Monday, October 17, 2011

Usury and monetary policy

2011-10-17  / Andy Xie


Summary

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The bankruptcies of many private enterprises, especially in Wenzhou, are mostly due to speculation with borrowed money gone bad. It is totally wrong to characterize this phenomenon as monetary tightening squeezing SMEs. Normal businesses don't go bankrupt because they cannot borrow. Only money burning speculation needs to borrow constantly to stay afloat.

Loosening monetary policy now to ease the liquidity crunch for speculators would do enormous harms to the economy. Indeed, the excessive monetary expansion between 2008-10 squeezed real businesses through cost push and rewarded speculation through asset inflation. Another wave of excessive monetary expansion will magnify manifolds the speculation in China's economy by proving again that speculation, not honest business, is profitable. The ultimate crash will be much bigger.

High interest rate lending is turning into a ponzi game or 金融转销 in many tier II and III cities. The phenomenon seems quite widespread. Zhuanxiao is a constant threat to China's social stability. Financial zhuanxiao has disruptive power many times of the usual type. If not stamped out soon, it could cause widespread social instability next year.

China is facing manual labor and energy shortage. The ongoing economic slowdown is a good thing. Pushing growth would only worsen inflation. To achieve another wave of high growth, China must rebalance its economy away from manual labor and/or energy- intensive industries towards higher value added activities.


A good thing gone bad

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The underground lending has a long and productive history in China. It reflects that China's state-owned financial system couldn't meet all the market demand. Underground financing is a major force behind the export-led economic boom along the coast. The SMEs in PRD and YRD have benefited from the availability of financing through such channels. And they have been the main force in China's export boom.

Financing through informal channels is the main source of financing for SMEs throughout the world. Formal financial institutions just don't have the cost structure to service SMEs effectively. Hence, the government shouldn't stamp out informal financial channels because they sometimes create problems like now. Overall, informal financing contributes to the economy.

The nature of the underground financing in China has shifted in the last five years, away from real economic activities to property and financial speculation. The reason is obvious. Speculation has been profitable due to massive monetary expansion, while real businesses have been squeezed by weak global demand and rising costs.

Should we blame underground financing per se for creating the bubble? Not really. No financial institutions could go against the macro environment. Even the best managed banks rarely survive a loose monetary environment intact. Financial institutions are just not equipped to handle macro risks. The 2008 financial crisis and the current euro debt crisis demonstrate this point.

There is little doubt that China's banks have played a dominant role in turning monetary expansion into a massive property bubble. Underground lending has played a supporting role, often funding fake equity for qualifying for bank lending.


Macro tightening bridge loan?

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The lending rates in the underground financing market range between 20-100%. Hardly any business in the real economy has returns so high to afford such high interest rate. The borrowers of such high interest loans can only hope to repay the loans through asset appreciation.

For example, land owners have turned to high interest borrowing to hang onto their land holdings while the monetary tightening has limited the availability of bank loans. Many property developers view the tightening as temporary, like in 2008. Hence, they view high interest borrowing as a bridge loan for getting through the tightening window. When the tightening ends soon, as they expect, the land price would surge far more than the interest they would have to pay.

Extrapolating from the most recent past is always dangerous. The 2008 global crisis changed the Chinese government's mind from fighting inflation to supporting growth. The decision doesn't look so smart today. China's labor shortage was already obvious then. The stimulus has worsened inflation problem enormously, while the monetary growth, due to shortage of opportunities in the real economy, has primarily gone into property market. China is facing tremendous difficulties today because of the unwise stimulus policy then.

It would be extremely unwise to expect the government to loosen up and stimulate growth now. If so, it would be a bigger mistake than the previous stimulus, because the economy will experience even more excesses. Another stimulus package like the one in 2008 could trigger hyper inflation and hyper speculation in China. The consequence wouldn't be just another burst. It could lead wholesale political changes. It is difficult to imagine that the central government would take so much risk with little upside and so much downside.

Property developers that depend on high interest loans are making a huge mistake. They should resort to price cutting to increase sales rather than selling little at high price while depending on high interest loans for liquidity. The later they wake up, the deeper price cuts they have to do eventually. Of course, when the market clearing prices are 50% less than the recent peak, many developers would go under.

It is necessary for many, if not most developers, to go under. Unless it happens, the tightening wouldn't have worked. Otherwise, it would be business as usual, i.e., the economy depends on bubble making for growth.


High interest lending may have turned into a ponzi game

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While the demand from property market started the high interest lending boom, it seems to have turned into a Ponzi game or financial zhuanxiao lately. Because real interest rate is too low, stock and property markets are depressed, and the real economic activities have low profitability, savers have become credulous about opportunities like high interest lending. They worry their bank deposits are depreciating in real terms. Also, 20-100% interest rate has the smell of 'get rich quick'. There are always numerous people who are suckers for that. So many want to believe its sustainability and dream how rich they would be in a few years.

There are no activities in the real economy that could bear such high interest rate. Financial speculation doesn't look so either. The property market is declining. The stock market is depressed. So where could the high interest lending go?

In the past two months, I have travelled along the coast and up the Yangzi River. High interest lending seems booming. Even in interior cities commercials are everywhere advertizing the business. There are so many people involved, it seems. As the end demand seems dubious, I have to conclude that this business is now a Ponzi game, relying on new money to pay off the old money. I haven't seen anything before. It is quite scary.

