Holy crap. Shaun Rein does it again.

Words totally fail me. And I won’t say another word. Just go and see for yourself.

Am I really reading this?


Thomas Friedman: “Is China the next Enron?”

Oh no, here we go again! Is China about to soar or plummet? We are literally up to our eyeballs in punditry about the fate and future of China. Friedman, the only columnist I know to have a metric named after him, has to get into the act, of course. In this instance, I admit, I tend to agree with him.

Reading The Herald Tribune over breakfast in Hong Kong harbor last week, my eye went to the front-page story about how James Chanos — reportedly one of America’s most successful short-sellers, the man who bet that Enron was a fraud and made a fortune when that proved true and its stock collapsed — is now warning that China is “Dubai times 1,000 — or worse” and looking for ways to short that country’s economy before its bubbles burst.

China’s markets may be full of bubbles ripe for a short-seller, and if Mr. Chanos can find a way to make money shorting them, God bless him. But after visiting Hong Kong and Taiwan this past week and talking to many people who work and invest their own money in China, I’d offer Mr. Chanos two notes of caution.

First, a simple rule of investing that has always served me well: Never short a country with $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves.

Second, it is easy to look at China today and see its enormous problems and things that it is not getting right. For instance, low interest rates, easy credit, an undervalued currency and hot money flowing in from abroad have led to what the Chinese government Sunday called “excessively rising house prices” in major cities, or what some might call a speculative bubble ripe for the shorting. In the last few days, though, China’s central bank has started edging up interest rates and raising the proportion of deposits that banks must set aside as reserves — precisely to head off inflation and take some air out of any asset bubbles.

And that’s the point. I am reluctant to sell China short, not because I think it has no problems or corruption or bubbles, but because I think it has all those problems in spades — and some will blow up along the way (the most dangerous being pollution). But it also has a political class focused on addressing its real problems, as well as a mountain of savings with which to do so (unlike us).

He goes on to mildly ridicule Chanos (who can’t be all bad, since a recent article about him in Politico actually linked to one of my posts!). And I have to say I think Friedman is right. We’ll see some deflating of the asset bubble and some serious pain. But nothing is about to collapse. Not China. Not the US.

We are being deluged with bad news about China, and yesterday’s Google story only made China look worse. “Bubbles” and “house of cards” and “built on sand” are among the metaphors that seem to be co-joined to so many discussions of China. Yesterday, I found myself so convinced that I actually went and bought a few hundred shares of a stock, FXP, that shorts the Xinhua index. So many bad vibes being sent out by so many pundits! Surely China has got to come careening downward.

I was lucky and made a profit (about enough to buy me a meal at Bellagio). But this morning I sold my shares and am long China again. I stepped back and realized I was getting sucked into the hype that’s building. And whenever there’s a common perception of inevitability, usually exactly the opposite happens. And it’s just as easy to get sucked into the counter-hype – the euphoric predictions of an economically invincible China assuming the mantle of world leadership. So hard to see what the real situation is amid all the clutter and noise.

I know, we’ve talked this to death. We don’t need to have another long food fight about it. So then why do I keep posting these kinds of articles from both sides after so many interminable threads? Because I like to know what the influencers are saying (even questionable ones like Friedman), I like to know both sides, I like to compare opinions and expose dumb arguments and applaud smart ones. This one is probably on the smart side. Take it or leave it. Time will tell.


China’s century? Niall Ferguson says yes.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Niall Ferguson, the bad-boy of world history, always trying (often successfully) to pull the rug out from under our conventional belief systems and shatter our sacred illusions. His great history of WWI, The Pity of War, was a wonderful if infuriating read; infuriating because he constantly speculated about “what if,” and even arrived at the conclusion that Germany was meant to have won the war and the world would have been better off if it had. (Who knows? But he certainly makes an elegant argument.) He has especially ruffled feathers for praising colonialism and empire.

