Is China’s Import Surge Real?

People frequently assume that I believe you can reduce every Chinese number by some percent to arrive at the true number. However, what I tell them is that you have to dig beneath and understand the dynamics to arrive at a reasonable conclusion about what that number means and that it may be over or understated. Chinese import data is a case and point.

Chinese imports are up 17% YTD and are ripe for skepticism but in reality probably pretty accurate. However, besides the large increase which raises eyebrows, there is also the fact that payments for imports are up only 7%.  So how can we conclude that the import data is relatively accurate given the large jump in imports and the only moderate growth in payment for imports?

Import growth into China for the past few years has been flat or declining.    Flat in 2014, down 14% in 2015, and down 5% in 2016.  The 2017 growth we have seen for recent history is truly an enormous outlier.

For the past few years, Chinese importers were overpaying for imports by a relatively significant amount.  In 2015, the discrepancy between imports reported at customs and at bank payments amounted to $526 billion USD.  In 2016, this number had dropped to $271 with most of that decline coming in Q2-Q4.

This raises two specific possibilities focusing on customs reported imports. Either physical imports were under reported and payments were accurate or physical imports were accurately reported and payments were over paid.  Absent much more granular data, it is difficult to know for sure, but there is little reason to believe, for many reasons we won’t explore here, physical goods imports were under reported. This means that payments were overpaying for given level of imports.

Now in 2017, if overpayment was still a problem, we would expect to see payments go up by either a similar amount or even more. What we see however is the exact opposite. Payments have gone up by significantly less than imports.  To add to this, not only do we see payments growing much slower than trade, we see that the gap between imports and payments is only $146 billion USD and on track to report $220 billion for all of 2017.

If we believed that Customs reported imports were significantly and structurally under reported prior to 2017, it might be easier to believe that imports are over stated this year, but we have little reason to believe that.

Consequently, the moderate growth in payment actually supports the idea that Chinese import growth has surged significantly. Because import levels are moving much closer to the reported payment level, it indicates that Chinese inspectors are spending more time matching physical imports to what is paid for those imports.

Most importantly, this implies that Chinese crackdown on capital outflows primarily through gray market methods is working. It should be noted that this does no imply there is less desire, only that Chinese inspectors are doing a better job matching different physical and goods flows.  Conversely, it is likely, that Chinese import and payment data is much more accurate.

As I will say, you cannot just assume a given state about Chinese data.

What are Internal Controls and Why are They Important for China?

What are internal controls? I had a loyal Twitter follower ask if internal control was code for corruption in light of the Mingsheng Bank wealth management product loss. This is an entirely understandable question but not accurate.  This led to a Bloomberg Views piece and this is the follow up.  As usual, start there and then come here.

Internal controls are the things nobody thinks about until there is a crisis and then everyone looks around and wonders why certain actions were allowed they are so patently absurd.  Take a simple example of taking a business trip and all the implied internal controls that accompany that action. Who authorizes the trip or how does the company know the trip is worth the expenditure? What are the requirements on the travel such as class of travel, airline, price, or length of stay.  After the trip, how are expenses reimbursed and what type of documentation is required.  This is a simple example, but apply this same type of internal control model to running a bank where employees control thousands, millions, and even billions of RMB.

Take a couple of simple examples. First, in the Madoff case, there was no internal controls as everyone at the firm allowed the boss and founder Bernie Madoff complete freedom to run the trading and investing part of the firm with no oversight.  Second, during the financial crisis, there are too many stories to count of poor internal controls where documents weren’t verified and money changed hands in smaller business units without necessary constraints within those business units and from above. Third, remember Enron when key executives placed corporate assets in special purpose vehicles (SPVs) they controlled that Enron was ultimately responsible for covering losses. At no point should corporate officers be allowed to control corporate assets outside their standard fiduciary duty but internal controls were so lax at Enron this was permitted.

The Mingsheng Bank WMP collapse, which you can read about here and here, appears from what we can gather so far to be less about any imminent collapse in the Chinese WMP market and more about a complete absence of any internal controls. Basically, there was fraudulent use of the branches corporate chop, which for any non-China experts is the seal which makes things official in China for companies and a branch manager who diverted WMP funds into unauthorized uses.  Basically, there was virtually no supervision on the branch manager who did somethings he was not supposed to do.

