It Doesn't Take a Genius to Figure Out How This Will End

For all of those who feel China is going to take over the free world, just remember that when you blow a bubble (particularly a balance sheet bubble) it is bound to pop. The damage from the pop invariably does more harm than the boost from the bubble. It has always been the case, particularly when leverage is involved - which makes the impact that much more devastating. If anybody can attest to this, it should be us Americans (British, Spanish, Irish, those from Dubai, Japanese...).

Methinks that before China gets a chance to become a preeminent world power, their profusely blown asset bubble (by way of a most accomadating fiscal policy) will blow up in their face and they will go through what the US, Japan and UK just (is still) went through, exacerbated by the fact that they are still a net export reliant economy when the bubble blowing is removed. With the developed world in sluggish mode, they will have very little to fall back on as their asset prices collapse to equilibrium and debt from their steriodal lending system is left under or uncollateralized and unable to be serviced.

Why does everybody confuse bubbles with economic progress?

From Bloomberg:

Dec. 31 (Bloomberg) -- Li Nan has real estate fever. A 27- year-old steel trader at China Minmetals, a state-owned commodities company, Li lives with his parents in a cramped 700- square-foot apartment in west Beijing.

Li originally planned to buy his own place when he got married, but after watching Beijing real estate prices soar, he has been spending all his free time searching for an apartment. If he finds the right place -- preferably a two-bedroom in the historic Dongcheng quarter, near the city center -- he hopes to buy immediately. Act now, he figures, or live with Mom and Dad forever. In the last 12 months such apartments have doubled or tripled in price, to about $400 per square foot.

“This year they’ll be even higher,” says Li in the Jan. 11 issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.Does this scenario sound even remotely familiar???

Millions of Chinese are pursuing property with a zeal once typical of house-happy Americans. Some Chinese are plunking down wads of cash for homes. Others are taking out mortgages at record levels. Developers are snapping up land for luxury high- rises and villas, and the banks are eagerly funding them. Some local officials are even building towns from scratch in the desert, certain that demand won’t flag. Straight out of the Dubai make money now and pay for it later handbook of bubblistic speculation! And if families can swing it, they buy two apartments: one to live in, one to flip when prices jump further. Imported speculators from Miami, LA and downtown Brooklyn!

And jump they have. In Shanghai, prices for high-end real estate were up 54 percent through September, to $500 per square foot. In November alone, housing prices in 70 major cities rose 5.7 percent, while housing starts nationwide rose a staggering 194 percent. The real estate rush is fueling fears of a bubble that could burst later in 2010, devastating homeowners, banks, developers, stock markets, and local governments. Let's get this straight. "Fears of a bubble"!!! A 54% gain in 9 months does not confirm a bubble???!! What is the long term historical average in China. Probably 2% to 4% annually, or on pace with inflation, give or take. So, if pundits are not sure a 25x increase is a bubble, what would it take to convince them?

High-End Bubble

“Once the bubble pops, our economic growth will stop,” warns Yi Xianrong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Finance Research Center. On Dec. 27, China Premier Wen Jiabao told news agency Xinhua that “property prices have risen too quickly.” He pledged a crackdown on speculators. Actually, once the bubble pops, their economic growth will collapse, and trend in reverse. That's what happens when bubbles pop. If the growth just stopped, then it would make sense to encourage bubbles, wouldn't it? You can just reignite another bubble when the previous one pops and start the cycle over again. It appears as if this is the playbook some of our central bankers are following. Unfortunately, they are called boom/bust cycles, not boom/stop cycles. Bubbles are not indicative or true organic growth, they are a sign of growth borrowed from future time periods that MUST be paid back with hard money interest. The bigger the bubble, the bigger the "vig".

