A petrochemical plant on the outskirts of Shanghai. Chinese chemical industry production has been negative on a year-to-date basis since February
Falling output in China and slowing growth globally suggest difficult years ahead, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog
Chemicals are the best leading indicator for the global economy. Data for both Chinese and global chemical production, shown in the first chart, are warning that we may now be headed into recession.
China’s stimulus programme has been the key driver for the world’s post-2008 recovery, as we discussed here in May (“China’s lending bubble is history”).
It accounted for about half of the global $33tn in stimulus programmes and its decline is currently having a dual impact, as it reduces both demand for EM commodities and the availability of global credit.
In turn, this reversal is impacting the global economy — already battling headwinds from trade tariffs and higher oil prices.
Initially the impact was most noticeable in emerging markets but the scale of the downturn is now starting to hit the wider economy:
- China’s demand has been the growth engine for the global economy since 2008, and its scale has been such that this lost demand cannot be compensated elsewhere
- China’s shadow banking bubble has been a major source of speculative lending, helping to finance property bubbles in China and many global cities
- It also financed a domestic construction boom in China on a scale never seen before, creating excess demand for a wide range of commodities
But now the lending bubble is bursting. The second chart shows the extent of the downturn this year. Shadow banking is down 84% ($557bn) in the year to September, according to official People’s Bank of China data. Total Social Financing is down 12% ($188bn), despite an increase in official bank lending to support strategic companies.
It seems highly likely that the property bubble has begun to burst, with China Daily reporting that new home loans in Shanghai were down 77% in the first half. In turn, auto sales fell in each month during the third quarter, as buyers can no longer count on windfall gains from property speculation to finance their purchases.
The absence of speculative Chinese buyers, anxious to move their cash offshore, is also having a significant impact on demand outside China in former property hotspots in New York, London and elsewhere.
The chemical industry has been flagging this decline with increasing urgency since February, when Chinese production went negative on a year-to-date basis. The initial decline was certainly linked to the government’s campaign to reduce pollution by shutting down many older and more polluting factories.
But there has been no recovery over the summer, with both August and September showing 3.1% declines according to American Chemistry Council data. Inevitably, Asian production has also now started to decline, due to its dependence on exports to China. In turn, like a stone thrown into a pond, the wider ripples are starting to reach western economies.
President Trump’s trade wars aren’t helping, of course, as they have already begun to increase prices for US consumers. Ford, for example, has reported that its costs have increased by $1bn as a result of steel and aluminium tariffs. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has also caused oil prices as a percentage of GDP to rise to levels typically associated with recession in the past.
The rationale is simply that consumers only have so much cash to spend, and money they spend on rising gasoline and heating costs can’t be spent on the discretionary items that drive GDP growth.
It seems unlikely, however, that Trump’s trade war with China will lead to his expected “quick win”. China has faced far more severe hardships in recent decades, and there are few signs that it is preparing to change core policies. The trade war will inevitably have at least a short-term negative economic impact but, paradoxically, it also supports the government’s strategy to escape the “middle income trap” by ending China’s role as the “low-skilled factory of the world”, and moving up the ladder to more value-added operations and services.
The trade war therefore offers an opportunity to accelerate the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), initially by moving unsophisticated and often polluting factories offshore. It also emphasises the priority given to the services sector:
- Already companies, both private and state-owned, are focusing their international acquisitions in BRI countries. According to EY, 12 per cent of overall Chinese (non-financial) outbound investment was in BRI countries in 2017, versus 9 per cent in 2016, and 2018 is likely to be considerably higher. Apart from south-east Asia, we expect eastern and central Europe to be beneficiaries, given the new BRI infrastructure links, as the map highlights
- Data from the Caixin/Markit services purchasing managers’ index for September suggests the sector remains in growth mode. And government statistics suggest the services sector was slightly over half of the economy in the first half, with its official growth reported at 7.6 per cent versus overall GDP growth of 6.8 per cent
We expect China to come through the pain caused by the unwinding of the stimulus bubbles, and ultimately be strengthened by the need to refocus on sustainable rather than speculative growth. But it will not be an easy few years for China and the global economy.
The rising tide of stimulus has led many investors and chief executives to look like geniuses. Now the downturn will probably lead to the appearance of winners and losers, with the latter likely to be in the majority.
Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.