Turning to China, I can say from my nearly eight years in China, the lack of internal controls inside Chinese firms is virtually non-existent. I know of major Chinese organizations that up until recently ran data analytics overseeing thousands of employees by hand on a paper notebook. They recently upgraded so that paper reports were submitted by hand and the data entered into an Excel spreadsheet on one persons computer. To describe it as astoundingly weak internal controls over these operations is incredibly polite.

Banks are even more rife with internal control problems.  Internal audits and risk management whereby higher ups verify the behavior, enforce limits, and confirm financial records in China are incredibly weak to be kind. There have been numerous cases of enormous losses, frauds, or thefts and what is amazing is how common these amazing large cases are but even more important how brutally simple they are.  This should give you a clue that banks do not have controls in place to control the flow of money and ensure it is flowing to where is should be.

For me there is one major issue about how this becomes a bigger problem is that even when the data is not will fully manipulated either by regulators or bank CEO’s, for instance, neither has mechanisms in place to audit and verify the data being given them by people much lower down the food chain.  Consequently, even if they are worried about the risks of say excess debt, when they are told by lower managers that everything is fine, they do not have the tools in place to make sure the lower level managers are providing accurate data.

This gets to this supposed Chinese proverb about the emperor being far away so the provinces will play (I’m paraphrasing). If a bank, city, or province manager is being told to hit certain numbers by headquarters in Beijing and the manager knows how lax internal controls are, do you think it is more likely he/she will admit failure or fudge the numbers knowing they are unlikely to get caught? Furthermore, given the hierarchical nature of power in China, underlings will not be reporting to Beijing about their bosses data manipulation.

What makes this so amazing is that virtually every Chinese firm IPO in places like Hong Kong, the Chinese firms explicitly say things about accounting and internal control risks.  It isn’t like they don’t tell you this stuff.  Even most repos in China are not actual repos but pledged repos where the lender is pledged an asset but does not take physical control of the asset.  This is why markets have seized up before when it came to light there weren’t actually assets there. These are common at all levels and they tell you these risks.

If you take this out of strictly financial, Beijing is struggling to get even things like coal mines and steel mills that are supposed to be shut down, shut down for real. Imagine how much easier it is to cover up financial problems when there is a lack of internal controls, compared to operating a steel mill where Beijing knows to go look.

This is more than theoretical. I believe all evidence points to the conclusion that regulators and bank CEO’s do not have an accurate picture. Data that gets aggregated at head offices has had minimal if any internal auditing done, why you have Mingsheng branch managers (he wasn’t a senior exec) pulling off $500 million frauds.  Imagine if every branch manager fudges the data just a little to make their numbers look better, how different would the state of Chinese banks be?

I should note that I really hope I am entirely wrong.  However, even stories I’m told by people working inside firms really do just make you cringe.  These are very real issues that normally help people go to sleep if they’re suffering from insomnia, but these are really important.

Is the Chinese Economy Rebalancing? Credit and Investment Part I

As the depth of China’s reliance on its old stand by of investment growth fueled by increasingly risky credit becomes more apparent, Beijing and China bulls have fallen back on the old standby citing Chinese rebalancing.  Given the seeming rapid growth in metrics like investment and credit, it becomes important to unpack whether China actually is moving away from its historical growth model.

There is top line data supporting the idea that China is rebalancing away from its investment heavy model.  For instance in Q1 2010, secondary industry comprise 56.4% of the Chinese economy but has fallen steadily since then to 37.2% or by nearly 20% of GDP while the tertiary sector has seen a nearly identical corresponding increase.  Of the 6.7% GDP increase 3.9% of that supposedly came from the tertiary sector.

If we look at other related numbers, there are other top line numbers which support this idea that China is rebalancing.  According to official data, even now retail sales only recently dropped beneath to hit 9.5%  or nearly 3% more than real GDP growth.  This sounds like a nearly air tight case for rebalancing right?  As I always say, move past the headline data and you get a very different picture of what is actually happening in the Chinese economy.

