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Friday, September 11, 2009

China's Economy Continues To Grow, But All The Old Doubts Remain

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

China’s economy showed new signs this week that it continues to maintain momentum with the announcement that investment, industrial output and credit all expanded more rapidly in August.

Output and investment increases both came in ahead of analysts’ forecasts and came on the back of a string of July data that had suggested the recovery might be weakening. The one notable exception was, however, on the trade front, where the decline in exports and imports compared to August 2008 was sharper than expected.

China’s economy has been rebouning from the weakest growth in more than a decade on the basis of a $585 billion stimulus package which has produced a sharp surge in new loans surging and driven up manufacturing output and property sales.

The robust August numbers will intensify the debate about when China should begin withdrawing some of the massive fiscal and monetary stimulus it has injected into the economy since the end of last year.

However, the dramatic increases in new lending and money supply this year, combined with rising property and equity markets, have raised fears that government policies are creating a series of bubbles in the economy.

Bank loans rose by Rmb410.4bn in August after increasing by Rmb355.9bn the month before, and by Rmb271.5bn in the same month last year, while the M2 measure of money supply increased by 28.5 per cent.

Quite where and how all this will end in the longer run is frankly anyone's guess, since I personally can't recall an economy with these characteristics in this type of situation before. That is, we have an economy which normally runs a large trade surplus, and has massive foreign exchange reserves falling back on a massive dose of government spending, pressing what Krugman would call Keynes button "G" three or four times consecutively in order to finance an orgy of lending and unaffordable housing construction, which may all be comfortably written off in the future if the global economy eventually recovers and China can blitz the planet with products from all that currently "excess to requirement" capacity that is steadily being built up. All we can say is, hold on to your seats, and keep your eyes peeled to the screen, since whichever way this goes it is surely going to be interesting.

China's GDP Growth Rate Continues To Recover

China looks as if it could hit its full-year growth target of 8% after a surprisingly strong second quarter which was distinguisjed by a strong surge in investment driven by powerful fiscal and monetary stimulus. Annual gross domestic product growth accelerated to 7.9% from 6.1% in the first quarter, making China the planet's best-performing major economy. The acceleration in China's economic growth follows the application of a 4 trillion yuan stimulus package, record lending and a rebound in property investment and sales that have to some extent offset the slump in the nation’s exports. Consensus economists now anticipate China’s GDP growth will accelerate to a 9.5 percent pace next year following an 8.3 percent rate in 2009,

The most recent data suggest that China is likely to show a further growth increase in Q3 from the acceleration in Q2. While exports continue to deteriorate on an year on year basis, they are now managing to squeeze out some sort of increase on a month by month basis.

China's growth really has been quite robust for more than 20 years now, and even though it dropped back somewhat after the 1998 crisis, it never really fell below 8% or so annually averaged over time. Which has to lead you to ask yourself just how much of that export driven surge post 2002, which was fuelled by massive credit in a number of developed economies, really is sustainable? Trend growth at this point is likely to be nearer to 7% a year than it is to 10%.

China is now well on the way to becoming the world's number two economy, behind the United States. In this sense, if China does manage to head straight forward full speed ahead this will mean the current recession will have been decisive as Japan and Germany slump inexorably backwards. These latter two countries just don't have the internal leverage to run the kind of stimulus programme China is applying due to the weight of their ever more elderly population.

Industrial Output Bounces Strongly Back

China’s industrial production rose more than forecast in August, lending unexpectedly climbed and retail sales advanced, indicating growth in the world’s third- biggest economy is likely to accelerate. Industrial output expanded by a 12-month high of 12.3 per cent in August from a year earlier after a 10.8 per cent increase in July, although production in August last year was held back by Olympics-related factory closures.

GM sales in China last month jumped to 152,365 vehicles,up by more than 100 percent over last year, as tax cuts and stimulus measures spurred demand. The company are forecasting 2009 sales to rise by more than 40 percent from 1.09 million last year. Total output for all carmakersmakers may increase by around 28 percent this year to as many as 12 million, according to China’s leading planning agency earlier this month. Car production accounts for about 2 percent of GDP.

And Investment Surges

Fixed asset investment inched up to a rate of increase of 33 per cent over August last year, after expanding by 32.9 per cent in July. Investment in real-estate development grew 14.7 percent in the first eight months after an 11.6 percent gain in the first seven months, the statistics bureau said yesterday. House prices in 70 cities rose 2 percent in August, the fastest gain in 11 months.

Overcapacity is now a serious problem in China. According to a recent report authored by the Financial and Economic Affairs Committee (FEAC) of the National People's Congress (NPC), nineteen industries are currently plagued by problems of overcapacity, although the report failed to provide a detailed list.

The number of industries thought to be effected has now almost doubled since the State Council first began addressing the problem of overcapacity back in 2005.

The FEAC report noted that when the new round of stimulus package investment was unleashed last October, local governments expanded production capacity with no regard for the consequences and some projects were constructed without preliminary assessment or approval from higher authorities.

Liu Manping, a researcher with China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), recently admitted that local governments favoured the construction of large industrial projects since they tended to be the impulsive response of local governments to the sudden access to easy money. Liu also explained that local authorities often split large projects into smaller schemes in order to avoid requiring approval from the NDRC.

The real problem is that the Chinese authorities largely rely - in their attempts to eliminate outdated production facilities - on administrative measures (direct orders to close) rather than market oriented ones.

All too often these measures either have a limited impact, or they are intentionally circumvented.

Chen Ling, deputy-director of China's Metallurgical Economic Research & Development Center, spoke recently about the early days of the campaign against overcapacity in the steel industry,when the government ordered producers with blast furnaces smaller than 200 cubic meters to close their doors.

Upon hearing such news, many small steel mills simply upgraded their blast furnace so that they now use 300 cubic meters, or even larger, blast furnaces. Later, the government again raised the cut-off to 300 cubic meters, but by continuing to increase the size of the blast furnace limit, the government simply pressured steel makers to once again enlarge their blast furnaces and thus production capacity continued to expand.

China is now well on the way to becoming the world's number two economy, behind the Unietd States. In this sense, if China does manage to head straight forward full speed ahead this will mean the current recession will have been decisive as Japan and Germany slump inexorably backwards. These latter two countries just don't have the internal leverage to run the kind of stimulus programme China is applying due to the weight of their ever more elderly population.

And Retail Sales Maintain Their Strong Momentum

Retail sales grew 15.4 per cent from a year earlier as domestic demand remained robust. Sales of motor vehicles were strong, up 34.8 per cent, as a result of government subsidies and tax cuts.

But Exports Wobble In August

Exports fell for a 10th straight month. The decline in imports was the biggest in three months and more than economists estimated. Exports rose 3.4 percent in August from July on a seasonally adjusted basis, the customs bureau said. Imports rose 1 percent. So month-on-month gains were smaller than in July, when exports rose 5.2 percent and imports climbed 3.5 percent

However. in spite of forecasts that exports might start to rebound on the back of restocking in developed economies, the rate of decline in exports increased to 23.4 per cent in August compared to the same month last year, after dropping 23 per cent in July. Imports fell by 17 per cent after declining 14.9 per cent in July. This led the monthly trade surplus to increase again to $15.7bn after recording a $10.6bn surplus in July.

Deflationary Pressures Nonetheless Eased Slightly

Deflationary pressures eased, with consumer price inflation falling 1.2 per cent in August. The rate of decline was nonetheless down from the 1.6 per cent seen in July.

The producer price index was down 7.9 per cent from the same period in 2008.