Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bull in a china shop

China does not have dangerous bubbles in shares and housing—yet

EARLY this year, many China-watchers warned that the government’s stimulus was not enough to save the economy from a deep downturn. With indecent haste, they have now switched to worrying that overly lax policies have created a gigantic bubble in shares and house prices.

Figures due later this month are likely to show that China’s real GDP grew by around 9% in the year to the third quarter—a period over which output in most other economies probably fell. A recent flurry of bearish reports has warned that sooner or later the markets will crash, excessive borrowing and investment will cause banks’ bad loans to surge, and China’s growth will collapse.

If the government does not act soon to tighten liquidity, share and house prices will become seriously overvalued. But it is much too early to use the “B” word. Start with China’s stockmarket, described by Andy Xie, an independent economist, as a “giant Ponzi scheme”. Despite a recent slide, Shanghai’s A-share index is still up by over 60% since its trough last November. Yet this is only a fraction of the gain during China’s previous bubble in 2006-07, when the price/earnings ratio jumped to an eye-popping 70. Today the p/e ratio stands at 24. That is high compared with developed markets but well below China’s long-term average of 37 (see left-hand chart). China’s faster trend pace of growth also means that the outlook for corporate profits is rosier than elsewhere. They are already bouncing back: in the three months to August industrial profits were 7% higher than a year ago, after falling by 37% in the year to February.

Arthur Kroeber, an economist at Dragonomics, a research firm in Beijing, argues that the high level of prices relative to income is partly explained by hidden subsidies. A high proportion of households live in apartments purchased at a fraction of their value from the government a decade ago (when the housing market was privatised) or have upgraded to apartments financed by the sale of such properties.

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