. Moreover, stock markets themselves are minnows in comparison with bond and forex markets, which is where the really big money is.
What, then, is the important story behind China’s stock market wobbles?
What’s the context?
Since you’ve probably read the previous instalments, here’s a very brief heads-up on the big issue. That issue is debt.
In the years before the 2008 crash, global borrowing (excluding the inter-bank sector) totalled $38 trillion, or $2.20 for each $1 of growth at that time. Since then, we’ve borrowed $49 trillion, or $2.90 for each growth dollar. Moreover, even that growth metric is highly debateable, since this “growth” was really nothing more than the spending of borrowed money.
In other words, far from learning from 2008, we’ve actually increased the rate at which we borrow. One reason for that is that the authorities responded to the banking crisis by making borrowing easier and cheaper. Another is that, aside from spending borrowed money, we seem to have lost the ability to grow the economy.
Where does China fit into this?
Back in 2008, the one bright spot in a pretty dark global economic picture was that China was growing very rapidly indeed. Some argued that a broader group of emerging economies – the BRIC countries – might take over from a debt-shackled West as the main driver of the global economy. Since then, two of the BRICs – Brazil and Russia – have fallen by the wayside, and opinions differ about India.
Until recently, though, China has lived up to its billing as a – indeed, the – global driver of growth. GDP has continued to power ahead. Foreign capital has poured into China, seeking better returns than can be earned in the West. China has sucked in vast amounts of commodities, and of industrial goods. In the space of just three years, China’s consumption of cement exceeded that of America in the whole of the twentieth century. Though China remains a net exporter, its imports have risen rapidly, so that China’s net trade surplus is down to barely 2% of GDP, down from 10% less than a decade ago.
Without all of this stimulus from China, it is debateable whether there would have been any growth at all in global GDP since 2008.
But the weaknesses in what China has been doing are now showing up. For a start, growth has fallen markedly. The Chinese authorities say that growth is now 7% – exactly where they said it would be – but hardly anyone now believes this. Volumetric measures, from vehicle sales to factory output, are dropping rapidly.
And the big snag, as ever, is debt. Since 2007, China’s GDP has grown by $5 trillion, but its debt has increased by $15 trillion, even when we exclude a big ($5 trillion) rise in financial sector indebtedness.
In other words, China since the crash has been doing what the West was doing before it – spending borrowed money and calling this growth. In a sense, this debt-funded growth is real – they’ve got the roads, the factories, the shopping centres and the homes to show for it – but, where such things are concerned, GDP only measures what has happened. It doesn’t tell us whether investment has been worthwhile or not.
What’s the problem?
In the years running up to 2008, real estate was the West’s “idiocy-of-choice”. We poured money into inflating the value of our housing stock, and did this in some very dangerous ways (such as lending to people who could never pay it back, or even keep up the payments after initial “teaser” rates had expired).
Though China, too, has inflated its property market, its main area of excess has been using debt to build capacity that nobody wants. Surplus capacity invariably drives prices down, which is why China’s important local government development vehicles are now earning a return of 2% on assets which cost 6% to service. The clear danger is that China’s debtors cannot keep up the payments on their loans, because surplus capacity has crushed the income on the assets they’ve created with that debt.
Reflecting this, capital is pouring out of China at a rapid and accelerating rate. Forward indicators (such as shipping rates) are pointing unmistakably to a severe economic downturn. That’s a problem for the ruling party, whose “grand bargain” with its people trades liberties for prosperity.
But it’s just as big a problem for the rest of the world. Worries about Greece fade into near irrelevance beside China, to which global banks’ exposure is about 17x greater. Thus, debt going bad in China could hit the global financial system just as the global economy loses its big driver.
Can we, or China, cope?
In short, no.
China’s government debt – about 50% of GDP – is pretty low, but then that was true of America, Britain and the rest before 2008. Government debt ratios tend to soar after a crisis, not before it. China has big reserves, but these consist largely of American government IOUs – so, even if these reserves help China, which is doubtful in itself, they won’t help the global financial system.
In 2008, we responded to a debt problem by borrowing still more. QE (“quantitative easing”) involved buying bonds using money newly created for the purpose. This drove bond prices up, and therefore pushed bond yields – the global market’s interest rate – downwards. This, together with near-zero official (“policy”) rates enabled borrowers to keep up the payments – but it also provided an incentive to borrow even more. This in turn pushed property and other prices up.
Is there a “keystone” problem here?
The really big problem is the disconnect between income on the one hand, and capital values on the other. For example, house prices have soared to very high multiples of average earnings. This has happened across the board, right the way from household debt ratios to the global relationship between GDP and debt. (It has also, by the way, widened the gap between the rich and everybody else, but that’s another issue).
This imbalance is not sustainable. It is the equivalent of an old lady with a big house but little income, who is “asset rich but cash poor”. Unlike that old lady, who could at least sell her big house, the global system has no such possibility. The only people we can sell our inflated assets to are ourselves.
What happens now?
The asset-income disconnect means that we have three options.
First, we could boost our income. Unfortunately, and apart from borrowing yet more, we don’t know how to do this.
Second, we could let asset values crash, but this would be disruptive, and extremely unpopular. Logic suggests that it has to happen, but it will be resisted by all means available.
Third, we could cheat, which means injecting more and more money into the system to keep it going. There are two problems with this. First, this would only buy time. Second, it risks destroying the trust without which “fiat” (mandated) money has no value.
The best guess has to be that policymakers and central banks will try the third option – tinkering – but that it won’t work. There has to be a likelihood that people won’t fall for this a second time.
And in the near-term?
China is the lynchpin, not just because of the sheer scale of its debt, but also because its growth has carried the global economy since 2008.
The likelihood now has to be that the deterioration, in China and elsewhere, will gather momentum. Already, there are reports that China has had to bail out some parts of its huge shadow-banking sector. The economic downturn, traceable in large part to unprofitable surplus capacity, seems likely to gather pace. Even for China, bail-outs might turn out to be like pouring ever more water into a leaky bucket.
These trends tend to have a momentum which gathers pace. Perfectly viable borrowers can become non-viable because of the failures of others by whom they are owed money. As somebody once said, when everyone starts running for the exit doors, those doors get smaller.
What this all means is that a crisis now increasingly seems likelier than not. Short of a crystal ball, it is impossible to know when this will happen. The coming autumn looks a possibility, but – based on the experience of 2007 and 2008 – there might a window of as much as a year before things go wrong.
At least, “forewarned is forearmed”.