At the end of his 2006 history of 20th century wars, Wars of the World, Ferguson states matter-of-factly that the age of Western ascendancy has ended, and that of Eastern ascendancy begun. I read the book in Beijing when it came out during the Bush administration and it made perfect sense – America was caught in an impossible place, bleeding money, choked by debt and snagged in two seemingly endless wars. And I was seeing with my own eyes what China was capable of. Now, nearly three years later, things look considerably worse for America, something that didn’t seem possible in early 2007.

The article by Ferguson that I’m looking at today is absolutely a must-read. I know already who it will infuriate and who it will delight. I hear all the praise and all the objections. Allow me to offer a longer-than-usual snip. (I’m tempted to simply paste the entire thing it’s so interesting.)

Back in 2004 I warned that the US had imperceptibly come to rely on east Asian capital to stabilise its unbalanced current and fiscal accounts. The decline and fall of America’s undeclared empire might therefore be due not to terrorists at the gates nor to the rogue regimes that sponsor them, but to a fiscal crisis at home.

The realisation that the yawning US current account deficit was increasingly being financed by Asian central banks, with the Chinese moving into pole position, was, for me at least, the eureka moment of the decade.

When, in late 2006, Moritz Schularick and I coined the word “Chimerica” to describe what we saw as the dangerously unsustainable relationship between parsimonious China and profligate America, we had identified one of the keys to the coming global financial crisis.

The illusion of American hyperpuissance was shattered not once but twice in the past decade. Nemesis came first in the backstreets of Sadr City and the valleys of Helmand, which revealed not only the limits of American military might but also, more importantly, the naivety of neoconservative visions of a democratic wave in the greater Middle East. And it struck a second time with the escalation of the subprime crisis of 2007 into the credit crunch of 2008 and finally the “great recession” of 2009. After the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the sham verities of the “Washington Consensus” and the “Great Moderation” were consigned forever to oblivion.

And what remained? By the end of the decade the western world could only look admiringly at the speed with which the Chinese government had responded to the breathtaking collapse in exports caused by the US credit crunch, a collapse which might have been expected to devastate Asia.

While the developed world teetered on the verge of a second Great Depression, China suffered little more than a minor growth slow-down, thanks to a highly effective government stimulus programme and massive credit expansion.

It would of course be ingenuous to assume that the next decade will not bring problems for China, too. Running a society of 1.3bn people with the kind of authoritarian planned capitalism hitherto associated with the city-state Singapore (population 4.5m) is fraught with difficulties. But the fact remains that Asia’s latest and biggest industrial revolution scarcely paused to draw breath during the 2007-09 financial crisis.

And what a revolution! Compare a tenfold growth of gross domestic product in the space of 26 years with a fourfold increase in the space of 70. The former has been China’s achievement between 1978 and 2004; the latter was Britain’s between 1830 and 1900. Or consider the fact that US GDP was more than eight times that of China’s at the beginning of this decade. Now it is barely four times larger – and if the projections from Jim O’Neill, Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, prove to be correct, China will overtake America as soon as 2027: in less than two decades.

I am not convinced it’s true that China “scarcely paused to draw breath during the 2007-09 financial crisis.” I think the crisis dealt China a severe blow from which it’s still reeling. But…. I still think Ferguson is essentially right, that the pendulum is swinging in anew direction and the balance of power is shifting faster than anyone would have believed just a decade ago.

China is going to have to deal with unbelievable problems. (And yes, so is America.) China’s key cities are in the middle of a property bubble; its environment is so fragile whole swathes of the ecology may be doomed; corruption is so rampant even the central government recognizes it can undo much of the progress of the past three decades; and there are still some 650 million living in deep poverty.

Predictions of China’s collapse appear in the news every day, as do prediction of America’s. I don’t pay these predictions much heed. Things happen far too slowly, with far too much lethargy, for either China or the US to go down in a blaze. Recessions, unrest, turmoil, misery, strife, bankruptcies, economic upheaval – we may see all those things, but I don’t believe we’re going to see either system collapse. What we will see and are seeing, as Ferguson says, is a tipping of the scale, with China gaining influence as US influence wanes. Where the scales will stop is anyone’s guess. I still can’t imagine China as an economic equal – it simply has too much poverty and lack of spending power – but I do see it creeping upwards, at times imperceptibly. It has been better than the US in making sure it gets what it needs to keep the engines roaring, even if it means coddling some of the world’s most unsavory dictators and rogue regimes. And somehow, for all its impossible headaches, it keeps on going.

