A book I read recently is Edward Chancellor’s The Price of Time, published in July 2022. The book traces the history of interest rates from ancient Mesopotamia (a civilisation that dates back to 3100 B.C.) to our current era. One of the thought-provoking collection of ideas I gleaned from the book involves China and the growing problems with its economy over the past two to three decades.
Jeremy and I have investments in China, so I want to document these facts for easy reference in the future. Moreover, given the size of China’s economy – the second largest in the world – I think anyone who’s interested in investing may find the facts useful. To be clear, none of what I’m going to share from The Price of Time is meant to be seen as a commentary on the attractiveness (or lack thereof) of Chinese stocks or the growth prospects of the Chinese economy. Instead, Jeremy and I merely see them as providing additional colour in the mosaic we have collected over time about how the world works and where the world is going. With that, here’re the fascinating new details I picked up about China’s economy from The Price of Time (bolded emphases are mine):
The state of China’s property bubble in 2016
“In parts of Shanghai and neighbouring Suzhou, empty development plots sold for more than neighbouring land with completed buildings – a case of ‘flour more expensive than bread’. By late 2016, house prices were valued nationwide at eight times average Chinese incomes, roughly double the peak valuation of US housing a decade earlier.”
“A study released in 2015 by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that rental yields in Beijing and Shanghai had fallen below 2 per cent – in line with the discount rate. However, rental yields of less than 2 per cent implied a payback of nearly seven decades – roughly the same length of time as residential land leases, after which title reverted to the state… But, as the NBER researchers commented, ‘only modest declines in expected appreciation seem needed to generate large drops in house values.’”
“By late 2016 total real estate was valued at [US]$43 trillion, equivalent to nearly four times GDP and on a par with the aggregate value of Japanese real estate (relative to GDP) at its bubble peak. Like Japan three decades earlier, China had transformed into a ‘land bubble’ economy. The French bank Société Générale had calculated back in 2011 that over the previous decade China had built 16 billion square metres of residential floor space. This was equivalent to building modern Rome from scratch every fourteen days, over and over again. A decade after the stimulus more than half of the world’s hundred tallest buildings were under construction in the People’s Republic, and more than a quarter of economic output was related, directly or indirectly, to real estate development.”
The stunning growth of debt in China in the 21st century
“In ten years to 2015, China accounted for around half the world’s total credit creation. This borrowing binge constituted ‘history’s greatest Credit Bubble’. Every part of the economy became bloated with debt. Liabilities of the banking system grew to three times GDP. At the time of Lehman’s bankruptcy, households in the People’s Republic carried much less debt than their American counterparts. But, since the much-touted ‘rebalancing’ of the economy never occurred, consumers turned to credit to enhance their purchasing power.
Between 2008 and 2018, Chinese households doubled their level of debt (relative to income) and ended up owing more than American households did at the start of the subprime crisis. Over the same period, Chinese companies borrowed [US]$15 trillion, accounting for roughly half the total increase in global corporate debt. Real estate companies borrowed to finance their developments – the largest developer, Evergrande, ran up total liabilities equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP. Local governments set up opaque financing vehicles to pay for infrastructure projects with borrowed money. Debt owed by local governments grew to [US]$8.2 trillion (by the end of 2020), equivalent to more than half of GDP.”
How China concealed its bad-debt problems in the 21st century and the problems this concealment is causing
“Although they borrowed more cheaply than private firms, state-owned enterprises nevertheless had trouble covering their interest costs. After 2012 the total cost of debt-servicing exceeded China’s economic growth. An economy that can’t grow faster than its interest costs is said to have entered a ‘debt trap’. China avoided the immediate consequences of the debt trap by concealing bad debts. What’s been called ‘Red Capitalism’ resembled a shell game in which non-performing loans were passed from one state-connected player to another.
