Oct 6th 2021

Connecting the Dots in China

by Stephen S. Roach

Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of a new book Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.

NEW HAVEN – All eyes are fixed on the dark side of China. We have been here before. Starting with the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and continuing through the dot-com recession of the early 2000s and the global financial crisis of 2008-09, China was invariably portrayed as the next to fall. Yet time and again, the Chinese economy defied gloomy predictions with a resilience that took most observers by surprise.

Count me among the few who were not surprised that past alarms turned out to be false. But count me in when it comes to sensing that this time feels different.

Contrary to most, however, I do not think Evergrande Group is the problem, or even the catalytic tipping point. Yes, China’s second-largest property developer is in potentially fatal trouble. And yes, its debt overhang of some $300 billion poses broader risks to the Chinese financial system, with potential knock-on effects in global markets. But the magnitude of those ripple effects is likely to be far less than those who loudly proclaim that Evergrande is China’s Lehman Brothers, suggesting that another “Minsky Moment” may well be at hand.

Three considerations argue to the contrary. First, the Chinese government has ample resources to backstop Evergrande loan defaults and ring-fence potential spillovers to other assets and markets. With some $7.5 trillion in domestic saving and another $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, China has more than enough capacity to absorb a worst-case Evergrande implosion; recent large liquidity injections by the People’s Bank of China underscore the point.

Second, Evergrande is not a classic “black swan” crisis, but rather a conscious and deliberate consequence of Chinese policy aimed at deleveraging, de-risking, and preserving financial stability. In particular, China has made good progress reducing shadow banking activity in recent years, thereby limiting the potential for deleveraging contagion to infect other segments of its financial markets. Unlike Lehman and its devastating collateral damage, the Evergrande problem hasn’t blindsided Chinese policymakers. 

Third, risks to the real economy, which has entered a temporary soft patch, are limited. The demand side of the Chinese property market is well supported by the ongoing migration of rural workers to cities. This is very different from the collapse of speculative housing bubbles in other countries, like Japan and the United States, where supply overhangs were unsupported by demand. While the urban share of the Chinese population has now risen slightly above 60%, there is still plenty of upside until it reaches the 80-85% threshold typical of more advanced economies. Notwithstanding recent accounts of shrinking cities – reminiscent of earlier false alarms over a profusion of ghost cities – underlying demand for urban shelter remains firm, limiting downside risks to the overall economy, even in the face of an Evergrande failure.

China’s most serious problems are less about Evergrande and more about a major rethinking of its growth model. Initially, I worried about a regulatory clampdown, writing in late July that the new measures took dead aim at China’s internet platform companies, threatening to stifle the “animal spirits” in some of the economy’s most dynamic sectors, such as fintech, video gaming, online music, ridesharing, private tutoring, and takeaway, delivery, and lifestyle services.

That was then. Now, the Chinese government has doubled down, with President Xi Jinping throwing the full force of his power into a “common prosperity” campaign aimed at addressing inequalities of income and wealth. Moreover, the regulatory net has been broadened, not just to ban cryptocurrencies, but also to become an instrument of social engineering, with the government adding e-cigarettes, business drinking, and celebrity fan culture to its ever-lengthening list of bad social habits.

All this only compounds the concerns I raised two months ago. The new dual thrust of Chinese policy – redistribution plus re-regulation – strikes at the heart of the market-based “reform and opening up” that have underpinned China’s growth miracle since the days of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It will subdue the entrepreneurial activity that has been so important in powering China’s dynamic private sector, with lasting consequences for the next, innovations-driven, phase of Chinese economic development. Without animal spirits, the case for indigenous innovation is in tatters.

With Evergrande blowing up in the aftermath of this sea change in Chinese policy, financial markets, understandably, have reacted sharply. The government has been quick to counter the backlash. Vice Premier Liu He, China’s leading architect of economic strategy and a truly outstanding macro thinker, was quick to reaffirm the government’s unwavering support for private enterprise. Capital markets regulators have likewise stressed further “opening up” via new connectivity initiatives between onshore and offshore markets. Other regulators have reaffirmed China’s steadfast intention to stay the course. Perhaps they doth protest too much?