Companies and investors are starting to finalise their plans for the coming year. Many are assuming that the global economy will grow by 3% – 3.5%, and are setting targets on the basis of “business as usual”. This has been a reasonable assumption for the past 25 years, as the chart confirms for the US economy:
- US GDP has been recorded since 1929, and the pink shading shows periods of recession
- Until the early 1980’s, recessions used to occur about once every 4 – 5 years
- But then the BabyBoomer-led economic SuperCycle began in 1983, as the average Western Boomer moved into the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age group that drives economic growth
- Between 1983 – 2000, there was one, very short, recession of 8 months. And that was only due to the first Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Since then, the central banks have taken over from the Boomers as the engine of growth. They cut interest rates after the 2001 recession, deliberately pumping up the housing and auto markets to stimulate growth. And since the 2008 financial crisis, they have focused on supporting stock markets, believing this will return the economy to stable growth:
- The above chart of the S&P 500 highlights the extraordinary nature of its post-2008 rally
- Every time it has looked like falling, the Federal Reserve has rushed to its support
- First there was co-ordinated G20 support in the form of low interest rates and easy credit
- This initial Quantitative Easing (QE) was followed by QE2 and Operation Twist
- Then there was QE3, otherwise known as QE Infinity, followed by President Trump’s tax cuts
In total, the Fed has added $3.8tn to its balance sheet since 2009, whilst China, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan added nearly $30tn of their own stimulus. Effectively, they ensured that credit was freely available to anyone with a pulse, and that the cost of borrowing was very close to zero. As a result, debt has soared and credit quality collapsed. One statistic tells the story:
“83% of U.S. companies going public in the first nine months of this year lost money in the 12 months leading up to the IPO, according to data compiled by University of Florida finance professor Jay Ritter. Ritter, whose data goes back to 1980, said this is the highest proportion on record. The previous highest rate of money-losing companies going public had been 81% in 2000, at the height of the dot-com bubble.”
And more than 10% of all US/EU companies are “zombies” according to the Bank of International Settlements (the central banks’ bank), as they:
“Rely on rolling over loans as their interest bill exceeds their EBIT (Earnings before Interest and Taxes). They are most likely to fail as liquidity starts to dry up”.
2019 – 2021 BUDGETS NEED TO FOCUS ON KEY RISKS TO THE BUSINESS
For the past 25 years, the Budget process has tended to assume that the external environment will be stable. 2008 was a shock at the time, of course, but time has blunted memories of the near-collapse that occurred. The issue, however, as I noted here in September 2008 is that:
“A long period of stability, such as that experienced over the past decade, eventually leads to major instability.
“This is because investors forget that higher reward equals higher risk. Instead, they believe that a new paradigm has developed, where high leverage and ‘balance sheet efficiency’ should be the norm. They therefore take on high levels of debt, in order to finance ever more speculative investments.”
This is the great Hyman Minsky’s explanation for financial crises and panics. Essentially, it describes how confidence eventually leads to complacency in the face of mounting risks. And it is clear that today, most of the lessons from 2008 have been forgotten. Sadly, it therefore seems only a matter of “when”, not “if”, a new financial crisis will occur.
So prudent companies will prepare for it now, whilst there is still time. You will not be able to avoid all the risks, but at least you won’t suddenly wake up one morning to find panic all around you.
The chart gives my version of the key risks – you may well have your own list:
- Global auto and housing markets already seem to be in decline; world trade rose just 0.2% in August
- Global liquidity is clearly declining, and Western political debate is ever-more polarised
- Uncertainty means that the US$ is rising, and geopolitical risks are becoming more obvious
- Stock markets have seen sudden and “unexpected” falls, causing investors to worry about “return of capital”
- The risks of a major recession are therefore rising, along with the potential for a rise in bankruptcies
Of course, wise and far-sighted leaders may decide to implement policies that will mitigate these risks, and steer the global economy into calmer waters. Then again, maybe our leaders will decide they are “fake news” and ignore them.
Either way, prudent companies and investors may want to face up to these potential risks ahead of time. That is why I have titled this year’s Outlook, ‘Budgeting for the end of “Business as Usual“. As always, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss these issues in more depth.
Please click here to download a copy of all my Budget Outlooks 2007 – 2018.