The shell game commenced at the turn of this century when state banks were weighed down with nonperforming loans. The bad loans weren’t written off, however, but sold at face value to state-owned asset management companies (AMCs), which paid for them by issuing ten-year bonds that were, in turn, acquired by the state-owned banks. In effect, the banks had swapped uncollectible short-term debt for uncollectible long dated debt. When the day finally arrived for the AMCs to redeem their bonds, the loans were quietly rolled over. Concealing or ‘evergreening’ bad debts required low interest rates. China’s rate cuts in 2001 and 2002 were partly intended to help banks handle their debt problems. Over the following years, bank loan rates were kept well below the country’s nominal GDP growth, while deposit rates remained stuck beneath 3 per cent. Thus, Chinese depositors indirectly bailed out the banking system.
After 2008, cracks in the credit system were papered over with new loans – a tenet of Red Capitalism being that ‘as long as the banks continue to lend, there will be no repayment problems.’ But it became progressively harder to conceal problem loans. In 2015, an industrial engineering company (Baoding Tianwei Group) became the first state-owned enterprise to default on its domestic bonds. The trickle of defaults continued. One could only guess at the scale of China’s bad debts. Bank analyst Charlene Chu suggested that by 2017 up to a quarter of bank loans were non-performing. This estimate was five times the official figure.
As Chu commented: ‘if losses don’t manifest on financial institution balance sheets, they will do so via slowing growth and deflation.’ Debt deflation, as Irving Fisher pointed out, occurs after too much debt has accumulated. At the same time, excess industrial capacity was putting downward pressure on producer prices and leading China to export deflation abroad – for instance, by dumping its surplus steel in European and US markets. Corporate zombies added to deflation pressures. Despite the soaring money supply after 2008, consumer prices hardly budged. By November 2015, the index of producer prices had fallen for a record forty-four consecutive months.
If China’s investment had been productive, then it would have generated the cash flow needed to pay off its debt. But, for the economy as a whole, this wasn’t the case. So debt continued growing. Top officials in Beijing were aware that the situation was unsustainable. In the summer of 2016, President Xi’s anonymous adviser warned in his interview with the People’s Daily that leverage must be contained. ‘A tree cannot grow to the sky,’ declared the ‘authoritative person’; ‘high leverage must bring with it high risks.’ Former Finance Minister Lou Jiwei put his finger on Beijing’s dilemma: ‘The first problem is to stop the accumulation of leverage,’ Lou said. ‘But we also can’t allow the economy to lose speed.’ Since these twin ambitions are incompatible, Beijing chose the path of least resistance. A decade after the stimulus launch, China’s ‘Great Wall of Debt’ had reached 250 per cent of GDP, up 100 percentage points since 2008.”
The troubling state of China’s shadow banking system in 2016
“By 2016, the market for wealth management products had grown to 23.5 trillion yuan, equivalent to over a third of China’s national income. Total shadow finance was estimated to be twice as large. Even the relatively obscure market for debt-receivables exceeded the size of the US subprime market at its peak. George Soros observed an ‘eery resemblance’ between China’s shadow banks and the discredited American version. Both were driven by a search for yield at a time of low interest rates; both were opaque; both involved banks originating and selling on questionable loans; both depended on the credit markets remaining open and liquid; and both were exposed to real estate bubbles.”
China’s risk of facing a currency crisis because of its expanding money supply
“As John Law had discovered in 1720, it is not possible for a country to fix the price of its currency on the foreign exchanges while rapidly expanding the domestic money supply. Since 2008 China’s money supply had grown relentlessly relative to the size of its economy and the world’s total money supply. Those trillions of dollars’ worth of foreign exchange reserves provided an illusion of safety since a large chunk was tied up in illiquid investments. Besides, cash deposits in China’s banks far exceeded foreign exchange reserves. If only a fraction of those deposits left the country, however, the People’s Republic would face a debilitating currency crisis.”
China’s problems of inequality, financial repression, and tight control of the economy by the government
“From the early 1980s onwards, the rising incomes of hundreds of millions of Chinese workers contributed to a decline in global inequality. But during this period, China itself transformed from one of the world’s most egalitarian nations into one of the least equal. After 2008, the Gini coefficient for Chinese incomes climbed to 0.49 – an indicator of extreme inequality and more than twice the level at the start of the reform era.