Of course, on one level, who wouldn’t want common prosperity? US President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” agenda smacks of many of the same objectives. Tackling inequality and a social agenda at the same time is a big deal for any country. It is not only the subject of intense debate in Washington but also bears critically on China’s prospects.

The problem for China is that its new approach runs counter to the thrust of many of its most powerful economic trends of the past four decades: entrepreneurial activity, a thriving start-up culture, private-sector dynamism, and innovation. What I hear now from China is denial – siloed arguments that address each issue in isolation. Redistribution is discussed separately from the impact of new regulations. And there is also a siloed approach to defending regulatory actions themselves – case-by-case arguments for strengthening oversight of internet platform companies, reducing social anxiety among stressed-out young people, and ensuring data security.

As a macro practitioner, I was always taught to consider the combined effects of major developments. Evergrande will pass. Common prosperity is here to stay. A regulatory clampdown, in conjunction with a push to redistribute income and wealth, rewinds the movie of the Chinese miracle. By failing to connect the dots, China’s leaders risk a dangerous miscalculation.

Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2021

 


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More Current Affairs

Oct 17th 2021
EXTRACTS: "But property-sector woes are not the only economic danger China faces in 2021-22. The Chinese government’s mounting crackdown on the country’s burgeoning tech sector may pose an even greater threat." ---- "According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, the share of Chinese urban employment supported by private enterprises more than quadrupled between 1995 and 2018, from just 18% to 87%. The share of exports generated by the private sector more than doubled over the same period, from 34% to 88%. And private-sector fixed-asset investment jumped from 42% to 65% of the total. The message in the data is clear: clamping down on the private sector and threatening innovators is not the way to ensure sustained rapid growth. Chinese entrepreneurs can read the writing on the wall. They understand that their political and regulatory room to maneuver is shrinking, and that the balance has shifted in favor of state-owned firms and public officials. And they understand that this uneasy atmosphere is likely to persist."
Oct 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "We designed a programme that incorporated data from over 300 million buildings and analysed 130 million km² of land – almost the entire land surface area of the planet. This estimated how much energy could be produced from the 0.2 million km² of rooftops present on that land, an area roughly the same size as the UK."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "Britain in the 1950s was wedded to the US, acting as a partner rather than leading the charge. Now, while the UK continues to support the US, the influence it has seems negligible. While it may bring comfort to the UK to feel it is a partner to a superpower, being its stooge or subordinate is an unpleasant place to be, no matter how much you tell yourself it values your opinion."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "That was then. Now, the Chinese government has doubled down, with President Xi Jinping throwing the full force of his power into a “common prosperity” campaign aimed at addressing inequalities of income and wealth. Moreover, the regulatory net has been broadened, not just to ban cryptocurrencies, but also to become an instrument of social engineering, with the government adding e-cigarettes, business drinking, and celebrity fan culture to its ever-lengthening list of bad social habits. All this only compounds the concerns I raised two months ago. The new dual thrust of Chinese policy – redistribution plus re-regulation – strikes at the heart of the market-based “reform and opening up” that have underpinned China’s growth miracle since the days of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It will subdue the entrepreneurial activity that has been so important in powering China’s dynamic private sector, with lasting consequences for the next, innovations-driven, phase of Chinese economic development. Without animal spirits, the case for indigenous innovation is in tatters."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Wartime nostalgia plays an important part in Britain’s instinctive fondness for the special relationship. Like former Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some British politicians might believe that the United Kingdom is the only European country with serious armed forces and the political will to use them. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like Blair before him, seems to fancy himself a modern-day Churchill. Unfortunately (or not), Britain’s military power is insignificant compared to what Churchill could command in 1944. Wartime nostalgia has drawn Britain into several foolish American wars, which other European countries were wise to avoid."
Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
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Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
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Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
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