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Thursday, December 26, 2013 1:24 AM

Pettis on Debt, Malinvestments, Hidden Losses, and China's GDP

Heading into 2014, Michael Pettis at China Financial Markets remains adamant that growth estimates for China are too high and that rebalancing (while necessary), implies lower growth than most expect. Via email ...

It is widely acknowledged that perhaps the most important reason to change the Chinese growth model is its excessive reliance on debt to generate growth. Debt has soared in recent years, to the point where many economists simply look at credit growth in the current quarter in order to determine what GDP growth over the next few quarters are likely to be.

But as China deleverages, growth in demand must drop sharply. After all, if economic growth over the past several years has been goosed by rapid credit expansion, deleveraging must have the opposite effect. It is strange that economists who acknowledge that the current growth model is overly dependent on debt have failed to understand that its reversal will have the opposite impact. If it did not, it is hard to explain why anyone would consider debt to be a problem in the first place.

If China currently has wasted significant amounts of investment spending, it is clear that much of the accompanying bad debt has not been written down correctly. Bad loans are almost non-existent in the banking system – that is they have not been recognized in the form of reserves or write-downs.

But the failure to recognize the loss does not mean that the loss does not exist. The losses implicit in the bad loans must (and will) be written down over the future, either explicitly, in which case they will result in a direct deduction to GDP growth, or implicitly, in which case they will require implicit and hidden transfers from one part of the economy or another (usually the household sector) to cover the gap between the “real” cost of capital and the nominal (subsidized) cost of capital. This transfer must reduce future growth.

The point here is that if credit is a problem in China – something no one doubts – it must be a problem because of wasted investment that has yet to be recognized, otherwise it would have resulted in negative GDP growth today. Failure to recognize the investment losses will, of course, artificially boost GDP growth today, but it must also artificially reduce GDP growth tomorrow as the recognition of those losses is simply postponed, not eliminated. The failure of many economists to recognize that wasted investment has a cost – even as they recognize that investment has been wasted – has caused them both to misunderstand the relationship between wealth creation and GDP and to understate the future impact of this overstated GDP.

Debt matters, and the only time it can be safely ignored is when debt levels are so low, and the borrower is so credible, that it creates no financial distress costs and has a negligible impact on demand. Neither condition applies in China, and so any prediction that ignores debt is likely to be hopelessly muddled. In fact I would like to propose a simple rule. Any model that predicts China’s future GDP growth must include, if it is to be valid, a variable that reflects estimates of the amount of hidden losses buried in the banks’ balance sheets. If it does not, it cannot possibly be a valid model to describe China’s economy, and its predictions are useless.

China’s astonishing growth during the past three decades is partly the result of a system that subsidized growth with hidden transfers from the household sector. These transfers are at the root of the current imbalances, and once reversed, so that China can rebalance its economy towards healthier and more sustainable sources of demand, the very processes that turbocharged growth will no longer do so.

If growth has been healthy and sustainable, there would be no need for Beijing to change its growth model – in fact it would be foolish to do so. If growth has not been healthy and sustainable, this is almost certainly because it has been artificially propped up, and if the reforms are aimed at unwinding the mechanisms that artificially propped up growth, then subsequent growth rates must be substantially lower.

Low interest rates, low wages, an undervalued currency, nearly unlimited access to credit for state-owned enterprises, a relaxed attitude to environmental degradation, and other related conditions were both the source of China’s ferocious growth as well as of China’s unprecedented economic imbalances. Reversing these conditions will rebalance the economy, but will do so while lowering growth in the obverse way that these conditions had accelerated growth.

One of the most obvious places in which to see this is in excess capacity in a wide range of businesses. It is clear that Beijing recognizes the problem of excess capacity. Here is Xinhua on the subject: Tackling excess capacity will be one of the top tasks on China's economic agenda in 2014, as the issue becomes a major challenge to maintaining the pace and quality of economic growth. "The Chinese economy still faces downward pressure next year," the Central Economic Work Conference pointed out on Friday, citing the capacity issue weighing down some sectors as one of the major challenges facing the world's second-largest economy.

It should be obvious that building excess manufacturing capacity, like building up inventory, is a way of propping up growth numbers today at the expense of tomorrow’s growth numbers. Closing down excess manufacturing capacity must be negative for growth in the same way that building it was positive.

These three conditions, which are the automatic consequences of the reform process – deleveraging, writing down unrecognized investment losses, and reversing policies that goosed growth rates – must lead to much slower growth. In theory these conditions can be counterbalanced by an explosion in productivity unleashed by the reforms.

But this is unlikely to be the case. For the net impact of the reforms on growth to leave China’s GDP growth unchanged, or even to accelerate, the amount of productivity that must be unleashed by the reforms is implausibly, even extraordinarily, high. What is more, the positive impact on productivity must emerge almost immediately. Longer-term productivity improvements – for example those generated by education, land, and hukou reforms, or reforms to the one-child policy, or a speedier and more efficient urbanization process – do not count.

I am so convinced that the implementing of these reforms must result in slower growth – if only because it is impossible to find a single relevant case in history in which the adjustment following a growth miracle did not include an unexpectedly sharp slowdown in growth – that I would propose that we can judge the forceful implementation of the reforms inversely with GDP growth. If China is able to impose an orderly adjustment quickly, its GDP growth rate will slow substantially for several years.

GDP growth rates of 7% or more, on the other hand, will suggest that credit is still rising too quickly and that China has otherwise been unable to implement the reforms, in which case China is likely to reach debt capacity constraints more quickly. Growth of 7% for the next few years, in other words, is almost prima facie evidence that China is not adjusting.


I wish my readers a great 2014. This will be the last issue of 2013 before the holidays. Next year promises to be an exciting and unsettling one. Stay tuned.
Mike "Mish" Shedlock

Copyright 2009 Mike Shedlock. All Rights Reserved.
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