China is hoping to cool its white-hot economy without precipitating a recession. Doing so will be extremely difficult: Inflation fears are growing, the government’s ability to respond is quite limited, and China’s economic model, which leaves bureaucrats guessing about the market effects of their directives, is ultimately untenable.
Inflation worries start with housing. With Chinese exports curtailed by U.S. consumer retrenchment, capital spending threatened by government restraints and excess capacity, and domestic spending less than robust, housing has been China’s big generator of economic growth in recent years. By some estimates, half of Chinese GDP is linked to real-estate activity.
The government is fearful of rising prices, and has moved to prevent speculation. Buyers must now put down 60 percent of the purchase price on second homes, and 30 percent on first homes. The government is pressing banks to contain mortgages, and some have raised interest rates. In January, the mayor of Shanghai a new tax on property transactions that may be copied nationwide as other officials attempt to cool prices.
With these restraints in place, and with supply starting to catch up with demand, housing sales have slowed. But this has not fully curtailed China’s real-estate bubble: Housing starts rose about 40 percent last year. Developers are rushing to build while they try to support faltering prices by delaying completions and creating artificial shortages. Of course, these efforts are difficult to maintain because they tie up capital in uncompleted houses. Houses are now being built at about twice the rate they’re being sold, well above earlier norms.
A report this week by China’s National Audit Office found that a significant chunk of bank loans made to provincial-government financing vehicles were improperly funneled into property investments, contributing to a debt load equal to some 27 percent of GDP. Other huge loans to state-owned enterprises, intended to finance infrastructure, also reportedly went into real estate and may be at risk.
With inventories soaring while demand softens, and the government clamping down on speculation, a collapse of the housing bubble seems increasingly likely.
Housing isn’t the only area where signs of inflation are popping up. In May, consumer prices increased 5.5 percent versus a year earlier. In December, Chinese leaders to “put stabilizing the overall price level in a more prominent position” in their ranking of economic priorities. In a country where many live at or below the poverty level, food costs are obviously a major concern, and they jumped 11.7 percent in May from a year earlier.
The government appears increasingly worried about social unrest. In November, it said it was ready to impose price controls to reduce inflation, especially on food and energy, and said it would help the poor with higher welfare payments. The unrest continues and, significantly, has moved from rural areas to the cities.
also remains a problem. The flow of Chinese to more prosperous urban areas has increased average living standards, but the difference between the rich and the rest continues to widen. In 2010, annual per-capita income was about $2,900 in cities and about $900 in rural areas. (Adjusting for lower costs in rural areas reduces this gap.)
China’s ability to respond to these worries is extremely limited. The central bank relies on adjusting reserve requirements and limits on bank lending to implement monetary policy. Since January 2010, it has raised reserve requirements 12 times (to 21.5 percent), while only increasing the one-year lending rate four times (to 6.31 percent), to accommodate inefficient state-enterprise borrowers, which provide a lot of jobs.
Finally, implementing any policy in an economy that is partly government-controlled, partly market-driven is very difficult. In a completely controlled economy, as China’s used to be, government leaders might have made economically inefficient decisions, but their authority wasn’t disputed. In an open economy, as in Singapore, the markets make the decisions, and politicians have little involvement.
But under China’s current arrangement, officials making major decisions have to guess what market reactions will result, then try to mitigate the unintended consequences of their actions.
With a managed floating exchange rate, for example, officials have to estimate how much hot money will enter China in anticipation of a stronger currency, and then determine how to neutralize the undesired effects of this flow. Government policies that encourage exports and trade surpluses have pushed China’s foreign-currency reserves to more than $3 trillion. Until recently, all the foreign-currency earnings of Chinese exporters had to be traded in for yuan, but then the central bank was forced to issue securities to sop up that money to avoid depreciation.
Similarly, the Chinese government sets yearly limits on bank loans in advance, but leaves it up to the banks and demand to determine the monthly lending pattern. So the banks rush to make loans early in the year for fear that the government will reduce the limit in a midcourse correction.
I suspect that such a hybrid market system is too unwieldy to allow the Chinese government to manage a soft landing for its economy. By my reckoning, the Federal Reserve has tried 12 times in the post-World War II era to cool an overheating economy without precipitating a recession. It succeeded only once. Can the politically controlled Chinese central bank, and the government leaders who really call the shots, be more successful than the independent Fed?
That seems unlikely. And the consequences, for China and the world economy, could be unfortunate.
(A. Gary Shilling is president of A. Gary Shilling & Co. and author of “The Age of Deleveraging: Investment Strategies for a Decade of Slow Growth and Deflation.” The opinions expressed are his own. This is the third in a five-part series.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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