China

China: Mao Strikes Back

China is now a top-rank, market-moving source of daily news. It is not only the world’s second largest economy, but over the past decade, it accounted for nearly thirty percent of global economic growth. No wonder stories about a slowdown in China and trade conflict with the United States send shudders through financial markets. As conditions are worsening, uncertainty has jumped to record levels in China and elsewhere.

In the near term, if China and U.S. trade negotiators can come to an agreement avoiding a further hike of U.S. tariffs, some of this heightened uncertainty may fade. But a more persistent source of risk arises from China’s medium- and long-term growth prospects. While the country has sustained 6%-plus growth since 1991, in recent years it has done so by increasing investment per unit of growth. The prominence of these diminishing returns from incremental capital outlays lead many informed observers to conclude that a further medium-term deceleration is inevitable. Worries about the sharp increase in nonfinancial corporate debt over the past decade, and the lack of transparency regarding the risks in China’s financial system, only serve to compound this pessimism.

Given these circumstances, Nicholas Lardy’s excellent new book, The State Strikes Back, could hardly arrive at a better moment. Using careful analysis to challenge common hypotheses, Dr. Lardy takes a close look at the principal factors affecting China’s longer-run growth prospects. Ultimately, he is hopeful, but realistic: China could sustain its recent pace of growth for an extended period—or grow even faster—but only if the government is willing to return to its earlier commitment to serious reforms that favor market, rather than state, allocation of resources. So far, despite the prominent market advocacy in its 2013 “policy blueprint”—the first under President Xi Jinping’s leadership (see the opening citation)—the Xi government has shifted in precisely the opposite direction.

In the remainder of this post, we explore Lardy’s conclusion that China’s growth potential remains high. On the key issues of substance, his logic is compelling. A combination of the opportunities generated by convergence to advanced-economy productivity levels, continued improvements in competition and trade, and a renewed shift toward the private allocation of resources—especially through changes in the structure of both state-owned enterprises and the financial system—points to the possibility of a return to higher growth. Nevertheless, we find ourselves somewhat less hopeful. Even if China’s government were to make fundamental economic reform its top priority, in our view the odds favor a further slowdown over the next decade….

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Illuminating GDP

Satellites are great. It is hard to imagine living without them. GPS navigation is just the tip of the iceberg. Taking advantage of the immense amounts of information collected over decades, scientists have been using satellite imagery to study a broad array of questions, ranging from agricultural land use to the impact of climate change to the geographic constraints on cities (see here for a recent survey).

One of the most well-known economic applications of satellite imagery is to use night-time illumination to enhance the accuracy of various reported measures of economic activity. For example, national statisticians in countries with poor information collection systems can employ information from satellites to improve the quality of their nationwide economic data (see here). Even where governments have relatively high-quality statistics at a national level, it remains difficult and costly to determine local or regional levels of activity. For example, while production may occur in one jurisdiction, the income generated may be reported in another. At a sufficiently high resolution, satellite tracking of night-time light emissions can help address this question (see here).

But satellite imagery is not just an additional source of information on economic activity, it is also a neutral one that is less prone to manipulation than standard accounting data. This makes it is possible to use information on night-time light to monitor the accuracy of official statistics. And, as we suggest later, the willingness of observers to apply a “satellite correction” could nudge countries to improve their own data reporting systems in line with recognized international standards….

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Bitcoin and Fundamentals

Bitcoin is all the rage, again. Last week, the price rose above $10,000 for the first time. Following a Friday announcement by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the CBOE Futures Exchange, and the Cantor Exchange appear poised to launch Bitcoin futures or other derivatives contracts, with Nasdaq likely to follow. Portfolio advisers are encouraging cryptocurrency diversification. In London’s Metro, advertisements assure potential investors that “Crypto needn’t be cryptic.” And, as skyrocketing prices gain headlines, less sophisticated investors are diving in.

The danger is that investors will interpret the surging price itself (and the associated hullabaloo) as a sufficient signal to buy, fueling an asset price bubble (and, eventually, a painful crash).

