China's Growth Miracle Runs Out of Steam: Views From Pettis, Blackrock

Michael Pettis at China Financial Markets says, "China's growth is running out of Steam." Blackrock brushes off concern.

On October 20, Blackrock global chief investment strategist, Richard Turnill, explained What cooling growth in China means for investors.

"We see China’s growth rate slowing only to still-solid and more sustainable levels. The implications for investors? Growth in China should remain supportive of emerging market (EM) assets and risk assets in general."

Michael Pettis

Michael Pettis at China Financial Markets says "China’s Growth Miracle Has Run Out of Steam".

Pettis' viewpoint first appeared on the Financial Times. I asked Pettis permission to reprint and received an OK.

What follows is a guest post by Pettis, until the end where I add a few comments of my own on assessing the risk.

China's Growth Miracle Has Run Out of Steam by Michael Pettis

China’s 19th Communist party congress ended last month with an indication that Xi Jinping’s new administration plans to rein in debt by abandoning the country’s long-term economic targets and allowing gross domestic product growth to fall.

Typically, analysts assume that changes in reported GDP reflect movements in living standards and productive capacity. In China, however, this is not the case. Local governments are expected to boost spending by whatever amount is needed to meet the country’s targets, whether or not it is productive.

GDP growth is not the same as economic growth. Consider two factories that cost the same to build and operate. If the first factory produces useful goods, and the second produces unwanted ones that pile up as inventory, only the first boosts the underlying economy. Both factories, however, will increase GDP in exactly the same way.

Most economies, however, have two mechanisms that force GDP data to conform to underlying economic performance. First, hard budget constraints, which set spending limits, drive companies that systematically waste investment out of business before they can substantially distort the economy.

Second, there is a market-pricing factor in GDP accounting that when bad debts caused by wasted investment are written down, the value-added component of GDP and the overall level of reported growth are reduced.

In China, however, neither mechanism works. Bad debt is not written down and the government is not subject to hard budget constraints. It is the government sector that is mainly responsible for the investment misallocation that characterises so much recent Chinese growth.

The implications are obvious, even if most economists have been surprisingly reluctant to acknowledge them. Anyone who believes there has been a significant amount of wasted investment in China must accept that reported GDP growth overstates the real increase in wealth by the failure to recognise the associated bad debt. Were it correctly written down, by some estimates GDP growth would fall below 3 per cent.

Historical precedents suggest the potential magnitude of this overstatement. Japan’s economy in the 1980s, for example, had distortions that resemble those of China today. Although not nearly as extreme, Japan too suffered from a very low consumption share of GDP and an overreliance on investment that, by the 1980s, had veered into substantial misallocation.

In the early 1990s, Japan’s reported GDP comprised 17 per cent of the overall global total, and few doubted that its soaring economy would become the world’s largest by the end of the century. Instead, once credit growth stabilised, Japan’s share of global GDP began to plummet, and has since fallen by nearly 60 per cent.

The same happened to the former USSR. It grew so quickly after the second world war that by the late-1960s it comprised 14 per cent of global GDP, similar to China today, and was widely expected to overtake the US. But two decades later, its share of global GDP had fallen by more than 70 per cent.

These cases may appear shocking, but, like China today, 1980s Japan and 1960s Russia lacked the mechanisms to account for wasted investment in reported GDP. At their peaks, growth for each country was seriously overstated by the failure to write down the waste, and understated once debt levels stabilised.

The implications are clear. China’s growth miracle has already run out of steam. It is only by allowing debt to surge that the country is able to meet its GDP targets. This may be why President Xi has been eager to stress more meaningful goals, such as increasing household income. Whatever the reason, analysts should not read GDP growth as an indicator of China’s underlying economic performance. Piling up unsold and unsaleable goods or building empty airports may boost GDP in an economy whose financial system does not recognise bad debt, but it does not measure its performance.

Michael Pettis

Assessing the Risk

Blackrock thinks China will slow to "sustainable" growth and it will not matter.

Heck, at this point, hardly anyone thinks anything will matter.

I doubt Brackrock understands just how low sustainable is. And it's not just China dependent on a debt boom to keep things barely plodding along.

Republicans have yet to do anything about the deficit, a topic of high concern when Obama was president, but zero concern now that their party is in control.

Trump's trade policy is a disaster. With the breakdown of NAFTA and Trump's threats against China, a global trade ward looms.

It doesn't matter.

In Europe, the Eurozone banks are insolvent, and that doesn't seem to matter either.

Global bubbles surely don't matter, because few, especially the central banks, even see them.

Leverage? Forget about it.

There are always problems, but the current set seems bigger than the set in 2007 and the set before that in 2000.

The only explanation I can come up with is "It's Different This Time".

MIke "Mish" Shedlock

Comments (13)
No. 1-13

"Global bubbles surely don't matter, because few, especially the central banks, even see them."

Central Banksters may or may not see them but they have the two levers, interest rate and money printing, that make them feel like magicians who can do anything. That they have been able to do it for a decade has boosted their confidence. I only hope this time people understand that they have been had and can find the rope and lamp posts for the job that needs to be done.


This time is different from the point of view that central banks don't have any interest rates left to cut and their ability to quantitatively ease is massively diminished


China's economy has surely grown over the last decade by any way you measure it. And their citizens are wealthier. It's impossible to continue to grow as fast as China has for a sustained period of time once your economy reaches a certain size. Economic growth will slow but, outside of war, I don't see a collapse. Chia




Without infrastructure spending there would not be a "China miracle." But without knowing where to draw the line there's a lot of wasted money on projects that never should have been greenlit. Just looking back at post-civil war United States expansion, by subsiding the crooked railroads the infrastructure got built out much faster than would have happened organically, but with a tremendous price due to misallocation. Compare that to the Hill route to the Pacific Northwest and how it took much longer but was far more profitable.

The big problem I see is that government types are impatient and want it all done right now, or at least in an election cycle or two so they can campaign for reelection on their successful projects. And there's a whole lot of "me too" demands from the electorate who are unwilling to either pay up themselves or relocate to where the infrastructure is to their liking,. For example, rural broadband. The cost of building out fiber to rural homes is getting to the point where it will make sense very soon now, but not soon enough for the more vocal who are demanding government either force ISPs to build and/or demand taxpayer dollars be used, or tax-backed bonds be issued, for their Internet service. No politician will ever suggest they move (and risk losing population in "their" district? No way!), or they accept that the cost of some products and service are just going to be higher in rural areas, so they get onboard. And they get to play Santa Clause too. Who wouldn't like that?