Let’s start with the reliance on investment and credit to drive growth assuming for as long as possible the data is accurate.  In 2009, fixed asset investment (FAI) was equal to 56% of nominal GDP while in 2016 it was equal to 80% of nominal GDP and 80% in 2015.  However, from gross capital formation (GCF), the GDP accounting representation with some important exclusions, of FAI shows a different patter. In 2009, GCF was equal to 46% of nominal GDP while as FAI was rising rapidly through 2015, GCF actually dropped as a percentage of GDP to 45%.  In other words, while the cash value of investment in the Chinese economy has been rising rapidly since 2009, its GDP measure has actually dropped.

We are now left with a conundrum: is it possible to reconcile the rapid growth in FAI with the drop in GCF within Chinese GDP statistics? Possible but extremely unlikely and even if so leaves Chinese finances in an vastly more precarious position. The primary exclusion between FAI, the financial cost of investment, and GCF, the GDP accounting measure of investment, is the value of land is excluded.  In 2015, FAI was 80% of GDP while GCF was only 45% so this raises the question whether land sales in investment comprised 35% of GDP and whether the value of land sales have risen dramatically this decade?

Looking at the data it is very difficult to see how land value contributes to this supposed wedge or any major increase in the sales of land values.  In 2010, total land sales values in 100 large and medium sized cities was 1.8 trillion RMB.  As a point of comparison, in 2010 total FAI was 24.1 trillion RMB or 8% of the total. Given that GCF in 2010 is counted as 19.7 trillion RMB, it is not inconceivable that these numbers reconcile close enough for our purposes.  The difference between FAI, 100 city land value, and GCF (FAI-100 City Land – GCF) is only 2.6 trillion RMB. Given cities and areas outside major urban centers, it is not inconceivable that we could approach that 2.6 trillion RMB level.

However, since then this line of reasoning in the numbers fall apart.  Between 2010 and 2015, the last year we have GCF data for, total GCF has risen 59% and FAI 128%.  That implies that the wedge between GCF and FAI is due to rapidly rising land value sales.  As just noted, in 2010 total land sales value in 100 large and medium cities was 1.84 trillion RMB; in 2015, total land sales values in 100 large and medium cities was 1.81 trillion RMB.  The wedge between FAI and GCF in 2015 is now a much more substantial 23.9 trillion RMB. If we subtract out the value of land sold in 100 large and medium cities of 1.8 trillion RMB, this still leaves a wedge of 22.03 trillion.

This raises a number of key points.  First, it stretches credibility well beyond the breaking point to believe that rural and small cities sold land equal to 32% of nominal GDP in 2015.  One way we can see this is that real estate FAI simply is not that large.  The entirety of real estate FAI in in 2015 was 9.6 trillion but somehow magically land sales in China are supposed to represent nearly 24 trillion that year. It is a mathematical impossibility that both of those numbers are true.

Second, if the land sales wedge that might explain the FAI and GCF wedge is effectively non-existent, this implies that gross capital formation is radically undervalued in GDP statistics.  Take a simple assumption that rather than dropping as a share of GDP, that GCF grew more in line with FAI.  For our purposes, assume that rather than the 45% it now represents or the 81% share of GDP that FAI represents, assume we split the difference.  That means that GCF as a share of Chinese GDP would now represent a staggering 63% of GDP.  Today by official numbers GCF represents 37% of GDP and has never topped 60% since 2010.  To put this number in perspective, according to the World Bank, only 9 countries had GCF as a percentage of GDP about 40% and only economic powerhouse Suriname was above 60%.  In other words, whether you choose to believe the official GCF data or believe that GCF is somewhere closer to FAI, whatever that exact number, China remains as grossly unbalanced country, the only question is how unbalanced exactly.

Third, the next question is whether FAI data is potentially overstated.  If we compare FAI data to various forms of financing like total social financing to the real economy, we see a big discrepancy.  FAI is significantly higher than TSF and has grown much faster over time.  In 2010, FAI in China amounted to 25 trillion RMB while TSF was 14 trillion. By 2016, those numbers had become 60.6 trillion and 17.8 trillion.  In other words, somehow FAI increased by 35 trillion while TSF increased by only 3.8 trillion or by a tenth of FAI.  That may seem like an open and shut case that FAI is overstated.  However, it isn’t.