“Nobody could ever have seen this coming” is the normal comment after sudden share price falls. And its been earning its money over the past week as “suddenly” share prices of some of the major “story stocks” on the US market have hit air pockets, as the chart shows:
- Facebook was the biggest “surprise”, falling 20% on Thursday to lose $120bn in value
- Twitter was another “surprise”, falling 21% on Friday to lose $7bn
- Netflix has also lost 15% over the past 16 days, losing $27bn
- Tesla has lost 20% over the past 6 weeks, losing $13bn
These are quite major falls for stocks which were supposed to be unstoppable in terms of their market advances.
Of course, their supporters could say it was just a healthy correction and a “buying opportunity”. And they might add that so far, other “story stocks” such as Alphabet, Apple and Amazon are still doing well. But others might say a paradigm shift is underway, and these sudden shocks are just the early warning that the central banks’ Quantitative Easing bubble is finally starting to burst.
They might have a point, looking at the second set of charts:
- Twitter stopped being a major growth story as long ago as 2015, since when its user growth has been relatively slow, even going negative in some quarters
- Facebook stopped showing major growth in active users 18 months ago – and in 2018, it has been flat in N America and losing subscribers in Europe, whilst Asia and the Rest of the World are also heading downwards
- Tesla, of course, has been a serial disappointment. Its founder, Elon Musk, was brutally honest when founding the company in 2003, saying it had a 10% chance of success. Since then, it has mostly failed to meet its production targets. It was supposed to be making 5000 Tesla 3 cars a week by the end of last year, but according to Bloomberg’s Model 3 tracker, it is currently producing only 2825/week. Around 0.5 million buyers have paid their $1k deposits and are still waiting for their car – and Tesla needs their cash if its not to run out of money
- Netflix is another “story stock” now seeing a downturn in subscriber growth. Yet at its peak it had a market value of $181bn, with net income for this quarter forecast by the company at just $307m. Like Tesla, it was valued at a higher value than comparable businesses such as Disney, which have had solid earnings streams for decades.
The common factor with all 4 stocks is that they have a great “narrative” or “story”. Elon Musk has held investors spellbound whilst he told them of unparalleled riches to come from his innovation. This seemed to be the same with Facebook until the furore arose over the data user scandal with Cambridge Analytica. Twitter and Netflix have also had a great “story”, which overcame the need to show real earnings even after years of investment.
THE LIQUIDITY BUBBLES ARE STARTING TO BURST AS CENTRAL BANK STIMULUS SLOWS
In other words, reality seems to be starting to intrude on the “story”, just as it did at the end of the dot-com bubble in 2000, and the US subprime bubble in 2008. The key, then as now, is the end of the stimulus policies that created the bubbles, as the 3rd set of charts shows:
- Slowly but surely, the US Federal Reserve is finally raising interest rates back to more normal levels
- And more importantly, China’s shadow bank lending is declining – H1 was down by $468bn versus 2017
Even the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan have signalled they might finally be about to cut back on the combined $5.75tn of lending, often at negative rates, that they pumped into the markets between 2015 – March 2018.
The issue is simple. All bubbles need more and more air to be pumped into them to keep growing. Once the air stops being added, they start to burst. And for the moment, at least, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Tesla are all acting as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, warning that the great $33tn Quantitative Easing bubble may be starting to burst.
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As China’s shadow banking is reined in, the impact on the global economy is already clear, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog
China’s shadow banking sector has been a major source of speculative lending to the global economy. But 2018 has seen it entering its end-game, as our first chart shows, collapsing by 64% in renminbi terms in January to April from the same period last year (by $274bn in dollar terms).
The start of the year is usually a peak period for lending, with banks getting new quotas for the year.
The downturn was also noteworthy as it marked the end of China’s lending bubble, which began in 2009 after the financial crisis. Before then, China’s total social financing (TSF), which includes official and shadow lending, had averaged 2 times gross domestic product in the period from 2002 to 2008. But between 2009 and 2013, it jumped to 3.2 times GDP as China’s stimulus programme took off.
It is no accident, for example, that China’s Tier 1 cities boast some of the highest house price-to-earnings ratios in the world or, indeed, that Chinese buyers have dominated key areas of the global property market in recent years.
The picture began to change with the start of President Xi Jinping’s first term in 2013, as our second chart confirms. Shadow banking’s share of TSF has since fallen from nearly 50% to just 15% by April, almost back to the 8% level of 2002. TSF had already slowed to 2.4 times GDP in 2014 to 2017.
