One of Scott's central arguments is that Chinese people want housing. No doubt, people want somewhere to live, and recent waves of urbanization have moved more and more of demand to the cities. However, I'm not sure why this translates into an argument that the current housing situation can't be a bubble. Just because there's a need for housing does not mean that there is enough quantity demanded at current prices. There's no physical overstock, but there's a massive market overhang at current levels. If I were a homeless person who just got a job making thousands of dollars, my first priority would certainly not be moving into a sleek urban apartment whose rent would take up almost the entirety of my income. There are other, cheaper options that are not the drivers behind the current real estate rally.
This is likely because the price of houses represents more than the discounted stream of housing services, it rather represents expectations of future growth. Financial repression and low bank deposit rates force wealthy Chinese to try to grow their wealth by investing into assets such as gold, jade, or housing. Shanghai families view housing as critical to "preserving value" in a household, and the purchase of a house may reflect excessive optimism about the future price path due to other people's purchasing, instead of expectations of the value of future housing services. Printing money wouldn't solve the issue because the real cost of those items are too high, so monetary expansion would only worsen the balance sheets of the savers with bank deposits and strengthen those who had the resources to invest in housing.
The crux of the matter is inequality. Who is buying all those consumption goods you see on TV? Who is buying houses to preserve value? Yogi Berra's quote "nobody goes there, it's too crowded" does not fully apply. Nobody goes there because it's too expensive to live for the "millions of of Chinese living in tiny ramshackle homes." But the houses give just enough return for wealthy Chinese investors, who represent a small, but incredibly influential minority.
The real risk is not that the housing won't be used, but that the crash would have secondary effects. Local governments are dependent upon land sales for revenues, meaning a housing crash could have serious implications for government. In Guangdong province, some local governments are actually tearing down mountains to make new land in the ocean, all to sell the land. This, along with the recent reversal of capital flows and possible insolvency of private wealth management firms, represents a serious liquidity risk that can have disastrous consequences.
In terms of sources, I would recommend looking at Patrick Chovanec's articles on the Chinese housing market and financial system. I don't have much time to provide the direct link for each of my claims, but if there seems like something that doesn't jive right I would be happy to explain further.
So let's answer Scott's fundamental question:
So here’s my question for all of you China skeptics that insist they are building way too much housing, infrastructure, heavy industry, etc. What precisely do you want them to build more of? And what are the 100s of millions of Chinese living in tiny ramshackle homes to do? Sit tight for a few more decades while resources pour into nice urban services for the pampered elite?I want them to start building leaf blowers, so we don't have so many Chinese people in the low productivity position of sweeping streets. I want them to start building farm equipment, so we don't have so many Chinese farmers tending the fields. I want them to build more laundry machines, to free the rural Chinese from scrubbing clothes on washboards. I want them to build electric stoves, so my Grandpa can put away the coal fired outside oven. I want them to build computers that can deliver cheaper education to the masses.
Instead of just focusing on "building," I want them to invest in human capital, so productivity can be at a level that we don't need "make work" jobs. I want them to build more schools and hire better teachers, so classes aren't as large and you're not damned if you can't make it in a top elementary school. I want productivity to be high enough that high end stores don't need more clerks than actual customers.
I want these things among many others that will only be more obvious in a freer market.
That Scott can get a haircut for $4 or an ice cream cone for 50 cents shows how low productivity and wages are in China. Yet they will not grow any faster with more housing or more state directed investments. Cheap subway rides are nice, but are they not just another sign that transportation infrastructure has been built too quickly? I'm not saying China is hitting a ceiling for growth, or that vast swaths of China are condemned to poverty. But what I am saying is that we need to worry about the systemic fragility that underpins the Chinese system, and be very, very concerned about the unknown magnitude of the downside risk.