China's 2009 Trade Surplus Falls A Record $100 Billion

After posting a record crude-oil import month in December, as well as the second highest iron-ore import month in history, China's program economy is roaring back to life, even if the imports are actually sitting in full warehouses, used to build empty cities that consume negative electricity, make washing machines that never launder anything except the government's flawed economic statistics, and create cars that somehow use up ever-less gasoline. Of course, when the government has trillions in increasingly worthless excess dollar foreign reserves that have to be used up for something, it is no wonder that the Chinese government is buying anything and everything it can stockpile, and that can't be devalued by Tim Geithner, hand over fist. As for exports: courtesy of the dollar peg, which makes China's exports as cheap as the US' (assuming the latter had much of anything to export besides financial innovation), China had no shortage of counterparties to purchase its $1.2 trillion in 2009 exports. Yet despite all this, China's trade surplus plunged a record $100 billion, or 34%, to $196 billion from 2008's $296 billion.

Notably, in December China's crude-oil imports hit a record 21.26 million metric tons, or 5 million barrels per day. It is good that at least for one country the "great recession" never happened. In 2009, China imported 14% more oil than in 2008, for a total of 204 million tons. But the real kicker was in iron-ore imports which was 62.16 million metric tons in December, 22% more than November, and an unbelievable 80% more than a year earlier, and the second highest ever recorded. For all of 2009 628 million tons of iron were imported, 41.6% higher than in 2008. Those empty cities apparently really need more peers. And one wonders why Australia's (5.4% more imports in 2009) and Brazil's (5.3% less) economy are humming: it takes a lot to provide the raw materials to build the biggest bubble in the world.

The simple observation is that instead of having to finance the US consumer's continued spending binge by buying hundreds of billions in Treasuries in 2009, China was let off the hook by the Federal Reserve, which did all of its mandated purchase instead. So with all the excess money China went and stockpiled, stockpiled, stockpiled. Now the only question of whether the required end-consumer demand will ever materialize will determine who is correct in the China bubble debate: Chanos or Rogers. As the US consumers are tapped out (save for some Spanish tourists who apparently can't wait to purchase g-strings at A&F), China better hope its own middle class will use its savings to buy everything the government has already made and built, and counted (hopefully not double or triple) in its GDP calculation.

On the other hand, despite having a savings rate that Americans could only dream of, China is also gripped by gambling fever: who really knows what the domestic balance sheet looks like. Yes, having cash is great, but if the liability side of the consumer balance sheet has 0 equity (or only equity in a massively inflated stock market) and the rest are cheap loans, which the government handed out freely in 2009 to the tune of 11 trillion renminbi, then all bets really are off when the profit taking inevitably begins (as it always does).

Here are some more charts that demonstrate why the traditional Chinese model of an export-led economy may be in trouble if the US and EU consumers don't come back (as a reference point, exports to the EU dropped 19.4% or $236 billion, while those targeted at the US sank by $221 billion or 12.5%).

The chart below demonstrates the phenomenal rise in China's trade surplus, which was effectuated primarily on the backs of the US and EU consumers, who had found themselves big spenders in the years after 2003 courtesy of the HELOC piggybank, a surging stock market, and low interest rates.

What is very amusing on the above chart is the massive surge in China's trade balance in the months following the Lehman bankruptcy. Truly with the rest of the world shut down for the subsequent quarter, China was exporting excess billions of "stuff" to somebody. Who that somebody was, would be interesting to find out. Had the export data been normalized for the October-February period, $85 billion in GDP would have been removed from the Chinese economy. Yet what is glaringly obvious is that China will have a very tough time at recreating the same surge in the trade surplus in 2010 and onward, especially if calls for renminbi appreciation continue growing ever louder.