The start of Mr Xi’s second term has seen him in effect take charge of the economy through the mechanism of his central leading groups. He has also been able to place his supporters in key positions to help ensure alignment as the policy changes are rolled out.
This year’s lending data are therefore likely to set a precedent for the future, rather than being a one-off blip. Although some of the shadow lending was reabsorbed in the official sector, TSF actually fell 14% ($110bn) in the first four months of the year. Already the economy is noticing the impact. Auto sales, for example, which at the height of the stimulus programme grew more than 50% in 2009 and by a third in 2010, have seen just 3% growth so far this year.
The downturn also confirms the importance of Mr Xi’s decision to make “financial deleveraging” the first of his promised “three tough battles” to secure China’s goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020, as we discussed in February.
It maps on to the IMF’s warning in its latest Global Stability Financial Report that:
“In China, regulators have taken a number of steps to reduce risks in the financial system. Despite these efforts, however, vulnerabilities remain elevated. The use of leverage and liquidity transformation in risky investment products remains widespread, with risks residing in opaque corners of the financial system.”
The problems relate to the close linkage between China’s Rmb250tn ($40tn) banking sector and the shadow banks, through its exposure to the Rmb75tn off-balance-sheet investment vehicles. The recent decision to create a new Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission is another sign of the changes under way, as this will eliminate the previous opportunity for arbitrage created by the existence of separate standards in the banking and insurance industries for the same activity, such as leasing.
As the IMF’s chart below highlights, lightly regulated vehicles have played a critical role in China’s credit boom. Banks, for example, have been able to use the shadow sector to repackage high-risk credit investments as low-risk retail savings products, which are then made available in turn to consumers at the touch of their smartphone button. This development has heightened liquidity risks among the small and medium-sized banks, whose reliance on short-term non-deposit funding remains high. The IMF notes, for example, that “more than 80% of outstanding wealth management products are billed as low risk”.
Mr Xi clearly knows he faces a tough battle to rein-in leverage, given the creativity that has been shown by the banks in ramping up their lending over the past decade. The stimulus programme has also created its own supporters in the construction and related industries, as large amounts of cash have been washing around China’s property markets, and finding its way into overseas markets.
But Mr Xi is now China’s most powerful leader since Mao, and it would seem unwise to bet against him succeeding with his deleveraging objective, even if it does create short-term pain for the economy as shadow banking is brought back under control.
As Gabriel Wildau has reported, the official sector is already under pressure from Beijing to boost its capital base. Analysts are suggesting that $170bn of new capital may be required by the mid-sized banks, whilst Moody’s estimates the four megabanks may require more than double this amount by 2025 in terms of “special debt” to meet new Financial Stability Board rules.
Essentially, therefore, China’s lending bubble is now history and the tide of capital flows is reversing. It is therefore no surprise that global interest rates are now on the rise, with the US 10-year rate breaking through 3%. Investors and companies might be well advised to prepare for some big shocks ahead. As Warren Buffett once wisely remarked, it is “only when the tide goes out, do you discover who’s been swimming naked”.
Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.
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Last year it was the near-doubling in US 10-year interest rates. In 2015, it was the oil price fall. This year, there is really only one candidate for ‘Chart of the Year’ – it has to be Bitcoin:
- It was trading at around $1000 at the start of 2017 and had reached $5000 by August
- Then, after a brief correction, it stormed ever-higher, reaching $7000 last month
- On Friday it was trading around $19000 – fortunes are being made and lost all the time
The beauty of the concept is that nobody really has a clue about what it is all about. You can read the Wikipedia entry as many times as you like, and still not gain a clear picture of what Bitcoin is, and what it does. But why would you want to know such boring details?
All anyone has to know is that its price is going higher and higher. Plus, of course, there is the opportunity to laugh at stories of people who bought Bitcoins, but then lost the code – for an excellent example by a former editor of WIRED (with a happy ending), click here.
But there is another side to the story, as the second chart suggests. “Mining” Bitcoins now uses more electricity than a number of real countries, like Ireland, for example:
- On Friday, Bitcoin’s current annual consumption reached 33.73TWh – equivalent to Belarus’ 9 million people
- Each transaction produces 117.5kg of CO2, as the network is powered by cheap coal-fired power plants in China
- It also uses thousands of times more energy than a credit card swipe
And, of course, interest is growing all the time as people rush to get rich. Today sees the start of Bitcoin futures trading on the CME, a week after they began on the CBOE and CME. Bloomberg suggests Exchange Traded Funds based on Bitcoin will be next. In turn, these developments create more and more demand, and push prices ever-higher.
