Having seen one of my favourite economists, Professor Michael Pettis, present twice in the past couple of months, I thought I’d try to distil his important messages about the future of the Chinese economy. For those with more time, he also writes a blog which you can find here. The recent presentations aside, I first saw Professor Pettis at a breakout session during the World Bank-IMF meeting in Tokyo in 2012. I was in the crowd in a packed room when Pettis said that Chinese GDP growth would likely fall to an average of 4% for the next decade. Across the audience there were audible titters and even people making the “he’s crazy” thing by swirling their fingers next to their heads. Little more than a year on, and the China slowdown view is nearer to the consensus – although you’d still find it difficult to find an official sub-5% China GDP forecast over any timeframe. Pettis maintains that 3-4% average growth is China’s likely future; the IMF’s World Economic Outlook has revised down its estimate of Chinese potential growth, but only from 8.9% to 8.0%. This morning the 2013 Chinese GDP number was released, at 7.7%, the 4th year in a row now of lower annual growth rates (and even then sceptics suggest that electricity consumption data and freight analysis show that the GDP numbers are overstated in the official statistics).
Professor Pettis’s starting point is that any investment led growth model eventually comes to an end as the quick wins from early infrastructure spending and urbanisation/industrialisation fade away and profitable investment opportunities become harder to find. And this investment has to be financed somehow – and it is the household that pays. For Brazil, the first example of an “economic miracle”, the investment was financed through high income taxes. In the “East Asian” model however (and this was true in Japan’s growth phase post WW2 as well as in China today) the burden on households is less explicit than taxation. The three hidden methods of boosting investment growth at the expense of consumption growth are:
- An undervalued exchange rate, boosting exporting manufacturers at the expense of higher imported goods prices for consumers.
- Low wage growth vs productivity growth, a subsidy for employers.
- And most importantly, financial repression. This confiscates savings from consumers and is another subsidy for, in particular the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Pettis estimates that Chinese interest rates have at times been 8-10% below where they “should” have been.
When the supply of profitable investment starts to run out, debt starts to rise more quickly than the ability to service that debt. This leads to a Japan style debt crisis or stagnation. Some estimate that 30% of new loans issued are simply to rollover debt that would otherwise be in default, and that non-performing loans are seriously underestimated in the official data (under 1% according to the China Banking Regulatory Commision). But what about reform, as promised by the Third Plenum? President Xi Jinping appears to recognise the problems that the economy faces, and accepts the need for rebalancing towards consumption. But he has also publically recognised the vested interests in China. The interests of the political elite are aligned with infrastructure projects and the State Owned Enterprises, and this will make reform exceptionally difficult. Studies of “successful” economic development have suggested that nations that democratise quickly and fully or nations that centralise aggressively do well economically over the long term. Examples of those that do neither are Argentina and Russia. It remains unclear whether China will follow a “successful” path, because of its vested interests. As a result growth of 7-8% per year might continue to be the debt-fuelled norm – but the hangover will be much bigger (disorderly negative growth rather than 3-4% in an orderly rotation away from investment towards consumption).
What would real reform look like, in Professor Pettis’s view?
- Reduced investment into the SOEs, local government and real estate sectors. Increased investment in SMEs.
- Liberalisation of interest rates to reflect the real risks of lending.
- Reduction in overall Chinese debt to GDP ratio.
You can read FT Alphaville’s Third Plenum cheat sheet here. You would have to say that progress towards what Michael Pettis thinks is necessary looks pretty slow – although it does appear that there has been some upwards movement in Chinese money market rates more recently, with the average 3 month money market rate (SHIBOR) moving up from below 5% in Q3 2013 to over 5.5% now.