No one can ever say with certainty when an asset price boom is a bubble. Nevertheless, it makes sense to ask what fundamental services Bitcoin provides. More specifically, have the prospects for those services improved sufficiently over the past year to warrant the 10-fold increase in price that has vaulted Bitcoin’s market capitalization into the range of the top 50 U.S. firms?

We strongly doubt it....

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China: Deleveraging is Hard to Do

For the first time in nearly three decades, Moody’s recently downgraded the long-term sovereign debt of China, lowering its rating from Aa3 to A1. As is frequently true in such cases, the adjustment was overdue. Since China’s massive fiscal stimulus in 2008, the government has experienced a surge in contingent liabilities, as its (implicit and explicit) guarantees fueled an extraordinary credit boom that continues today.

While the need to foster financial discipline is obvious, the process will be precarious. Ning Zhu, the author of China’s Guaranteed Bubble, has compared the scaling back of state guarantees to defusing a bomb. China’s guarantees have distorted incentives and risk taking for so many years that stepping back and allowing market forces to operate will inevitably impose large, unanticipated losses on many people and businesses. Financial history is replete with failed policy efforts to address credit-fueled asset price booms, such as the current one in China’s real estate. There is no safe mechanism for economy-wide deleveraging.

China’s policymakers are clearly aware of the dangers they face and are making serious efforts to address them. This year, authorities have initiated a new crackdown aimed at reducing the systemic risks that have been stoked by the credit boom. This post focuses on that policy effort, including the background causes and what will be needed (aside from good fortune) to make it work....

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When Government Misguides

Governments play favorites. They promote residential construction by making mortgages tax deductible. They encourage ethanol production by subsidizing corn. They boost sales of electric cars by offering tax rebates. These political favors usually diminish, rather than increase, aggregate income. They’re about distribution, not production.

With the ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency, U.S. government intervention has taken a particularly troubling turn. Not only has he threatened companies planning to produce their products outside of the United States, but he has appointed strident free-trade opponents (ranging from China-bashing Peter Navarro to trade-litigator Robert Lighthizer) to key positions in his administration. In his first week in office, President Trump has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and moved to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). His representatives also have threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico (and other countries). In what seems like the blink of an eye, these actions have sacrificed the valuable U.S. reputation–earned over seven decades since President Truman—as a trustworthy leader in the global fight for open, competitive markets.

Historically, government guidance of the economy has come in many forms...

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What Bitcoin Has Become

We are now in the ninth year of Bitcoin, the first coins (or “Genesis Block”) having been mined (that is, awarded for solving a computational problem) on January 3, 2009. Yet, Bitcoin has clearly failed to meet the grandiose aims of its advocates. Unlike conventional money, it is not widely used as a means of exchange. And, despite claims that its independence of government would make it a stable store of value, it remains anything but.

Instead, the evidence we can find hints that its primary use is to evade capital controls (or, possibly, as an alternative store of value in a repressed financial system). The greatest achievement associated with Bitcoin is not the currency itself, but the blockchain—the distributed ledger technology underlying it—that is now being widely explored in the hopes of slashing costs and improving services in finance and a range of other activities (see our earlier post).

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China's Awkward Exchange Rate Regime: an Update

As 2016 draws to a close, it’s natural to look back over the year’s posts. With all the swirling concerns about China-U.S. relations—including the selection of the protectionist co-author of Death by China to head a new White House National Trade Council—we wondered whether our February doubts about China’s exchange rate regime remain intact.

The answer is yes, but for reasons radically inconsistent with President-elect Trump’s promise to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Like any country with a fixed exchange rate, China’s central bank intervenes actively to maintain its (evolving) currency target. But, for the past two years, the People’s Bank has been intervening to prevent (or at least to slow), rather than promote, the depreciation of its currency versus the dollar. That is, the RMB remains overvalued compared to what it would be in the absence of official intervention.

And, despite secretive instincts of China's authorities, the evidence is there for all to see....

