Whether you believe China is an economic miracle - or a government-sponsored fraud; and can ignore the broken growth model or believe that the CCP can bailout the world; Michael Pettis, of China Financial Markets, provides a much-needed dose of reality for bulls and bears when it comes to the future of the global growth engine. After summing up (and laying-waste to) the three mainstays of China bulls' arguments: he asks the three toughest questions any China bull must be able to answer. Analogizing China's position perfectly he cites Mills: "Panics do not destroy capital; they merely reveal the extent to which it has been previously destroyed by its betrayal into hopelessly unproductive works." Simply put, the bull argument cannot ignore the hidden bad debt.
There seems to be a worried resistance to the idea that we may have reached a major and difficult transition. The unwillingness to acknowledge the difficulty of the transition, however, can only make the transition all the more difficult.
[The Bulls] are largely constrained themselves to three arguments, which are the same three very unsatisfying arguments that we have heard many times before.
First, they presented historical data showing rapid Chinese growth rates in the past three decades and proposed past growth rates as evidence of rapid Chinese growth rates in the next two decades. I probably don’t need to explain why this is a very weak argument.
Second, they asserted (many times) that since past predictions of failure have all turned out to be wrong, future predictions must also be wrong. If this were true it would, of course, be irrelevant, in the same way that people who predicted in 2002 that the Spanish real estate market was out of control might have been early but they most certainly weren’t wrong. Rudiger Dornbush once said: “The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought, and that’s sort of exactly the Mexican story. It took forever and then it took a night.”
But this argument, that past predictions have always been wrong, isn’t true. There have been predictions of failure in the past 20 years that were in fact correct – for example the claim in the late 1990s, made first, I believe by Nick Lardy, that China was going to have a banking crisis. The fact that China didn’t “fail”, however, doesn’t mean that Lardy was wrong. China did in fact have a banking crisis, but the growth impact was more than offset by a surge in lending which simply set the stage for the next banking mess.
It is as if you saw a middle-aged man in terrible physical shape running a marathon, and you predicted that after five or six miles he would be forced to quit. If however he took out a syringe and shot himself up with crystal meth, he would be able to continue running a few more miles, but this doesn’t mean that your analysis and prediction were wrong. It means that in a few more miles he will be worse off than ever (or will have to take an even bigger dose of crystal meth).
And third, they produced a number of what seem to me largely circular arguments – for example the claim that urbanization leads to growth and growth to urbanization, and so the process must continue, or the claim that since productivity has soared, past investments in the aggregate have been justified, even though the data “proving” the increase in productivity implicitly assumes that past investments have been economically justified. Except for reports of capital fleeing China, one could easily get the impression that even senior Chinese non-economists really don’t understand why the likes of Wen Jiabao, Li Keqiang, and now Xi Jinping seem so worried.
Externally funded misallocated investment is subject to “sudden stops”. Domestically funded misallocated investment may or may not be, depending on the structure of the domestic financial system.
The bull argument cannot ignore hidden bad debt
So to say that China has already set aside the resources to pay for the losses is, I think, meaningless, especially if it implies that somehow the impact of this wasted investment is in the past and not in the future. China has no more set aside the cost of the losses than Brazil had done so at the end of the 1970s, prior to its own lost decade. The losses are simply buried in the debt.
But an unrecognized past loss must be recognized at some point in the future, no matter how it is funded. On this point I think neither Hayek nor Keynes would disagree. In the end, the strongest indication about whether or not the current Chinese growth model is no longer providing sustainable growth is whether debt is rising faster than debt servicing capacity. This is where the debate must focus. Or to cite John Mills in his 1868 paper “On credit cycles and the origin of commercial panics”
"Panics do not destroy capital; they merely reveal the extent to which it has been previously destroyed by its betrayal into hopelessly unproductive works."
If capital has been destroyed in the past, and that destruction is currently unrecognized, it must be recognized in the future, like it or not. This recognition can occur in the form of what Mills called a panic, and we would call a financial crisis, but given the stickiness of deposits in the Chinese banking system I don’t think this is likely to be the case in China. It can also occur in the form of many years of much slower growth in GDP, as those losses are ground away through excess debt repayment. But it will occur.
So if anyone wants to continue to be very bullish about Chinese growth prospects over the next decade, it seems to me that he must address and answer these three questions:
- How much debt is there whose real cost exceeds the economic value created by the debt, which sector of the economy will pay for the excess, and what is the mechanism that will ensure the necessary wealth transfer?
- What projects can we identify that will allow hundreds of billions of dollars, or even trillions of dollars, of investment whose wealth creation in the short and medium term will exceed the real cost of the debt, and what is the mechanism for ensuring that these investments will get made?
- What mechanism can be implemented to increase the growth rate of household consumption?