Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The biggest bubble: China

Twenty years ago, when I was in high school, Japan Inc. was all the rage. Even in my university years (early 90s), Japan's version of capitalism was considered by academics and the mainstream media to be superior to the US.

Japan had keiretsu capitalism, whereby a group of companies were interlinked. The Japanese were hard working. They had to be forced to take vacations. They were smarter than Americans (or Canadians). They were buying up prized American assets. They had lifetime employment.

In reality, they had a huge stock market and real estate bubble. They had poor demographics (they did not enjoy the baby boom post WWII for obvious reasons). Their smart workers were not as creative as the "fat and lazy" Americans (look it up: that is what one official called Americans back in the early 90s; also a fantastic SNL skit with Mike Meyers). They are good at high end manufacturing (witness Toyota, Honda and Sony) but I'll be surprised if anyone can name any high-tech startup from Japan with any international significance. Keiretsu capitalism is now known as crony capitalism. Their banking system was insolvent. We now know that their system was not very adept at dealing with poor economic times, and their reaction to their depression was quite poor and not very dynamic.

All this is not to Japan bash. In fact, their story is remarkable. The Japanese are a smart and hard working people. They rebuilt their economy after the devastation of WWII (imagine the loss of millions of citizens and 2 cities being annihilated by nuclear weapons!) in one or two generations. I believe that things got ahead of themselves in Japan in the 80s and their system was not built to succeed for the 21st century (with creative and dynamic companies). I also believe that when this global recession/depression ends, Japan will fully participate in a recovery.

Again, when I was a young kid, the USSR was feared. Their hockey teams and Olympic teams were dominant. In Hollywood, their characters were always tough villains (think Rocky 4) or they were ready to launch nukes on us. On TV, their pre Gorbachev communist leaders were old and scary. Their military was very powerful and we were always worried about doomsday clocks and nuclear war.

In reality, the Soviet Union was a paper tiger. Yes, they had nukes but their economy was in shambles and much of their military was dysfunctional. We confirmed that totalitarian communist governments don't work. Their union was a joke and many of the countries that they kept in the Union by force either became separate countries or are still trying to get there. The Russian people were not to be feared and they wanted many of the freedoms that we have.

Why the history lesson from the eyes of someone born in the seventies? Because I am now old enough that I feel as if I have seen this story before. I am talking about China.

China has some strengths but unfortunately, it shares some of the worst qualities of Japan and the USSR.

China is a one party totalitarian government. To their credit, they have moved away from communism, but nonetheless, the central government has a ton of control over the economy. The recent stimulus is a case in point. The central government is also very involved in banking and fixed investment, which is supporting the economy at present, despite a huge drop in exports. We currently fear the Chinese military, although not to the extent of the USSR circa 1985. We all remember the disgusting Tienanmen Square massacre of 1989.

China is similar to the USSR in that it too is not truly a union. Tibet and Taiwan are two of the high profile cases. However, much of China is not homogenous. You have Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and different ethnic groups. You also have hundreds of millions of rural and mostly uneducated citizens as well as hundreds of millions of educated and urban Chinese that live centuries apart. All these interests are united by a totalitarian government. It is unlikely that China will stay together in the future. At some point in the future, China may well have the same problem that the USSR did and fragment.

China is also similar to Japan 1989, in that the West is so bullish on China, that they are suspending all rational thought.

Take a look at this gem of a quote from a survey discussed in Bloomberg:

Two-thirds of respondents say they are optimistic about India’s prospects, as are 70 percent on China. “The Chinese economy is run by the government, managed by the government, helped by the government,” says Omri Beer, an options trader at Nomura Holdings Inc in Tokyo. “It’s easy to be bullish.”

Or the Yuan as a global currency. It is not even the dominant Asian currency. It is not even freely traded. Even the respected Nouriel Roubini has been talking up the Yuan as a replacement to the US dollar. I vehemently disagree. One day, the Yuan may be considered in the same light as the Japanese Yen, but not as the senior world currency. Not any time before 2050 and probably not at all. It took the US dollar decades AFTER it surpassed the UK economy, and two world wars, BEFORE it became the dominant world currency. Even if China becomes the dominant world economy one day, it may take decades after that for the Yuan to become the dominant world currency.

Most in the West believe that the Chinese government is so wise and all-knowing. Their stimulus plan is genius. Their management of the economy is superior to a market based economy. They are combining the best of communism and capitalism. Their stockpiling of copper is genius, despite prices being historically high. Their GDP is growing while ours is shrinking.

The reality is very different. Have you seen their leaders? I wouldn't trust them to run a multinational company let alone one of the biggest economies in the world. Sadly, I could say the same about President Obama, but I digress.

I wouldn't trust any number coming from their government. Studies have shown that their GDP numbers are way too smooth given the relatively early stage of development that their economy is in. So when they report GDP, take it with a grain of salt. I will acknowledge that their stimulus appears to be "working". Yes, because they are forcing banks to lend, fixed investment to continue regardless of return on investment and people to consume. This can work for a short period of time, until the banking system is shown to be insolvent (Japan), the fixed investment ponzi scheme is exposed and the demand from consumers is saturated.

Their exports are mostly based on being the lowest cost and the quality is often suspect. Part of the low cost is the huge labor surplus and part of it is the manipulation of the Yuan. I suspect that China will attempt to move upmarket in the future, but I don't believe that the Chinese share the Japanese' love of quality. Also, there is again the same problem that the Japanese have with creativity and innovation. Name a truly international multinational coming out of China that is changing the way we live, like RIMM or Apple?

I have no idea when the China bubble will burst, but when it does, I think it will rival Japan's bust. It may not last 20 years but 10 years is a definite possibility.

I know the math about how China gets to be the dominant world economy. You take 4 times the US population and 25% of the GDP per capital of the US and presto, you get the biggest economy in the world. If only it were so easy. That population could shrink in a fragmentation scenario and their GDP is inflated by their own bubble. Again, I don't think the Chinese people are any different than you or me. They want the same freedoms and opportunities that we have. Many of them have immigrated to Canada, and they are a great asset for us. I just don't think that the Chinese system is superior and I believe that over the next decade, China will be derided for all of its mistakes.

Disclosure: position in FXP.


The View from Seven said...

Further to the Japan issue, one of the problems that Japan never tackled was productivity. Foreign expats who've lived in Japan (and Korea) have commented that the locals work long, but not necessarily hard.

This shows up in the OECD's latest labour productivity statistics, which show that the Japanese labour force produces less value per hour worked than the Italian labour force. Korea, for its part, trails both Portugal and Slovakia on productivity.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is culture. Japan and Korea are heirarchical societies. Heirarchical societies and organizations are more averse to deviating from "the way we've always done things" than are egalitarian societies and organizations.

China shares Japan's and Korea's heirarchical tendencies. It also has serious problems with corruption, and its huge population is a threat to stability. (Yes, at similar levels of development, smaller countries tend to be more stable than larger countries.)

Thus, China has three of the four warning signs of future turmoil. Its saving grace is that it doesn't have a "young" population with a lot of time and energy on their hands.

dbsk said...

I think China is going to get a booty call from the U.S. right after the asset bubble in 2013.