Monday, July 27, 2009

The Statistical Recovery

China is growing by about 8% a year, which is amazing on the surface of it, as their exports are down about 20% (more in some sectors). How can that be? I continually read about how China is going to lead the world out of its global funk. And 8% growth in GDP does seem pretty strong. But we need to look a little deeper.

If I told you that the next US stimulus package would be $4.5 trillion dollars, mostly given to banks that would be forced to loan out the money quickly, do you think that might jump spending and GDP in the short term? Would you start looking for a few bubbles to be created? What about the dollar?

That is the equivalent of what China is now doing. The volume of credit that is flowing into China is equivalent to one-third of their GDP. Banks that already have large problem-loan portfolios are now lending even more, in a very short time frame. China has severe capacity-utilization problems, as trade has sharply fallen; and the US consumer is unlikely to return to anywhere near the level of consumption that was the case in 2006. The Chinese stock market is up 85% this year, and commodity and real estate prices are rising. And no wonder: the money supply shot up 28.5% in June alone. That money is looking for a home. My friend Vitaliy Katsenelson has written a very perceptive essay for Foreign Policy magazine, talking about the nature of the current growth in China.

"But don't confuse fast growth with sustainable growth. Much of China's growth over the past decade has come from lending to the United States. The country suffers from real overcapacity. And now growth comes from borrowing -- and hundreds of billion-dollar decisions made on the fly don't inspire a lot of confidence. For example, a nearly completed, 13-story building in Shanghai collapsed in June due to the poor quality of its construction.

"This growth will result in a huge pile of bad debt -- as forced lending is bad lending. The list of negative consequences is very long, but the bottom line is simple: There is no miracle in the Chinese miracle growth, and China will pay a price. The only question is when and how much."

I am going to quote at some length from Simon Hunt's latest note. He travels very frequently to China and is one of the world's true experts on the copper market. If you want to know something about copper, ask Simon. Copper, we are told, is the metal with a PhD in economics. If copper prices are rising, then the economy is booming. And historically, that has more or less been the case. But there may be reason to believe that PhD may be no more useful this time around than a regular Ivy League degree. "The world community has come to see that China is its savior. Growth picked up sharply in the second quarter, but it is based on fixed asset investment and renewed speculative activity in the real estate sector. It is not what the actual GDP or IP [Industrial Production] numbers will show that matters, but the quality of that growth. Money is or next which worries us, but post 2010. What will China do when the world economy gets hit with its next big leg down? "There is no better example of this speculative activity than what is being seen in the copper market. It is easy for global merchants, hedge funds etc to ship cathode into China and warehouse it outside the reporting system, so fuelling investors' sentiments that copper demand in China is soaring and at the same time draining copper from the rest of the market.

"It is not so much industry which is doing this buying in China, but individuals, financial institutions and even small companies divorced from the copper industry who are buying and holding the metal because copper is a store of value and prices will go up is the common response. We updated our numbers for the first half of this year. They are truly staggering. Over 1 million tonnes of cathode is sitting in China mostly outside the reporting system as a punt on rising prices." (Emphasis mine) If it is happening in copper it is likely to be happening in other commodity markets as well. If you are trading the metals, you should be aware that a quick drop
could happen if demand falls off due to there being a glut of supply coming back onto the market.

Why would China engage in what seems from our shores to be very risky behavior? Because from their point of view it makes sense. It is not a lot different in concept than what the US or England is doing to stimulate their economies. The scope and size are different, but China also has a much different problem. They are attempting to soften the transition from an economy dependent on the US consumer to one that is more balanced. Will they be successful? The answer depends on what they are actually trying to do. You could (and should) also ask whether Bernanke will be successful when he decides to remove reserves from the economy. Avoiding financial Armageddon may be the measure of success in both countries, with the reality that there will be some pain, no matter what.
Full PDF; This is well worth reading in its entirety.