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GMO White Paper China

GMO White Paper China



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March 2010
China’s Red Flags
Edward Chancellor 
n the aftermath of the credit crunch, the outlook for most developed economies appears prettybleak. Households need to deleverage. Westerngovernments will have to tighten their purse strings.Faced with such grim prospects at home, many investorsare turning their attention toward China. It’s easy to seewhy they are excited. China combines size – 1.3 billioninhabitants – with tremendous growth prospects. Currentincome per capita is roughly one-tenth of U.S. levels.The People’s Republic also has a great track record. Overthe past thirty years, China’s Gross Domestic Product hasincreased sixteen-fold.So what’s the catch? The trouble is that China todayexhibits many of the characteristics of great speculativemanias. The aim of this paper is to describe the commonfeatures of some of the great historical bubbles andoutline China’s current vulnerability.
Section One: Identifying Speculative Maniasand Financial Crises
Can we con
dently identify a speculative mania beforethe bubble bursts? Is it possible to spot an incipient
nancial crisis before it explodes in our faces? Basedon the performance over the last decade of most leadingeconomists, central bankers, and Wall Street pundits, theanswer to these questions is surely a resounding NO!In fact, bubbles can be identi
ex ante,
as theeconomists like to say. There also exists an interesting, if rather neglected, body of research on leading indicatorsof 
nancial distress. A few years ago, many of theseindicators were pointing to rising economic vulnerabilityin the United States and other parts of the globe. Today,those red
ags are
ying around Wall Street’s currentdarling, The People’s Republic of China.Past manias and
nancial crises have shared manycommon characteristics. Below is an attempt to list tenaspects of great bubbles over the past three centuries.1. Great investment debacles generally start out with
 a compelling growth story.
This may be attached tosome revolutionary new technology, such as railwaysin the nineteenth century, radio in the 1920s, or morerecently the Internet. Even when the new technologyis for real, prospective rates of growth may beexaggerated.
Early growth spurts are commonlyextrapolated into the distant future.Alternately, the growth story may be spun around theexciting prospects of a particular economy. A country’spotential ascendancy to economic dominance hason several occasions proved an alluring snare toinvestors. Investors in the Mississippi Bubble of 1719 were attracted by the promise that John Law’s
Compagnie des Indes 
would make France the masterof Europe. In the late 1980s, investors
ocked toTokyo believing that Japan was about to unseatthe United States as the world’s leading economicsuperpower.2. A blind
 faith in the competence of the authorities
is another typical feature of a classic mania. In the1920s, investors believed that the recently establishedFederal Reserve had brought an end to “boom andbust.” In the “New Era” of the twenties, stocks were
This occurred during the Internet bubble. It was widely put around at thetime that Internet traffic was doubling every three months. Yet as Profes-sor Andrew Odlyzko wrote in November 2000
(Information Impacts Magazine): 
“The story of Internet traffic doubling every three months is afable that seems to have arisen from a rather brief spurt of traffic growthin 1995-1996. The astronomical growth rates of the popular fable can bedangerously misleading in leading to poor choices in technology and un-necessary costs.”
China's Red Flags – March 2010
considered to have become less risky and valuationssoared. A similar argument was trotted out in themid-1990s when it was widely believed that theGreenspan Fed had succeeded in taming the businesscycle. The “New Paradigm” disappeared in the bearmarket of the new millennium. It was soon replacedwith the “Great Moderation” thesis of Ben Bernanke,which suggested that high levels of mortgage debtmade sense because monetary policymaking was sovastly improved. Alas, the Great Moderation turnedout to be yet another example of that always deludedbut oft repeated claim that “this time is different.”3.
 A general increase in investment
is another leadingindicator of 
nancial distress. Capital is generallymisspent during periods of euphoria. Only duringthe bust does the extent of the misallocation becomeclear. As the nineteenth century economist John Millsobserved: “Panics do not destroy capital; they merelyreveal the extent to which it has been previouslydestroyed by its betrayal in hopelessly unproductiveworks.”
During the British railway mania of the 1840s, threeseparate train lines were built between London andPeterborough. One would have suf 
ced. After thetech bubble collapsed, new
ber-optic pipelinesexperienced tremendous overcapacity that lingeredfor years. A recent IMF World Economic Outlook observes that countries with a high investment shareof GDP tend to suffer the steepest and most prolongedeconomic downturns.
 4. Great booms are invariably accompanied by a
 surgein corruption.
As the great Victorian journalistand economist Walter Bagehot put it, “All peopleare most credulous when they are most happy; andwhen money has been made ... there is a happyopportunity for ingenious mendacity.”
In hisbook 
The Great Crash,
John Kenneth Galbraithdescribed a cycle of fraudulent behavior, whichhe termed the
“In good times people arerelaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. But eventhough money is plentiful, there are always manypeople who need more. Under these circumstancesthe rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of 
J. Mills, “On Credit Cycles and the Origins of Commercial Panics,”
Trans- actions of the Manchester Statistical Society,
IMF World Economic Outlook, October 2009.
W. Bagehot,
The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot,
Volume IX.
discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly.”
5. Strong growth in the money supply is another robustleading indicator of 
nancial fragility.
 Easy money