Although parallels with other bubble markets, the China bubble is not quite so easy to understand. In some places, demand for upper middle class housing is so hot it can’t be satisfied. In others, speculators keep driving up prices for land, luxury apartments, and villas even though local rents are actually dropping because tenants are scarce. What’s clear is that the bubble is inflating at the rich end, while little low- cost housing gets built for middle and low-income Chinese.This is not hard to parallel. This is exactly what happened in NYC, particularly Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. See  "Who are ya gonna believe, the pundits or your lying eyes?" (for pictures) and "Who are you going to believe, the pundits or your lying eyes, part 2" (for numbers and a very shaky video), I illustrated a trip from Chelsea Piers in Manhattan to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, capturing the rampant supply of residential, office and commercial space that is STILL being put up despite the extreme glut currently in this rapidly declining market. As you look through all of this visual material, remember banks have supplied the capital for building all of these empty edifices, at no less than 10x leverage. None of this inventory was targeted at the middle and lower classes. As ironic as it may sound, this activity ultimately ends up causing downward social mobility as asset values collapse under mounting debt. See Super Brokers form to push Super Broken products to make those with High Net Worth Super Broke for my take on social mobility, downwards style).

In Beijing’s Chaoyang district, which represents a third of all residential property deals in the capital, homes now sell for an average of almost $300 per square foot. That means a typical 1,000-square-foot apartment costs about 80 times the average annual income of the city’s residents. I'll give this until the end of 2010 to blow up!

Table Talk

Koyo Ozeki, an analyst at U.S. investment manager Pimco, estimates that only 10 percent of residential sales in China are for the mass market. Developers find the margins in high-end housing much fatter than returns from building ordinary homes.

How did this bubble get going? Low interest rates, official encouragement of bank lending, and then Beijing’s half-trillion- dollar stimulus plan all made funds readily available. City and provincial governments have been gladly cooperating with developers: Economists estimate that half of all local government revenue comes from selling state-owned land. "Nuff said!

Chinese consumers, fearing inflation will return and outstrip the tiny interest they earn on their savings, have pursued property ever more aggressively. Companies in the chemical, steel, textile, and shoe industries have started up property divisions too: The chance of a quick return is much higher than in their primary business. Oh my!

Built on Sand

“When you sit down with a table of businessmen, the story is usually how they got lucky from a piece of land,” says Andy Xie, an independent economist who once worked in Hong Kong as Morgan Stanley’s top Asia analyst. “No one talks about their factories making money these days.”

I am leaving out significant parts of the article, so as not to excerpt too much. I suggest you follow the link to read it in its entirety. The following portions do support my suspicions of where all of the alleged consumer activity in China is coming from, though:

Key to Growth

... The government is reluctant to crack down too hard because construction, steel, cement, furniture, and other sectors are directly tied to growth in real estate. In November, for example, retail sales of furniture and construction materials jumped more than 40 percent. At the December Central Economic Work Conference, an annual policy-setting confab, officials said real estate would continue to be a key driver of growth.

The worst scenario is that the central authorities let the party go on too long, then suddenly ramp up interest rates to stop the inflationary spiral. Without cheap credit, developers won’t be able to refinance their loans, consumers will no longer take out mortgages, local banks’ property portfolios will sour, and industrial companies that relied on real estate for a chunk of profits will suffer. Nahhh! Really!

... One difficulty in handicapping the likelihood of a nasty pullback is the opacity of the data. As long as property prices stay high, the balance sheets of the developers look strong. And no one knows for sure how much of the more than $1.3 trillion in last year’s bank loans funded real estate ventures.


Analysts figure a substantial portion of that sum went into property, much of it indirectly. Banks often lend to state-owned companies for industrial purposes. But the state companies can then divert the funds to their own real estate businesses or relend the money to an outside developer. Enter the domino/daisy chain effect in case of collapse...

Meanwhile, the big banks may be cutting back on their real estate risk by selling loans to smaller local banks and credit co-ops...

I explored these possibilities about a year and a half ago. See China Macro Update, (also of interest is the HSBC opinion and 2H08 update).Then My view of the China hype bears additional fruit and All of my warnings about China are starting to look rather prescient.