Overinvestment in non-productive assets, demographics headwinds, and policy choices
In a thread yesterday, Michael Pettis (Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and scholar of China) outlined his views on China in a comment to the Wall Street Journal article China’s 40-Year Boom Is Over. What Comes Next?. He starts by saying that China’s economic model did not break recently as a function of the pandemic, that was probably just an amplifier, but instead it broke 10-15 years ago. The economic model is the one applied by Japan and the Soviet Union post WWII enabling high GDP growth through excessive investment as a share of GDP. In China, investment share of GDP is 44% which has no comparable historical precedent. It works well under certain conditions, with one being that many productive assets are available to be expanded. This was the case in China from 1980-2011.
Pettis provides an estimated range of 10-15 years for when China’s economic model broke indicating around the years 2008-2013. If one uses the MSCI China relative to MSCI USA in total return USD terms, then China’s economic model peaked in 2007 and thus also its economic model through the lens of financial markets. Using bank balance sheet growth rates as the yardstick the economic model broke around Q2 2011. One could argue that it was 2008, as Pettis indicates when you look at different indicators highlighted in this equity note, but if you look at the rebound in Chinese banks’ market value to total assets in 2010 and early 2011 it shows that around this time there is still confidence in credit provision by Chinese banks and that there is a positive multiplier effect into the economy, at least perceived by investors.
After 2011, the market value of Chinese banks begin to grow much slower than their balance sheet in a systematic way suggesting that the largest Chinese banks are increasingly being incentivized to lend out to local governments and state-owned enterprises despite lower credit quality. Because China was running out of productive assets to reinvest into, the hard budget constraint in the private sector meant that the private credit impulse got less and less potent, because the private sector cannot afford to invest into non-productive assets indefinitely without the risk of bankruptcy. As a result, banks’ balance sheet growth declined rapidly from 2011 to the bottom around mid-2018.
In the years before the pandemic, balance sheet growth accelerates while banks’ market value goes nowhere indicating forced lending with investors acknowledging the limited market value of these additional loans. Under a normal credit cycle this is not the behaviour you would expect as market value of banks would increase with higher loan growth. The overall market value to total assets among the four largest Chinese banks has fallen to just 3.5% in Q1 2023 down from 12.5% in Q1 2011 and the peak of 34% in Q4 2006. This measure highlights pretty well how undercapitalized the Chinese banking system really is and why restructuring is coming to the overall financial system, unless Chinese policy makers choose the Japanese policy of the 1990s. This entailed propping up banks with government capital amortizing the overinvestments over a couple of decades. This is market economic wise a bad policy choice, but politically it might be the most sensible solution.
Beyond the short-term considerations of economic growth, debt, economic models etc. China is alsp facing longer term constraints from its demographic path. These headwinds will in itself cause challenging dynamics, but with negative net immigration making it impossible to offset the domestic demographics tough policy choices will have to be made.