Thursday, February 21, 2013

China A Bubble? Yes It Is!

All booms start out legitimately but that does not prevent them from developing into bubbles that pop disastrously in the end. The bubble forming in China is no exception to this pattern. Fast growth can and does mask many ills. What started out as a boom and was driven by successful economic reforms and modernization has helped to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, but it has now devolving into an orgy of wild real estate speculation, and reckless construction of newly built ghost cities that are now sitting empty. These were constructed  to create economic growth and push forward the materialism mania, even if China’s long-term growth thesis remains intact, when its bubble pops China could conceivably experience a Great Depression similar to the one that swept over America in 1929.

Decades ago a vast army of highly industrious workers and low wages helped China when investment in capital and knowledge flowed in from America. It quickly became the world’s preeminent manufacturing powerhouse by pursuing an export-led growth strategy similar to its Asian neighbors. China rapidly urbanized as several hundred million people moved from impoverished farm villages to scores of newly-built cities in pursuit of factory and construction work that raised the country's standard of better living. The strategy of economic liberalization, modernization and infrastructure development has paid off handsomely with an unprecedented yearly GDP growth rate of 9.5% decade after decade.

Growth fueled by fixed asset investment, such as infrastructure, has exploded since the launch of the 2008 stimulus program, it accounted for more than ninety percent of growth in 2009. Over one hundred ambitious infrastructure mega-projects are currently being built. Chinese cement consumption and construction spending has soared, scores of extravagant and massive government buildings are being built, roads are removed and replaced just to generate economic activity, and cities have borrowed big to build jaw-dropping infrastructure projects. This mad rush to build fast and large has led to cutting  corners and shoddy workmanship. The world’s longest sea bridge that had to be closed just one week after opening due to safety problems, the much-publicized high-speed train experienced a disastrous crash,  and a new highway collapsed when opened for a test run.

Central planning always sounds good, logically, it would seem reasonable and efficient, but it has an Achilles heal. Often companies intertwined with government run on razor thin margins, with creating jobs almost a priority over making a profit. This is an incubator for corruption. A strange and somewhat eery phenomenon has arose as a result of China’s building purely for the sake of creating economic growth, completely uninhabited “ghost cities,” such as Ordos in Inner Mongolia. This and several other "empty full-size" cities filled with apartment buildings and skyscrapers can be viewed in great detail by satellite. Even the world’s largest mall, the New South China Mall, has been 99% empty since it opened in 2005, this represents the misappropriation of capital at its finest. There are now 70 billion sq. feet worth of buildings of all types under construction in China or about 54 square feet for every man, woman, and child in China. 

To those of us who lived through all the hype about Japan taking over the world in the late 1980s this is reminiscent of the Japanese bubble. At the time  Japanese interests purchased Pebble Beach, Rockefeller Center and Columbia Pictures. Most worrisome is the fact that five of the world’s ten largest buildings are now under construction in China, skyscraper construction is a historically reliable indicator of economic bubbles, it marked the tops of the Roaring Twenties bubble in 1929 and the Asian Tigers bubble in 1997. A fair number of articles were written on this subject in the middle of 2011, but concerns abated as central banks across the world unleashed massive quantitative easing. I suspect that the problems have not been corrected and the bursting merely delayed.

Footnote; Many Americans cringe when they think about the billions of dollars of consumer goods we import from China, what makes it even more bizarre is that China is an American make product. Decades ago America started down a perilous path to build China into a world power, read on and remember..

Footnote #2; This more recent post delves into the massive amount of overcapacity and debt incurred post 2008 when China dumped money into the economy to stimulate growth.

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