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The China Debate

China’s rapid credit expansion is worrying. Will Chinese policymakers be able to contain the growth of credit without undermining economic growth and without triggering a banking or currency crisis? Aside from the consequences of Brexit, this is probably the most important issue facing global policymakers and investors today.

As it turns out, there are powerful arguments on both sides. The positives—high national savings and returns to investment, combined with the government’s broad tools for intervention—must be measured against a set of negatives—growing loan losses, the spread of shadow banking, large capital outflows, falling investment returns, and declining confidence in the government’s financial policy management. Against this complex background, it is no wonder that concerns and uncertainty are both high. What one can say confidently remains conditional:  things are very likely to end badly if the credit buildup continues amid slowing economic growth...

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China's Awkward Exchange Rate Regime

A recent op-ed in a major Chinese English-language newspaper, The People’s Daily, asserts that George Soros “has declared ‘war’ on China, claiming he had sold short Asian currencies.” For those who observed firms like those of Mr. Soros profiting from the collapse of the British pound in 1992, a speculative attack on China’s currency, the RMB, merits close attention.

There are surely parallels to that earlier episode where Soros' firm is reputed to have made $1 billion in a couple of days. Yet, it would be difficult to overlook the enormous differences. Perhaps most important, the United Kingdom was committed to maintaining the free flow of capital across its borders. This is in stark contrast to China, where policymakers have been tightening capital controls in recent months....

 

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Is China's devaluation a game changer?

Since 1978, China has engaged in an unprecedented and wildly successful experiment, moving gradually from a command economy to one based on markets; in small steps transforming a system where administrators controlled the goods that were produced to one where prices allocate resources. There were surely miscalculations along the way. But, even big blunders could largely be concealed. Until now!

What has changed in recent months? The day has come for China to become more closely integrated into the global financial system, and this has a number of implications. The most important is that as prices and quantities of financial assets (rather than goods) are determined in markets, bureaucrats lose a great deal of control. But, as recent events very clearly demonstrate, Chinese authorities are reluctant to let go....

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China's stock market boom and bust

Ask a well-educated person which country boasts the largest equity market and you’ll usually get the right answer: the United States. Ask which country has the second largest market and you’re likely to get a range of answers: Japan? Britain? Germany?

The answer is China. In terms of annual trading volume, China's equity market has been #2 since 2009. Measured by total market capitalization, it has been #2 for seven of the past nine years....

Why should this matter now? First, because it highlights the extraordinary spread of market-based finance in a country led for more than 65 years by its communist party.... Second, because the growth in Chinese equity markets comes with sizable risks. Recent experience drives home this point....

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Residential real estate in China: the delicate balance of supply and demand

When President Nixon and Chairman Mao shook hands in Beijing in 1972, only 17% of the 862 million Chinese lived in urban areas and the entire stock of housing was state owned. Today, more than half of China’s 1.4 billion residents live in cities, while 9 out of 10 households own their homes. Unsurprisingly, this housing revolution has brought with it a property price boom. Over the past decade, urban land prices have risen more than four-fold, with high flyers like Beijing surging by a factor of more than 10 (for the data, see here).

Will China follow the same path the U.S. took in the last decade? Will China’s boom turn into a bust?...

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The Yin and the Yang of Shadow Banking in China

By almost any measure, China saves more than virtually any country in the world. Over the past decade, gross national savings has amounted to about one-half of GDP.  And that phenomenal rate continues: only Qatar and Macau save more  (see chart). There are many good reasons to save. At the top of the list in China has been the high marginal return on capital that naturally accompanies rapid economic growth.

Despite this, households in China until recently have had few attractive avenues for saving....

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To RMB or not to RMB? Lessons from Currency History

China is the world’s largest trader and (on a purchasing power parity basis) is about to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy. China already accounts for about 10% of global trade in goods and services, and over 15% of global economic activity.

So, as China takes its place as the biggest economy on the globe, will its currency, the renminbi (RMB), become the most widely used international currency as well? Will the RMB supplant the U.S. dollar as the leading reserve currency held by central bankers and others, or as the safe-haven currency in financial crises?

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