Ferguson, after making the case for China’s ascendancy, ends on an ambiguous note.

What gave the west the edge over the east over the past 500 years? My answer is six “killer apps”: the capitalist enterprise, the scientific method, a legal and political system based on private property rights and individual freedom, traditional imperialism, the consumer society and what Weber probably misnamed the “Protestant” ethic of work and capital accumulation as ends in themselves.

Some of those things (numbers one and two) China has clearly replicated. Others it may be in the process of adopting with some “Confucian” modifications (imperialism, consumption and the work ethic). Only number three – the Western way of law and politics – shows little sign of emerging in the one-party state that is the People’s Republic.

But does China need dear old democracy to achieve enduring prosperity?

The next decade may well answer that question. Then again, it may take another 500 years to be certain that there really is a viable alternative to western ascendancy.

I think China has already shown it doesn’t need “dear old democracy,” no matter how apoplectic that may make some of its critics. It will lean more and more in that direction, especially as incomes rise and people realize they are not as dependent on the government as it would like them to believe. But democracy as we know it and rule of law – well, despite many encouraging stories of reform, I’m not going to recommend anyone hold their breath.

All in all, I think Fergie gets it right. Looking at China’s history and its staying power, and at its sheer industriousness and optimism, I have to discount the reports of China’s imminent demise. And America’s too. I just think America will keep drifting lower as China edges higher, with lots of painful stumbles along the way.


The world’s largest shopping mall

Can you guess where it is?

You literally have to see it to believe it. This isn’t new; it came out four months ago, but I just saw it today. It drives home like nothing I’ve ever seen the difference between a ghost mall in the US (which is usually simply closed down and then leveled or left to deteriorate until it’s sold) and in China (where it can just keep on operating in what seems to be blissful disregard of reality).

Only one word keeps coming to mind as I watch it: sustainability. How long can places like this keep operating? How long can the charade continue? In most countries this wouldn’t go on past a few weeks or months. In China it could be years and years. But one thing seems certain: it can’t go on forever. Then again, this is China, and you just never know.

Watch the clip. It’s unforgettable.


China’s asset bubble

Aside from a post on canings in Singapore, the most linked-to and visited post I ever wrote was about the inevitable collapse of China’s luxury malls. Some will do fine, like the Village in Sanlitun (the stores on the street level and the restaurants, at least). Others, like Solana and Gemdale and The Place and 3.3, well, I don’t think they stand a chance. Overbuilt is overbuilt.

Taking a much more thorough, well-researched and intelligent approach to the always controversial issue of China’s bubbling economy than I did, one of my favorite reporters in Beijing warns of a property bubble that could cripple China for many years to come. Please indulge a healthy clip:

As fast as China is growing and urbanizing, its cities are churning out more office towers and luxury malls than can be leased for years to come. Tianjin, a gritty metropolis not far from Beijing, will soon have more prime office space than will be filled in a quarter-century at the current absorption rate. Shunyi County, in the capital’s suburbs, sold a residential plot last month for $400 per square foot, a new national record. The bidders were mostly state-owned companies and the winner none other than a developer owned by Shunyi County. Where the developer came up with the money for the purchase is unclear, but the county will nevertheless book $740 million as revenue from the sale.

China’s mercantilist trade policy is another contributor to its asset bubble. By artificially depressing the value of its currency and making it difficult for locals to invest abroad, China has forced an artificially large amount of capital to chase after domestic investments, inflating property and stock prices. It’s the same scenario China pursued in late 2007, before its stock market lost two-thirds of its value, but that era was characterized by monetary restraint compared with today.

“It’s a pure debt game,” says Andy Xie, an economist who advises private investors and sees the current bubble as “much worse than previous ones.”