The inequality problem was worse than the official data suggested. A 2010 report from Credit Suisse claimed that ‘illegal or quasi-legal’ income amounted to nearly a third of China’s GDP. Much of this grey income derived from rents extracted by Party members. The case of Bo Xilai, the princeling who became Party chief of Chongqing, is instructive. As the head of this sprawling municipality, Bo made a great display of rooting out corruption. But after he fell from grace in 2012 it was revealed that his family was worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Premier Wen’s family fortune was estimated at [US]$2.7 billion.
The richest 1 per cent of the population controlled a third of the country’s wealth, while the poorest quartile owned just 1 per cent. The real estate bubble was responsible for much of this rise in inequality. Researchers at Peking University found that 70 per cent of household wealth was held in real estate. A quarter of China’s dollar billionaires were real estate moguls. At the top of the rich list was Xu Jiayin, boss of property developer China Evergrande, whose fortune (in 2018) was estimated at [US]$40 billion. Many successful property developers turned out to be the offspring of top Party members. Local government officials who drove villagers off their land to hand it over to developers acted as ‘engines of inequality’.
Financial repression turned back the clock on China’s economic liberalization. Throughout its history, the Middle Kingdom’s progress ‘has an intermittent character and is full of leaps and bounds, regressions and relapses’. In general, when the state has been relatively weak and money plentiful, the Middle Kingdom has advanced. Incomes were probably higher in the twelfth century under the relatively laissez-faire Song than in the mid-twentieth century when the Communists came to power. But when the state has shown a more authoritarian character, economic output has stagnated or declined. The mandarins’ desire for total monetary control contributed to Imperial China’s ‘great divergence’ from Western economic development.
In recent years, China has experienced an authoritarian relapse. Paramount leader Xi Jinping exercises imperial powers. An Orwellian system of electronic surveillance tracks the citizenry. Millions of Uighurs are reported to have been locked up in camps. Private companies are required to place the interests of the state before their own. The ‘China 2025’ economic development plans aim to establish Chinese predominance in a number of new technologies, from artificial intelligence to robotics. A system of social credits, which rewards and punishes citizens’ behaviour, will supplement conventional credit. A digital yuan, issued by the People’s Bank, will supplement – or even replace – conventional money. These developments are best summed up by a phrase that became commonplace in the 2010s: ‘the state advances, while the private [sector] retreats.’
Financial repression has played a role in this regressive movement. The credit binge launched by the 2008/9 stimulus enhanced Beijing’s sway over the economy. As the state has advanced, productivity growth has declined. Because interest rates neither reflect the return on capital nor credit risk, China’s economy has suffered from the twin evils of capital misallocation and excessive debt. Real estate development, fuelled by low-cost credit, delivered what President Xi called ‘fictional growth’. By 2019 Chinese GDP growth (per capita) had fallen to half its 2007 level.
The Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Congress, held in Beijing in 2013, heralded profound reforms to banking practices. The ceiling on bank deposit rates was lifted, and banks could set their own lending rates. Households earned a little more on their bank deposits, but interest rates remained below nominal GDP growth. The central bank now turned to managing the volatility of the interbank market interest rate. The People’s Bank still lacked independence and had to appeal to the State Council for any change to monetary policy.
Allowing interest rates to be set by the market would have required wrenching changes. Forced to compete for deposits, state-controlled banks would suffer a loss of profitability. Bad loans would become harder to conceal. Without access to subsidized credit, state-owned enterprises would become even less profitable. Corporate zombies would keel over. Economic planners would lose the ability to direct cheap capital to favoured sectors. The cost of controlling the currency on the foreign exchanges would become prohibitively expensive. Beijing would no longer be able to manipulate real estate or fine-tune other markets.
The Party’s monopoly of power has survived the liberalization of most commercial prices and many business activities, but the cadres never removed their grip on the most important price of all. The state, not the market, would determine the level of interest. The legacy of China’s financial repression was, as President Xi told the National Congress in 2017, a ‘contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate [economic] development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’, which, in turn, provided Xi with a rationale for further advancing the role of the state.”
Note: An earlier version of this article was published at The Good Investors, a personal blog run by our friends.
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Disclosure: Ser Jing does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned.