Friday, March 19, 2010

"China's Bubble" Warning By Doomsayers

You gotta love it how more and more people just seem to join the chorus once somebody with some credibility says something interesting. China is in the midst of "the greatest bubble in history," said James Rickards, former general counsel of hedge fund Long- Term Capital Management LP. Who is Rickards??? Why is he saying things at all? He's just the counsel at what was the biggest collapse in the 90s.... aahhh. The Chinese central bank’s balance sheet resembles that of a hedge fund buying dollars and short-selling the yuan, said Rickards, now the senior managing director for market intelligence at McLean, Virginia-based consulting firm Omnis Inc. Rickards joins hedge fund manager Jim Chanos, Marc Faber and professor Kenneth Rogoff in warning of an overheating and potential crash in China's economy following a rally in stock and property prices. Now even the World Bank has chimed in to say the same thing.

Are we heading down the road as opined by those above. Beijing has already raised lenders' requirements twice this year. Let's look at some problem areas.

If China’s credit growth were to slow sharply, non-performing loans (NPLs) would spike by the end of the year. Although the problem would not be as large as in the late 1990s, another recapitalization would be difficult without tapping government coffers. The asset management companies set up to recapitalize the banks in 1999 have yet to repay their loans, and nobody is willing to buy their assets at prices anywhere near what would be needed to cover their costs.

The problem seems to be with the politically-connected municipal investment and development companies (MIDCs), which would likely be able to maintain their credit lines. The MDICs are at the center of a risky shell game with local banks, in which land and credit lines are swapped to maximize the companies’ access to financing. However, most infrastructure projects financed by these companies remain a long way from profitability, and land prices used for collateral were seriously inflated last year. If they no longer had access to credit, many MDICs would default, which would spark a tough fight over who is responsible for the redemption of the loans. The China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) estimated that 8,000 MDICs accounted for 14% of new lending in 2009, though other estimates put the figure much higher.

In the Chinese bond market their presence was even larger—they issued RMB250 billion in bonds last year, up from RMB30 billion the year before, accounting for the bulk of the 88% jump in corporate bond issuance through Q3 2009. The State Council recently said it is seeking to regulate these companies, calling their financing a “latent systemic risk in the financial sector.”Chinese regulators have told commercial lenders to restrict new lending to municipal development companies, the official Shanghai Securities News reported on February 24, 2010. Banks were told to stop lending to any projects backed solely by a local government guarantee and reject any projects that lacked adequate capital.

Victor Shih, a professor at Northwestern, estimates that their total borrowing between 2004 and 2009 was US$1.6 trillion (RMB10.9 trillion), or about 33% of GDP and 70% of its foreign exchange reserves. Banks have already pledged additional credit to the companies. "If the central government does not restrict bank lending to them, these entities will go deeper into debt, thus either requiring the sale of much more land or the creation of a pile of nonperforming loans."

Shih estimates that government debt, including the hidden liabilities, could reach RMB39.8 trillion (US$5.8 trillion) or 96% of GDP in 2011. This includes non-performing loans held by state-owned banks, liabilities of the development banks, and the debts of the asset management companies set up to recapitalize the banking sector. "The worst case is a pretty large-scale financial crisis around 2012". "The slowdown would last at least two years and maybe longer."In 2009, the Ministry of Land and Resources reported that government land sales netted RMB1.6 trillion (US$234 billion), most of which went to local government coffers. The government sold 319,000 hectares of land in 2009, up 44% from 2008, the revenues from which increased 63% y/y. Land sold for "real-estate use" accounted for 84% of this. At the height of the previous property bubble in 2007, the government raised RMB1.3 trillion from land sales. If China's property bubble were to burst in 2010 the revenue from land sales could dry up, which would weigh heavily on local governments' abilities to continue financing the stimulus.

Official debt-to-GDP ratio was 17.7% at end of 2008, but this may be closer to 60% once local government debt, backstopped bank loans and bad assets are included. This is still below the U.S. level and not explosive, but stimulus spending by local governments and loans from state-owned banks may push the 2009 fiscal deficit up to 10% of GDP.

Hot money poses another problem for RMB appreciation. If the RMB looks like a one-way bet, which a modest and steady appreciation path would indicate, then international funds will find their way into property and other assets in Beijing, Shanghai and the other major cities. RGE estimates that China experienced about US$40-50 billion in “hot money” inflows in Q4 2009. This could worsen the asset price bubbles regulators have been trying to ease since late last year. (Housing affordability is among Chinese consumers’ top complaints.)

There are problem spots in China, and its mainly in property. The MDICs are too reliant on land sales and have borrowed excessively. Its about to implode anytime, just another couple of rate hikes and another round of curbs on lending should do that.

While that may also deflate China stock markets, I do think the ill effects on stocks will be very temporary. Just have a look at the two charts below:

While the US is gaining share, China is losing share. Aside from an uptick in the summer months of 2009, China's stock market cap as a % of world market cap has been trending downward throughout the entire rebound.

One of the easy ways to see how a country is performing relative to other countries is to look at its market cap as a percentage of world market cap. In the early stages of the global rebound off of the March lows, the US rose significantly, but other countries were gaining even more. In recent months, however, the tide has turned, and the US is now outperforming the rest of the world. As shown below, US stock market cap as a percentage of world market cap has been steadily rising since last November. During the 2003-2007 bull market, emerging markets and other countries really outperformed the US. If this bull market continues and the US continues to gain share, it will represent a very big trend change that will make a huge impact on portfolio performance depending on an investor's domestic versus international equity allocation.

The charts also reveal that the bulk of the liquidity has gone into property and not stocks. Hence it will have a muted effect when property side busts.

Moody's upgraded China's ratings outlook to positive from stable on November 9, 2009, keeping the rating at A1, on expectations that the country's economic recovery is taking stronger hold with only modest effects on the government's finances. The agency cited possible asset price bubbles and the long-term effects of China's stimulus program as risks to its outlook. It also upgraded the ratings for seven Chinese banks, a sector that some analysts worry may be hit with a surge in non-performing loans following this year's sharp credit growth. Moody's said that the banks could withstand such "stress scenarios" given their strong capital positions and earnings.

There are those who would defend the property boom in China. JPMorgan's Jing Ulrich argues in the FT that Chinese real estate is not overvalued and the fallout of a price contraction would not be severe because there is less leverage involved. "Chinese household debt amounts to approximately 17% of GDP, compared to roughly 96% in the US and 62% in the eurozone. ... Over the past 5 years, urban household incomes grew at a 13.2% compound annual growth rate, compared to an 11.9% CAGR in home prices."

While that may be the case, the problem with China property is with the MDICs and not the end buyers per se. So, JP Morgan can still be wrong.

May main reason for saying China is not headed for a big implosion is that the Chinese economy is still relatively a relatively closed economy. The liquidity swishing around is still controlled by Beijing, with the exception of some hot money into property. We cannot regard China like normal more open economies - e.g. Malaysia or Indonesia, where we can be on the receiving end of a lot of hot money, and will feel the gravity of it when these funds exit. You do not have such a keen issue in China.

Beijing knows the unbalanced lending to state firms and municipal councils, and is trying to redress the problem, albeit a tad late. Really should get out of China property for the next 12 months.

p/s photos: Wang Yi Bing

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