In late November China’s ruling Politburo declared that the nation’s monetary and fiscal promiscuity will continue into 2010. The markets, predictably, were overjoyed. Economists who see parallels to the Russian and Brazilian financial crises a dozen years ago are less sanguine.

“The more debt that’s on the balance sheets, whether you see it or not, the more vulnerable borrowing entities become to shocks,” warns Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University and expert on China’s economy and sovereign debt.

China naysayers have been wrong before. Gordon Chang, author of the 2001 book The Coming Collapse of China, has warned–wrongly, so far–that doom lies around the corner. Cushioning China’s economy is its high growth rate, an estimated $260 billion (but declining) annual current account surplus and, at $2.3 trillion, the world’s biggest foreign exchange reserve.

Bubbles, it bears noting, tend to surprise many observers with their longevity. (A FORBES cover story warned six years too early that the U.S. housing bubble threatened to tank the economy.) But when bubbles do eventually blow, it’s usually with a bang.

Friends have been telling me about the deranged property prices in Beijing, and once again, as with the malls, it just strikes me as common sense that this is not sustainable. And you have to consider all the ripple effects a housing bust would foment – all those migrant workers on construction sites, all the construction machiney makers, the cement and lumber providers, all the ancillary businesses, door-knob makers and house painters….

What Epstein is describing mirrors to the letter what we saw in the US in five years ago, and is even more reckless: flipping properties and creating massive pools of debt and the same insane mass hypnosis: “Property values can only increase!” We all know how that goes.

I do not want to see this happen and hope Epstein is totally wrong. But again, my common sense tells me there’s no way he can be wrong. Any student of bubbles, from tulips to dot-coms, can see the gathering storm. I wouldn’t want to be owning any property in China when it meets land.


Update: Damn, forgot the obligatory disclaimer: The US started this mess and has been just as speculative and as consumed by the property orgy as China. This is not unique to China. But in China, the crash could be more painful considering the massive dependency on construction. But no one deserves more criticism than the US, and I have said this many times.


China’s domestic consumption – a myth?

There are some wildly divergent schools of thought on China’s economy, as you can see in this new post by my friend Dror (with whom I disagree on a lot of things). He blasts the rosy scenarios in some Western media claiming China will “1.) decouple” from the US and other countries it has depended on for exports and 2.) continue its growth by domestic consumption instead. His conclusion:

[I]n the real world, China’s economy is becoming increasingly dependent on investment in fixed-assets (by government, or via government-induced loans), and depends less, not more, on local consumption. China’s development trend and growth in real manufacturing income is very different from that of other “Asian Tigers” and seems to offer a very limited benefit to those working at the lowest paying jobs – which means they are not going to become the world’s new consumers any time soon.

It looks like the only decoupling we have been experiencing over the past 12 months is a decoupling from reality – a growing gap between what we read in the papers and what really happens in the global economy. There is a lot of growth in China, and while some people are making more money, there are even more people who don’t, and a few people who make more than everyone else combined. And while there is an increase in retail spending, local consumption is not likely to become China’s main growth engine any time soon.

No matter what the CIA World Fact Book or The Economist says, I’d have to agree that China is not ready to decouple from the US, just as we aren’t ready to decouple from them. I’m not as pessimistic as Dror is about China’s prospects, but the points he raises are definitely worth considering. Decoupling, I believe, is a long way off, as much as the propaganda wants you to think otherwise.


The peculiar persistence of Chinese communism

China is not about to collapse, democracy is not arriving in the forseeable future, censorship will continue, the CCP isn’t going away and it may still be in power generations from now.

Read this detailed and relatively balanced picture of why this is so. This may baffle and/or displease some of us, but it is reality so we had better get used to it and adapt to it as best we can. That doesn’t mean to kowtow before it and accept all it does with resignation and a sense of inevitability. But we do have to keep a clear head about how Chinese people view their government, and about how the circumstances that actually could lead to an overthrow of some sort simply aren’t there, at least not yet. You can point to the thousands of demonstrations, the ethnic unrest, the massive problems it faces, the environment, and those are all valid issues. But we are nowhere near a tipping point, and may never be. If you are sitting back and waiting for the coming collapse of China, it may be a very long and lonely wait.