Comparisons have been made with the Dutch tulip mania in 1836-7, when prices peaked at 5200 guilders. At that time, Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch painting was being sold for 1600 guilders, and at its peak a tulip bulb would have bought 156000lbs of bread. Bitcoin probably won’t equal this ratio until next year, if its current price climb continues.
Of course, one key difference between tulips and Bitcoin is supposedly that there were always more tulips to buy – whilst there are just 21 million Bitcoins available to be mined. And apparently, around 80% of these have been mined. Bitcoin enthusiasts therefore suggest Bitcoins will have increasing scarcity value. But, of course, anyone can create a crypto-currency and many people have – such as Bitcoin Cash and Bitcoin Gold, and the Ethereum family.
Yet already, Bitcoin’s market capitalisation* is getting close to that of the “tech stocks” such as Apple, Alphabet (formerly Google), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook as the chart from Pension Partners shows:
- On 7 December, less than 2 weeks ago, its market cap was already higher than major US stocks such as Home Depot and Pfizer
- On Friday, it hit $323bn, above Wal-Mart and P&G and close to ExxonMobil
- This also made it worth more than the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights
- And the total market cap of the 10 largest crypto-currencies has now reached $500bn, equal to Facebook
This is an amazing amount of money to be tied up in an asset which has no intrinsic value. After all, what is Bitcoin? It certainly isn’t real, although the media like to picture it as a gold coin:
- Although it is called a crypto-currency, its volatility makes it unattractive as a currency – major changes in a currency’s value can easily cause businesses (and countries) to go bust, and Bitcoin’s value has moved by 1900% just this year
- Nor is it a method of settling transactions, as its value is increasing all the time – obviously a good deal for the person who receives the Bitcoin when its price is rising, but why would any sensible person pay with a Bitcoin?
- So essentially, therefore, Bitcoin is simply a speculative asset, where its value is based on the “greater fool theory”, which says “I know its not really worth anything, but I am clever enough to sell out before it hits the top”
The “story” behind its boom is also powerful because it is linked to the great investment theme of our time, the internet. We have all seen the fortunes that can be made by investing in companies such as Apple. Now, Bitcoin supposedly offers us the chance to invest in the Next Big Thing – a new currency, entirely based on the internet.
BITCOIN HAS MANY PARALLELS WITH OTHER MANIAS IN HISTORY, SUCH AS THE SOUTH SEA BUBBLE
The Bitcoin mania has many parallels, such as with the South Sea Bubble from 1719 – 1720. Its power was also based on “the greater fool theory”, and its linkage to the great investment theme of its time – the opening up of foreign trade. As the chart from Marc Faber shows, one of its early investors was Sir Isaac Newton – one of the most intelligent people ever to live on the planet, who discovered Newton’s laws of motion and invented calculus. Newton doubled his money very quickly when he first invested, but then re-invested at a higher price – and lost the lot.
Of course, all the dreams associated with Bitcoin and the other crypto-currencies may come true. That is part of their attraction. Another part of their attraction is for criminals, who can launder money without being traced. So most likely, prices will continue rising for some time as more and more people around the world see a chance of getting rich very quickly. We have never seen a global mania before, so nobody can tell how long it will last.
The question for governments, however, is what would happen to the economy if the mania collapsed? Only China has so far banned Bitcoin trading, as Pan Gongsheng, a deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, explained:
“If we had not shut down bitcoin exchanges and cracked down on ICOs several months ago, if China still accounted for more than 80% of the world’s bitcoin trading and ICO fundraising, everyone, what would happen today? Thinking of this question makes me scared.”
Having let the mania develop this far, other governments are in a difficult position – millions of people would complain if they closed down these currencies today. And most governments are reluctant to intervene as, in reality, crypto-currencies are essentially the creation of central bank stimulus policies, as explained by US Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, in November 2010:
“Higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.”
But by letting the mania continue, the potential impact from its collapse will increase. Added together, crypto-currencies already have the same market cap as Facebook – and could soon overtake Apple to become the most valuable “stock” in the world. Yet unlike Apple, they have no sales, no income and no assets.
