Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Four Corners: No logic on China

On Monday night Four Corners aired a segment about the post-GFC Chinese stimulus and its massive impact on levels of investment and debt. It was entitled How China Fooled the World, which is somewhat baffling, because there is no tricky involved in their very real investment binge. As you can tell, I have my reservations about the show’s analysis. 

While I appreciate the effort to highlight just how dependent the world has become on Chinese investment, and indirectly on the policies of the Communist Party of China, the segment never made the point that the west has CHOSEN this path by refusing to independently support their local economies and employment by making tough political choices that involve reallocation of wealth and public investment. 

A far greater irony is that many in the west who fear a Chinese economic collapse usually end up pointing the finger at China’s political system and the lack of private enterprise or competition as the fundamental cause. Yet private enterprise and competition are fundamental features of the system that collapsed in the west during the financial crisis, and China’s non-competitive state-owned industry was apparently the only thing that saved the world from further destabilising impacts of capitalism!

By their very nature, complex systems, such as the socio-economic system, are prone to sudden collapse in activity following a period of extremely high activity. This applies in China just as it did in the west, although the system in China is characteristic more centralised choices and less emergence. It is highly unlikely that China will have investment at over 50% of GDP for decades to come in a perfectly smooth growing economy. 

But that doesn’t mean a collapse needs to be catastrophic or even costly in terms of the things that matter to those people within the system. For example, if the collapse in activity results in more years of schooling and education, fewer work hours per worker and more holidays, greater investment in environmental protection and restoration, and so on, this could just as equally be seen a beneficial period of transition; a collapse that forced radically beneficial social change. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of central control and need for the Communist Party to maintain improving living standards to support their legitimacy. 

That is of course, the optimistic view. There will certainly be many losers from a major economic contraction in China, and Australian consumers are part of that group. 

But back to the Four Corners story. I had a few other problems with the coverage, which like most economic reporting was quite superficial and lacked a rigorous foundation of analysis. Here are just a few.
1. Most funds for the Chinese stimulus came from borrowing. This is bad. 
Of course funds came from borrowing. This is neither good nor bad. The detrimental effects of debt that we now acknowledge are usually related to debt used for speculation rather than real investment, yet the whole segment was devoted to identifying just how much real investment there is in China
2. This rate of investment is unsustainable
Chinese investment share of GDP is around 50%, potentially 54%, up from around 43% of GDP in the period prior to the financial crisis. Many commentators saw the pre-crisis levels as unsustainable as well. Certainly this level is high, but remember that the longer this lasts, the wealthier China will be and the more easily it will be able to handle a large-scale economic transition. There was no consideration of what sort of transition the Communist Party might have in mind to edge down from these levels, just as there was no consideration of how the Party created such high levels of investment.
3. The rest of the world was unable to conduct stimulus on a similar scale 
This is another contradictory claim. For some reason, China, still a poor country in per capita terms and one with apparently gross political disfunction from the entrenched rent-seeking Communist party, was the only one who could save the world from the financial crisis. Similar levels of public investment could be made in Europe or the United States if the political will was there.
4. Shadow banking is a problem because debts are hidden 
What we didn’t really see is a view on what would be different if debts were not hidden? There seems to be no consensus on what it means in any case, and very little understanding of the political willingness of the Chinese Communist party to use their monetary system for their social, economic and political goals. The substance of this and other criticisms of China boiled down to ‘debt is bad’. Ignoring of course the international imbalances and the massive debts much of the west have with China.
5. Housing oversupply is 15%
This was strange. Surely more housing per person is a good thing. Some may be empty at the moment, but at some point there will be incentives for these home owners to occupy or rent these homes. And if you are thinking that they need lots of maintenance and might fall down before they are occupied, then you’ve identified another activity that can help in the transition to lower investment - maintaining current investments. 
Certainly China’s growth won’t be smooth sailing at these unprecedented investment shares of GDP for decades to come. There will be a transition, and it will be a bumpy ride.

But from my view most of the opinions in this documentary were blind repetition of contradictory views - that China was the only one who could save the west from the crisis, but now they will be unable to save themselves; that the Chinese political system was able to radically control production to maintain growth and employment, but now won’t be able to; that the answer to the problem that China does not yet have is to make the choices that the west has made, which didn’t stop them from having severe financial crises with lingering social impacts.

It is all so confusing.

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