Update: See CN Review’s post on the same article. Kai identifies the story’s weakest link, the author’s incredibly misguided suggestion that the US might consider actively helping Chinese people subvert the GFW.

Also, be sure to see this piece on China’s censorship of domestic social media sites, and the West’s misconceptions about the prevalence of Twitter here. This is a good example of Americans seeing China only through the American prism, getting outraged about the blocking of Twitter, never realizing Twitter’s role in China’s social media scene is next to zero. Excellent commentary by Kaiser Kuo.


World Bank Head: Dollar will lose its place to the euro and renminbi

Funny that we talked about this just yesterday in regard to a relatively obscure article, and now it is the 2nd leading story on the front page of the NY Times. Get a load of this:

The president of the World Bank said Monday that America’s days as an unchallenged economic superpower might be numbered and that dollar was likely to lose its favored position as the euro and the Chinese renmimbi assume bigger roles.

“The United States would be mistaken to take for granted the dollar’s place as the world’s predominant reserve currency,” the World Bank president, Robert B. Zoellick, said in a speech at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. “Looking forward, there will increasingly be other options to the dollar.”

Mr. Zoellick, who previously served as the United States trade representative and as deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush, said that the euro provided a “respectable alternative” for financing international transactions and that there was “every reason to believe that the euro’s acceptability could grow.”

Over the next 10 to 20 years, he said, the dollar would face growing competition from China’s currency, the renmimbi. Though Chinese leaders have minimized their currency’s use in international transactions, largely so they could keep greater control over exchange rates, Mr. Zoellick said the renmimbi would “evolve into a force in financial markets.”

Read the article. It is beyond extraordinary that the US-appointed head of the World Bank would be so in-your-face provocative, casting doubt on Obama’s strategy to lead us to financial recovery under the supervision of the Fed (as opposed to the Treasury) and openly questioning whether we can pay our debts without igniting inflation. I personally don’t think so, and it’s clear Zoellick doesn’t, either. All of these points were discussed here yesterday, and it’s clear Zoellick read this site before presenting at Johns Hopkins.


“The dollar is dead – long live the renminbi”

That’s the headline from this new article, one of many I’ve been seeing on the inevitable arrival of the post-dollar world. This one sees the current economic upheaval as a sort of gigantic correction that will restore equilibrium to a global economy knocked out of whack by huge trade and capital imbalances.

A seminal shift in behaviour is being forced on the deficit nations where, despite massive fiscal, monetary and financial system support, there is a continuing scarcity of credit and a growing propensity to save. Neither of these two constraints on demand will reverse any time soon.

This, in turn, is forcing change on surplus countries, whether they like it or not. Export-orientated nations can no longer rely on once profligate neighbours to buy their goods. Against all instinct, they are having to stimulate their own domestic demand.

The most startling results are evident in China, where retail sales grew an astonishing 15.4 per cent in August. Fiscal action has succeeded in boosting consumption in Germany, too, despite mistrust of what one German politician has dubbed “crass Keynesianism”.

…The challenge for a developing nation such as China is a rather different one. In China, the propensity to export and save is driven by an absence of any meaningful social security net, in combination with the legacy of its oppressive one child policy, which has deprived great swathes of the population of children to fall back on for support in old age.

What’s more, most Chinese don’t earn enough to buy the products they are producing, so in what has become the customary path for developing nations, they export the surplus and save the proceeds. Yet even in China the establishment of a newly affluent, free-spending middle class may now have gained an unstoppable momentum. In any case, the country can no longer rely on American consumers to provide jobs and growth. It needs a new growth model, which means ultimately adopting the Henry Ford principle that if you want a sustainable market for your products, you have to pay your workers enough to buy them.