Bernanke and the major central banks wanted to stimulate investors’ “animal spirits”, so that they would take on more and more risk. Crypto-currencies are therefore the logical end result of their post-crisis strategy. The end of the Bitcoin mania, whenever it occurs, will therefore also mark the end of stimulus policies.
*Bitcoin’s market capitalisation is its equity valuation – the current dollar price multiplied by the number of Bitcoins in existence
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Greed and fear are the primary emotions driving China’s housing and auto markets today, as China’s lending bubble hits new heights. For ordinary citizens, greed is the key driver:
Average home prices in Beijing rose an eye-popping 63% between October 2015 – February 2017
In Shanghai, one enterprising estate agent (realtor) has married 4 of his clients to enable them to buy a home
Mr Wang’s story highlights the bubble mentality that has taken over the market. As the Daily Telegraph reports, 30-year old Mr Wang:
“Married, and then quickly divorced 4 women to allow them to circumvent strict property laws which seek to cool prices in China’s booming cities, and pocketed more than £8000 ($10k) from each transaction. Once the paperwork is put through, Wang applies for a divorce and puts himself on the market again”.
This is just the latest phase of a market craze, as I noted in November, when one Shenzhen resident told the South China Morning Post:
“The only thing I know is that buying property will not turn out to be a loss. From several thousand yuan a square metre to more than 100,000 yuan. Did it ever fall? Nope.” He and his wife got divorced in February, in order to buy a 4th apartment in Shanghai for 3.6m yuan (US$530k) on the basis that “ If we don’t buy this apartment, we’ll miss the chance to get rich.”
A collective delusion has swept China’s Tier 1 cities, just as happened in the USA during the sub-prime bubble. Amazingly, China’s property bubble is even larger than sub-prime. Unremarkable pieces of land in Shanghai are now being sold at $2000/sq foot ($21500/sq metre), nearly 3 times the average land price in Manhattan, New York.
It is understandable in some ways, as Chinese buyers have never known a downturn, as I noted in September:
“It is also easy to forget that housing was all state-owned until 1998, and still is in most rural areas. Urban housing was built and allocated by the state – and there wasn’t even a word for “mortgage” in the Chinese language. Not only have home-buyers never lived through a major house price collapse, they have also had few other places to invest their money”.
The scale is also much larger, as UBS have reported:
“Chinese banks’ outstanding loans extended to the property industry were between Rmb 54tn – Rmb 72 tn in 2016 ($7.8tn – $10.4tn).”
The chart above confirms this analysis. In reality, the key driver for the bubble has been the growth in lending. As with the US subprime bubble, this has not only impacted housing markets, but also auto sales:
Q1 lending (Total Social Financing) averaged Rmb 2.4tn/month, 2.2x the Rmb 700bn/month level in Q1 2008
Q1 auto sales averaged 1.9 million, 2.06x the 733k/month average in Q1 2008
China’s GDP was only $11.2tn last year, meaning that its property sector loans are more than 2/3rds of GDP.
The problem is that everyone loves a bubble while it lasts. And so, as in the US during subprime, most analysts are keen to argue that “everything is fine, nothing to worry about here”.
In the US, we were told at the peak of the bubble in 2005 by then Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, that house prices would never fall on a national basis
Today, similar wishful thinking dominates, based on the myth that China has suddenly developed a vast middle class, with Western levels of incomes
The problem, of course, as the second chart shows, is that this is also not true. Annual disposable income for city-dwellers averaged just $5061 last year, whilst in rural areas it averaged only $1861. You really don’t buy many homes or cars with that level of income, unless a massive lending bubble is underway.
And this is why fear is the right emotion for everyone outside China. Its lending bubble has driven the “recovery” in global growth since 2009 – pushing up values of everything from homes to oil prices. So anyone who remembers the end of the US subprime bubble should be very scared about what could happen when – not if – China’s bubble bursts.
We can all hope that President Xi’s new policies will enable a “soft landing” to occur, and gently unwind the stimulus policies put in place by Populist Premier Li and his predecessor Premier Wen? But hope is not a strategy. And as the Guardian reported last month:
“Goldman Sachs is said to estimate the chance of a financial crisis in China this year at 25%, and in 2018 at 50%.”