A Ponzi game is a redistribution game. Unfortunately, the last ones to hold the bag are often the most vulnerable and credulous, like low income group and retirees, in the society. When they lose everything, they will turn on the government. There are plenty of examples from the past. The central government should deal with it now to control the risk. As this involves criminality, the central government should mobilize security apparatuses to deal with this.

China experiences pyramid schemes or chuanxiao (传销) frequently. The security apparatuses deal with it on a daily basis. This is the first time that chunaxiao has become a financial phenomenon. If not checked, it could lead to a national calamity.


Monetary growth is not too tight

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The current level of monetary growth is more than adequate for China's economy under normal circumstances. M2 grew by 13.5% in August from last year. It is much lower than 20% in recent years, but still considerably higher than China's potential growth rate. China's financial depth is already very high with total assets of deposit taking corporations above 2.3 times 2011 GDP. Hence, monetary growth above the potential growth rate of the economy will become inflation.

Also, the current M2 growth rate may be underestimating the true magnitude of monetary growth. Commercial banks have been active in off balance sheet activities in response to tighter lending restrictions. The trust sector has been booming. The underground high interest rate lending market has been surging. These activities are not fully reflected in the monetary statistics. If these activities are taken into account, I suspect that the apple-to-apple comparison would give us 16% broad money growth rate.


Inflation is still the challenge

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Inflation remains China's main challenge. The massive growth in money supply over the past decade is still turning into inflation. The level of monetary growth is not low enough to subtract from it. China isn't really pushing inflation back into the bottle yet.

The structural changes have made China's economy much more inflation prone. Three decades of one-child policy is cutting today's labor supply. China's manual labor supply may not be growing at all. Factory and construction drive China's growth. Unless the growth rate slows down significantly, labor shortage will wosen, increasing inflation as a result.

Energy shortage is another factor driving inflation. The official statistics may show China's coal consumption at 3.6 billion tons and, including production above government approved quotas, possibly at 4 in 2011. Double digit growth rate of coal consumption on such a large base is unsustainable. The transportation system won't be able to handle that. Also, the production levels in viable production locations may be peaking. China's growth model is highly energy-intensive. If the growth rate of coal consumption remains at double digit rate on such a large base, energy prices will continue to inflate.

While monthly inflation data may fluctuate and sometimes show cooling inflation, the underlying forces are still for inflation. It would be wrong to shift macro policy priority away from price stability.


Slowdown has little downside

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Unlike a decade ago, economic slowdown today has little downside. The shortage of manual labor is still worsening. A slowdown will hardly cause an employment problem. The SMEs that are going bankrupt may lead to layoffs. But, the affected workers can find jobs quickly elsewhere.

There is an employment problem for six million college graduates per annum. The wage gap between those with and without college degree is virtually not existent, at least at entry level. A large number of college graduates, unable to find satisfying white-collar jobs, are staying home. Considering how much they have cost their parents in going through four years of college, the current situation is not acceptable. It is a destabilizing force.

However, the answer to this problem isn't pushing growth. Construction and factory drive growth under the current model. It needs blue collar workers. The answer to the insufficient employment of college graduates lies in reorienting the growth model towards higher value added activities.


The way forward is rebalancing

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China's next growth cycle must be less labor and energy-intensive. Otherwise, inflation will surge to derail any growth push. China must reform its economy and give more power to market and private sector. The dominance of the state-owned enterprises inevitably leads to big project-led growth, which is too inflationary.

The starting point of rebalancing China's economy is to limit the revenues of the government sector. The fiscal revenue and SoE profit may reach 30% of GDP in 2011. The SoEs also spend considerable more than their profits on capital expenditure. Local governments also increase their net borrowings to increase spending. If these factors are taken into account, the government state may spend half of the money in the economy.

China's private enterprises and household sector have been marginalized in the past decade. China's consumption is a small share of GDP because the household sector doesn't have the cash flow to support higher level of consumption. Unless the government sector takes less money out of the economy and leaves more for the household sector, big project construction will continue to dominate the economy.

Also, the current economic structure gives profitable opportunities mostly to SoEs. Private companies are left with low margin businesses like light manufacturing and retailing. Only the property sector has delivered good returns mostly through land inflation. This is why so many private companies have moved into property development. As the property bubble deflates, the private sector will become much smaller.

The rebalancing of China's economy begins and ends with limiting the size of the state sector. Anything else is just diverting attention. To limit the government size, the first step should be to cut taxes. For example, the top personal income tax rate should be cut to 25% from 45%, and the VAT should be cut to 12% from 17%.

Through rebalancing, China's economy will shift to higher value added growth. Only then could China revive high growth rate without sparking inflation.


Deflating property bubble is the answer to tight liquidity

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The current liquidity problem, as reflected in bank lending restrictions and high interest rate in the underground financing market, is due to excessive demand, not supply too low. As argued above, the current monetary growth is more than sufficient under normal circumstances. The excessive demand comes primarily from the property sector. The properties under development may exceed 50% of GDP in value at last year's price.

The way out of the current liquidity problem is for property market to deflate. When the price comes down, the property market needs less liquidity.

Increasing money supply isn't the answer to the current liquidity problem. It will encourage speculation and exacerbate inflation, ultimately leading to an economic collapse.

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