China's Economy Is Past the Point of No Return
A crash is coming.
After a near-disastrous start to the year and a one-month recovery in March, the Chinese economy looks like it’s now headed in the wrong direction again. The first indications from April show the country was unable to sustain upward momentum.
Even before the first dreadful numbers for last month were released, Anne Stevenson-Yang of J Capital Research termed the uptick the “Dead Panda Bounce.”
The economy is essentially moribund as there is not much that can stop the ongoing slide. A contraction is certain, and a severe adjustment downward—in common parlance, a crash—looks likely.
At the moment, China appears healthy. The official National Bureau of Statistics reported that growth in the first calendar quarter of this year was 6.7 percent. That is just a smidgen off 6.9 percent, the figure for all of last year. Moreover, the quarterly result cleared the bottom of the range of Premier Li Keqiang’s growth target for this year, 6.5 percent.
The first-quarter 6.7 percent was too good to be true, however. And there are two reasons why we should be particularly alarmed.
First, China’s statisticians appear to be just making the numbers up. For the first time since 2010, when it began providing quarter-on-quarter data, NBS did not release a quarter-on-quarter figure alongside the year-on-year one. And when NBS got around to releasing the quarter-on-quarter number, it did not match the year-on-year figure it had previously reported.
NBS’s 1.1 percent quarter-on-quarter figure for Q1, when annualized, produces only 4.5 percent growth for the year. That’s a long distance from the 6.7 percent year-on-year growth that NBS reported for the quarter.
Even China’s own technocrats do not believe their own numbers. Fraser Howie, the coauthor of the acclaimed Red Capitalism, notes that the chief of a large European insurance company, who had just been in meetings with the People’s Bank of China, said that even the Chinese officials were joking and laughing in derision when they talked about official reports showing 6 percent growth.
Second, the central government simply turned on the money taps, flooding the economy with “gobs of new debt,” as the Wall Street Journal labeled the deluge.
The surge in lending was one for the record books. Credit growth in Q1 was more than twice that in the previous quarter. China created almost $1 trillion in new credit during the quarter, the largest quarterly increase in history.
Of course, Chinese banks tend to splurge in Q1 when they get new annual quotas, but this year’s lending exceeded all expectations.
The Ministry of Finance also did its part to refloat the economy. Its figures show that in March, the central government’s revenue increased 7.1 percent while spending soared 20.1 percent.
All that money produced good results—for one month. In April, the downturn continued. Exports, in dollar terms, fell 1.8 percent from the same month last year, and imports tumbled 10.9 percent. Both underperformed consensus estimates. A Reuters poll, for instance, predicted that exports would decline only 0.1 percent, while imports would fall 5 percent.
Exports have now dropped in nine of the last ten months, and imports, considered a vital sign of domestic demand, have fallen for eighteen straight months.
Both figures show a marked deterioration from March, when exports jumped 11.5 percent and imports fell 7.6 percent.
The trade figures followed extremely disappointing surveys of the manufacturing sector. The official Purchasing Managers’ Index came in at 50.1, down from March’s 50.2, barely above the 50.0 that divides expansion from contraction.
The widely followed Caixin survey registered at 49.4, down from March’s 49.7. April was the fourteenth straight month of contraction in this more representative—and far more reliable—survey.
Beijing will release additional numbers in the next two weeks, but its reported figures—especially those showing consumer prices, retail sales and industrial output—have obviously become less accurate in recent months. By now, with the first indications for April, it’s clear the economy did not turn the March spike into a recovery.
That has grave implications for Beijing, as Chinese technocrats have evidently lost control of the economy. For one thing, they are no longer helped by strong external demand, and there is little prospect of relief in coming months. As Zhou Hao of Commerzbank told the Wall Street Journal, “China is on its own.”
And alone, Beijing can rely only on stimulus. Extraordinary spending in March produced only a one-month bump—and that blip came at a high price. The government in March piled up debt at least four times faster than it created nominal GDP.
Although debt does not work the same way in China’s state-directed economy as it does in freer ones, eventually rapid credit creation must produce a disaster. Already, the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is well north of 300 percent, as Barron’s, referring to Victor Shih’s calculations, notes. Soros in January said the ratio could be as high as 350 percent, and Orient Capital Research in Hong Kong suggests 400 percent.
Whatever it is, China is just about at the limits of the debt it can bear, as growing defaults—and a stark warning from the Communist Party itself on Monday—indicate.
There are many problems, but state firms, backed by Beijing’s spend-like-there’s-no-tomorrow approach, are investing capital, and private ones are not. Leland Miller and Derek Scissors note that their China Beige Book survey of 2,200 Chinese businesses shows that in the first quarter, capital expenditure by lumbering state firms was “stable from a year ago” while private companies “cut back substantially.”
That is an issue because virtually no one thinks an even bigger state sector is a good idea. Yet Chinese leaders have opted for one because, as a practical matter, they have no choice. Structural economic reform, which everyone knows is necessary, would lower growth rates too far, well below zero. That’s politically unacceptable, so they continue with a strategy that must result in a crash, simply because it buys time.
It is no coincidence that Chinese leaders are now pressuring analysts and others to brighten their forecasts and not report dour news, to show zhengnengliang—“positive energy”—a sure indication Beijing has run out of real options.
China, therefore, has passed not only an inflection point but also the point of no return. There are no longer off ramps on the road leading over the cliff.
And that thud you just heard when the first April numbers were issued? That was the big black-and-white bear hitting the floor.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.