Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What China Could Be Building

Scott recently expressed his optimism in the Chinese growth story, and sees no reason why the recent trouble with housing markets should jeopardize its growth. As a fellow traveler in China, I have to express reservations about his outlook.

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.


  1. Great post! Yes, obviously they should invest in things that increase future productivity. Whether that's housing, infrastructure, education, street blowers or farm equipment depends on the bottlenecks to productivity. I think you and Scott both are right.

  2. Great post Yi-chuan, but have you ever considered the potential of monetary policy to ease private debt burdens? (Yes, I've had some influence from Irving Fisher's "debt deflation" tradition, mainly through Hyman Minsky and Richard Koo.)

  3. Mr. Wang, as a Master's student in Finance at Taiwan Tech, I have to sit through a lot of lectures about Taiwan/Chinese capital markets, and one of the big themes I see in China and Taiwan is that the big reason you won't see investments in capital the way you want it is the social norms and lack of social development to accept western ideals.

    In short, westerners invest, and Chinese/Taiwanese save. What implications this has for how they allocate investments is that Chinese and Taiwanese would prefer to store wealth (defer consumption) in very safe ways. In contrast, America/Europe have much more developed financial systems and as such, individuals will invest in income-producing assets. You can see this difference in risk attitudes in the bond market, and in my personal opinion, I believe it reflects the high prevalence of fraud. It's very hard to be defrauded out of a house (or education, another common investment by Chinese/Taiwanese), whereas complex financial instruments are much easier to lose wealth in. Even as the markets are developed, they haven't built the trust we take for granted in the US.

  4. "... 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."

    So, what should China be building?

    The 21st century will overturn many of our previously-held assumptions about civilization. The challenges and opportunities land development stakeholders now face – to fulfill the needs of society and achieve a favorable return on investment without harming the environment – have vast implications on the sustainability of our communities around the world.

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    The World’s First Sustainable Development Decision Model is symbolized as a geometrical algorithm that balances and integrates the triple-bottom line needs of people, planet and profit into a holistic, fractal model that becomes increasingly detailed, guiding effective decisions throughout the community planning, financing, design, regulating, construction and maintenance processes while always enabling project context to drive specific decisions.

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative

  5. The rest of this sounds commendable, but you have got to be joking when you write "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."

    Have you ever watched someone at work with a leaf blower? I have. Maybe someone can prove otherwise with statistics, but I have never seen anything to give me the impression that leaf blowers enhance productivity (or that, as a result, they could eliminate jobs). The leaf blower has to be one of the most atrociously unhelpful inventions of the past century. Having watched people clean sidewalks with them I would readily bet that someone with a broom could consistently accomplish the same task in a similar amount of time.

    The only reasons I can think of for leaf-blowers' adoption are 1) a general belief that "modern," powered tools are always better than "old-fashioned," hand tools, and 2) they allow grounds crews to avoid any physical effort other than slowly waving one arm from side to side. Admittedly, if I had to clean streets for a living, I'm sure that I would appreciate the latter. However, given the fact that it doesn't seem to actually speed anything up, plus the expense of the leaf blower and fuel, as well as the negative externality of the godawful noise they make, it's just really hard to believe that in the larger picture replacing brooms with leaf blowers is a net gain in value.

  6. An interesting take on rakes v leaf blowers: