The Chinese warning signs to watch for

The factors that allowed the Chinese economy to grow so fast could soon exacerbate the sharpness of the slowdown.

China Financial Markets

On Tuesday the National Bureau of Statistics released China’s 2014 GDP growth numbers and reported growth consistent with what the government has been widely promoting as the ‘new normal’.

According to the preliminary estimation, the gross domestic product (GDP) of China was 63,646.3 billion yuan in 2014, an increase of 7.4 percent at comparable prices. Specifically, the year-on-year growth of the first quarter was 7.4 percent, the second quarter 7.5 percent, the third quarter 7.3 percent, and the fourth quarter 7.3 percent.

As nearly every news article has pointed out, GDP growth of 7.4 per cent slightly exceeded consensus expectations of around 7.3 per cent, setting off a flutter in the Shanghai Stock Exchange that reversed nearly a quarter of Monday’s disastrous drop of almost 8 per cent. But although it exceeded expectations, 2014 still turned in the lowest reported GDP growth since 1990, presenting only the second time since growth targeting began in 1985 that the reported number came in below the official target (the first time was in 1989). We will undoubtedly be swamped in the coming days with analyses of the implications, but I read the data as telling us more about the state of politics than about the economic health of the country.

Over the medium term I have little doubt that growth will continue to slow, and, that at best, we have only completed about one third of the journey from peak GDP growth to the trough. As long as it has debt capacity Beijing, or indeed any other government, can pretty much get as much growth as it wants, in China’s case simply by making banks fund local government infrastructure spending.

Most economic analyses of the Chinese economy tend to base their forecasts on the sequence and pace of economic reforms aimed at rebalancing the economy, and on the impact these reforms are likely to have on productivity growth. It may seem contrarian, then, that I forecast Chinese near term growth largely in terms of balance sheet constraints. I am not implying that the reforms do not matter to the Chinese economy. The extent to which the reforms Beijing proposes to implement reduce legal and institutional distortions in business efficiency, eliminate implicit subsidies for non-productive behaviour, reorient incentives in the capital allocation process, undermine the ability of powerful groups to extract rent and otherwise liberalise the economy, will unquestionably affect China’s long-term growth prospects.

But I expect that any significant impact of these reforms on short-term growth will largely be the consequence of two things. The first is how reforms will affect the amount, structure, and growth of credit. The second is how successfully Beijing can create sustainable sources of demand that do not force up the debt burden -- the most obvious being to increase the household income share of GDP and to increase the share of credit allocated to small and medium enterprises relative to SOEs.

To put it a little abstractly, and using a corporate finance model to understand macroeconomics, I would say that most economists believe that China’s growth in the near term is a function of changes in the way the asset side of the economy is managed. If Beijing can implement reforms that are aimed at making workers and businesses utilize assets more productively, then productivity will rise and, with it, GDP.

This sounds reasonable, even almost true by definition, but in fact it is an incomplete explanation of what drives growth. In corporate finance theory we understand that although growth can often, or even usually, be explained as a direct consequence of how productively assets are managed, it is not always the case that policies or exogenous variables that normally change the productivity of operations will have the expected impact on productivity growth. When debt levels are low or when the liability structure of an economic entity is stable, then it is indeed the case that growth is largely an asset-side affair. In that case, for GDP growth to improve (or for operating earnings to rise), managers should focus on policies aimed at improving productivity.

But when debt levels are high enough to affect credibility, or when liabilities are structured in ways that distort incentives or magnify exogenous shocks, growth can be as much a consequence of changes in the liability side of an economy as it is on changes in the asset side. At the extreme, for example when a company or a country has a debt burden that might be considered ‘crisis-level’, almost all growth, or lack of growth, is a consequence of changes in the liability structure. For a country facing a debt crisis, for example, policymakers may work ferociously on implementing productivity-enhancing reforms aimed at helping the country ‘grow’ its way out of the debt crisis, but none of these reforms will succeed.

My main point is that orthodox economists have traditionally ignored the impact of balance sheet structure on rapid growth, but liability structures can explain both very rapid growth and very rapid growth deceleration. It is unclear to what extent balance sheet inversion explains part of the Chinese growth miracle of the past decade, but it would be unreasonable to discount its impact altogether, and I suspect it’s impact may actually be quite high. To the extent that it has boosted underlying growth in the past, for exactly the same reason it must depress underlying growth in the future.

What is more, because we are in the late stages of China’s growth miracle, we should recognise that historical precedents suggest that balance sheet inversion will have increased in the past few years, and may continue to do so for the next few years, which implies that a greater share of growth than ever is explained not by fundamental improvements in the underlying economy but rather by what are effectively speculative bets embedded into the national balance sheet. Besides commodity stockpiling and real estate purchases by local governments, we have clearly seen an increase in speculative financial transactions by large Chinese companies (the so called ‘arbitrage’, for example, in which SOEs have borrowed money in the Hong Kong markets and lent the money domestically to pick up the interest rate differential as well as any currency appreciation), which is the Chinese version of what in the late stages of the Japanese growth bubble of the 1980s was referred to as zaitech.

We have also seen growth in external financing, which is the classic form of inverted debt for developing countries. The main thing to watch for, I think, is one of the most dangerous kinds of balance sheet inversion, and is especially common when growth has been driven by leverage, and that is the tendency for borrowers to respond to credit and liquidity strains by effectively doubling up the bet and shortening maturities. I don’t know if this is happening to any worrying extent, but when we start to see a dramatic shortening of real maturities, it should be a warning signal.

This is an abridged version of an essay posted to China Financial Markets and is reproduced here with permission.

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