lies behind all great episodes of speculation fromthe Tulip Mania of the 1630s – which was fundedwith IOUs – onward. Low rates lead investors tochase after higher yielding and riskier investments.According to Walter Bagehot, “John Bull can standmany things, but he cannot stand two per cent.” Wheninterest rates fell to this meagre level, he commented,people were driven to “invest their careful savingsin something impossible – a canal to Kamchatka, arailway to Watchet, a plan for animating the DeadSea, a corporate for shipping skates to the TorridZone.”
 Fixed currency regimes
often produce inappropriatelylow interest rates, which are liable to feed booms andend in busts. This lesson was ignored by the creatorsof the European Monetary Union, which brought lowrates and real estate booms to its smaller members,Spain and Ireland. A
xed exchange rate regime alsocontributed to the Asian crisis of 1997. Large capitalin
ows are another leading indicator of 
nancialinstability.7. Crises generally follow a period o
 rampant credit growth.
In the boom, liabilities are contracted thatcannot subsequently be repaid. Economists at theBank for International Settlements have shown thatsharp deviations of credit growth from past trendshave predicted
nancial crises with an 80% successrate.
A more recent academic study of numerouscredit booms over the last century and a half concludesthat “lagged credit growth turns out to be a highlysigni
cant predictor of 
nancial crises.”
 Moral hazard 
is another common feature of greatspeculative manias. Credit booms are often takento extremes due to a prevailing belief that theauthorities won’t let bad things happen to the
nancialsystem. Irresponsibility is condoned. During AlanGreenspan’s tenure at the Fed there was a general
J.K. Galbraith,
The Great Crash.
W. Bagehot,
The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot,
Volume IX.
“Asset Prices, Financial and Monetary Stability, Exploring the Nexus,”Claudio Borio and Philip Lowe, BIS, July 2002.
Credit Booms Gone Bust: Monetary Policy, Leverage Cycles and FinancialCrises, 1870-2008,” Moritz Schularick and Alan Taylor, NBER, November2009.
China's Red Flags – March 2010
understanding that the central bank would cut ratesand
ood the markets with liquidity wheneverspeculators ran into trouble. The “Greenspan put”underwrote both the tech bubble of the late 1990sand the real estate mania of the new millennium.9. A rising stock of debt is not the only cause for concern.The economist Hyman Minsky observed that duringperiods of prosperity,
 nancial structures become precarious.
nanced with borrowedmoney don’t generate enough income to eitherservice or repay the loan (what Minsky called “Ponzi
nance”). As a result, the
nancial system becomesincreasingly vulnerable to what would normally beconsidered insigni
cant events, such as a small risein interest rates or a decline in asset prices. The highlyleveraged investment trusts of the 1920s and, morerecently, the subprime CDOs of the last decade, areclassic examples of Ponzi
nance.10. Dodgy loans are generally secured against collateral,most commonly real estate. Thus, a combination of strong credit growth and
 rapidly rising property prices
 are a reliable leading indicator of very painful busts.
 Real estate collapses are made worse when there’sbeen a large amount of new building, as homeownersin Spain, Ireland, and the U.S. can testify from freshexperience.In summary, researchers
nd that rapid credit growthis the most important leading indicator of 
nancialinstability. The presence of an asset price bubble is thesecond most reliable crisis indicator. Low interest ratesand strong money growth are also good warning signs.Real estate busts often produce severe and long-lastingeconomic downturns, while investment booms may resultin a misallocation of capital. Classic manias have oftenbeen accompanied by a compelling growth story and anuncritical faith in the competence of the authorities. Theyare exacerbated by moral hazard and accompanied byrampant corruption.
Section Two: Analyzing the China Dream
It would be pleasant to think that the wrenching experienceof the Global Credit Crunch and Great Recession wouldhave brought a return to
nancial sobriety around theworld. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.Another bout of easy money hasn’t succeeded in re
“Asset Price Booms and Monetary Policy,” Carsten Deks and Frank Smets,ECB Working Paper, May 2004.
the moribund U.S. housing market. On the other sideof the world, however, China is showing many of theclassic symptoms of a great speculative mania alongsideseveral of the leading indicators of 
nancial fragility.1.
The China Dream.
For centuries, foreigners havepondered how to make money from China’s vastpopulation.
Today, the China Dream is more vividthan ever. The People’s Republic has more than 1.3billion citizens, making it the world’s most populousnation. China’s rural population is gradually movinginto its cities. A further 300 million country-dwellers– that’s roughly the same size as the U.S. population– are expected to head toward towns and cities overthe next decade.
It is generally assumed that the Chinese economy will continue to grow by around 8% annually in the coming years.
In recent months, China has overtaken Germany asthe world’s number one exporter and Japan as theworld’s number two economy. China is also theworld’s largest market for many commodities andrecently surpassed the U.S. as the largest nationalcar market. Chinese workers currently earn aroundone-tenth the wages of their American counterparts.However, their future income growth is expected toconverge with Western levels, following the path of Japan in the three decades after 1960.The inevitability of China’s ascent to world economicprimacy is re
ected in the titles of recently publishedbooks, such as Martin Jacques’s
When China Rules the World.
dence is high. At the 60th anniversaryof the founding of the People’s Republic in Beijinglast October, the crowd chanted, “Nothing can stopus! Go! Go! Go!”
 Forecasts for urbanization and economic growthmake for a compelling Wall Street pitch. If they arecorrect, then demand for industrial commodities andconsumer goods in China will rise exponentially inthe years to come. Yet like the projections for internetgrowth back in the late 1990s, there’s a possibilitythat these forecasts may be exaggerated.As with the dotcom mania, investors seem to beadopting an uncritical attitude to China’s growthforecasts. Take, for instance, the claim that the urban
The China Dream: the Elusive Quest for the Last Great Untapped Market on Earth,
by Joe Studwell.
Financial Times,
October 3, 2009

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