How China actually goes about doing that – adopting Henry Ford’s model – is anybody’s guess, but I’d say if it ever happens it’s generations away. (It reminds me of hopes that Afghanistan’s poppy-growing peasants will adopt democracy in short order, become a second Vermont and work out their most pressing problems in civil town halls over chardonnay and quiche.) That’s the flaw in this article, glossing over just how excruciatingly difficult such a sea-change would be to implement. Its observations about the fate of the dollar and the new balance of power, however, seem to me spot on:

These trends – all of which pre-date the crisis but which, out of necessity, are being greatly accelerated by it – will eventually drive a move away from the dollar as the world’s reserve currency of choice. As China takes control of its economic destiny, spends more and saves less, there will be less willingness both to hold dollar assets and to submit to the domestic priorities of US monetary policy.

This is still a couple of years off, but China is preparing for it now. The dollar will spurt up periodically between now and then, but its general trend has to be downward. It is literally inevitable that the value of the dollar will be slashed over the next couple of years. The government needs to lower the value of the dollar, but is hoping to do so slowly. The problem is, those holding dollars, like China, are hardly stupid and know what’s going on, and will not cheerfully stand whistling on the deck as the Titanic goes down. And if there’s a panic and a global dumping of the dollar, it could mean havoc. For a good description of why this is so, and why the dollar simply must go down, check out this clip from CNBC (scroll down). Highly recommended, especially toward the end.

For the record, i have no background in economics and make no claims that I have even the slightest idea what I’m talking about. I just like to write about money and politics. What I do know, however, is that I first recommended buying gold here in the closing days of 2006. Here’s where it was when I recommended it then compared to now.



NY Times: China’s economy is back while US bleeds

This is the most outspoken article I’ve seen to date in a non-Chinese media proclaiming the bounce-back of China’s economy, in sharp and painful contrast to the ongoing mayhem in America.

Just eight months ago, thousands of Chinese workers rioted outside factories closed by the global downturn.

Now many of those plants have reopened and are hiring again. Some executives are even struggling to find enough temporary staff to fill Christmas orders.

The image of laid-off workers here returning to jobs stands in sharp contrast to the United States, where even as the economy shows signs of improvement, the unemployment rate continues to march toward double digits.

In China, even the hardest-hit factories — those depending on exports to the United States and Europe — are starting to rehire workers. No one here is talking about a jobless recovery.

Even the real estate market is picking up. In this industrial town 90 miles northwest of Shanghai, prospective investors lined up one recent Saturday to buy apartments in the still-unfinished Rose Avenue complex. Many of them slept outside the sales office all night.

“The whole country’s economy is back on track,” said Shi Yingyi, a 34-year-old housewife who joined the throng. “I feel more confident now.”

The confidence stems from China’s three-pronged effort — a combination of stimulus, liberal bank lending and broad government support for exports.

For those of us, like me, who wondered out loud hw China could possible come back so strong so soon when it’s economy was so dependent on exports to the US, the article says not to worry.

…American trade data shows that imports from China only eroded 14.2 percent in the first seven months of this year while imports from the rest of the world plunged 32.6 percent. China’s trade surplus, already the world’s largest, was $108 billion for the first seven months of this year.

No, the article says, China isn’t entirely out of the woods, and the heavy stimulus spending today could be sowing the seeds for trouble tomorrow. But the fact remains (the reporter says): China’s economy is roaring ahead while America’s appears more moribund than ever.

In a style unusually flippant for the NYT, the reporter notes the concerns about all of the fast and loose loans being made by China’s banks, to which he replies in the closing line, “But such concerns are so 2008.”

Maybe it’s all a show, a mirage. But I wouldn’t put any money on China’s economy crashing anytime soon, or on the US economy getting better. I’m here in America, and I can safely say that the mood here is grim, bordering on hopeless. And our suite of very special problems – trillions of dollars of toxic debt, the new wave of upcoming home foreclosures and the steady drop of the US dollar – have yet to deliver their wallop. (Which begs the question, what am I doing here? I’ll let you know once i figure it out.)