Many industries who provide the inputs for FAI activity revenue grows much more in line with the FAI growth than with financing.  Nonmetallic mineral manufacturing (think cement, glass, etc) nearly doubled their revenue growth from 2010 to 2015 while FAI  was a little above that at 120% even as yearly TSF only grew 10% during that same time.  Other industries like specialty purpose machinery and nonferrous metals grew by very similar amounts indicating there is a much closer relationship to FAI than financing metrics like TSF.

This then has two further implications. First, it seems to imply that there might be hidden financing pushing FAI as it is not statistically at least coming from TSF.  Second, it implies that FAI is a much more accurate portrayal of the Chinese economy’s reliance on investment for growth than GCF.  By virtually any real adjustment, this means the Chinese economy is more unbalanced than almost any other time in modern history.

There is one final point here. Assume for one minute that the wedge between FAI and GCF is entirely explainable by land sales in China which is subsequently being used to finance this gap. A tenuous assumption but work with me. This means Chinese public finances are increasingly fragile on many many levels. For instance, for the government to raise taxes to a level to entirely or large replace land sales, which verifiably account in many places for 50% of government revenue, they would need to raise taxes to astounding levels. It further raises the specter that Chinese governments have to increase land sales at every increasing rates. Furthermore, it implies that there is so enormous level of “hidden” debt that simply isn’t being accounted for to fund land sales on this scale to the tune of roughly $3 trillion USD yearly.  If this is true, this is truly terrifying for financial stability.

No matter how you look at it, looking at investment and credit, the Chinese economy is more reliant on investment and credit to fund growth than ever before.


Will China have a Crisis Part I

Probably the most common question about China these days is whether China will undergo a financial crisis? The China bulls argue that China has lots of FX reserves, can print its own money, high savings, and a strong regulator that will ensure China can contain a crisis. The bears point to a factors like the speed in the increase of the credit to GDP and the level of credit to GDP so support their case.

I find points of validity in both cases but neither one ultimately satisfying.  I think the major problem with each is that they find broad headline points of commonality or difference with either 2008 subprime or 1997 East Asia financial crises and claim that China is just like or totally different.  This is part of why I find some aspects that are valid in each, but also fundamental shortcomings.

What I am writing here is an attempt to talk through or think out loud about what will happen to China.  Let me emphasize that these are not predictions but rather trying to work with a combination of economic theory and Chinese empirics what may happen, teasing out more detail from the two major sides of this debate.  Today I will start with the bear case that China will ultimately have a financial crisis or hard landing.

The major reason not to believe the bear case is political: Beijing will not allow a crisis is political due to the potential blowback ramifications.  In 2008, the United States and other countries made clear and conscious decisions to not bailout firms and households.  We can argue over whether they should have, whether the divergent approach to Fannie and Freddie vs. Lehman, or whether it should have targeted asset levels via home prices for consumers, but the take away is simply that the United States made a clear and conscious decision to not broadly pursue such policies.  The United States generally allowed asset prices to fall, firms to fail, and households to be evicted or declare bankruptcy.

I do not believe Beijing is willing to incur the risk of suffering such a financial downturn running the risk of allowing such an event.  Assume for one minute a financial crisis hits China. That is literally a once a century event.  Probably bigger economic and financial event that the fall of USSR with larger international consequences.  Beijing is acutely aware that Moscow made it to the 13th 5 year plan and Beijing is in the middle of its now.  Xi has built his entire administration around preventing a weak China and this type of event.  If China suffered a financial crisis, this would likely end Communist Party rule in China with major consequences for ruling elites.

This does not mean that Beijing will make good policy in the interim to prevent such an event, in fact quite the opposite and we should expect Beijing to take all steps to avoid a crisis without addressing the fundamental problems.  In fact, this matches very closely how we see Beijing behaving.  For all the talk of how they intend to deleverage, Beijing has clearly prioritized growth stability above deleveraging.  For all the talk of improving risk pricing and allowing defaults, has always in practice resulted in government and SOE bank led bailouts of companies in default.  Concerned about how a bankrupt firm with large losses imposed on banks and investors would be perceived in the market place, Beijing acting to avoid a crisis without addressing the fundamental problem.

In fact, this policy path, which I believe broadly fits what we see Beijing doing, delays inevitable adjustments but stores up increasing large amount of risk.  Again, this broadly fits what we see happening.  Capital is being spent to delay ultimately inevitable reforms but in virtually every case, it is merely storing up risks.  This makes the financial position increasingly tenuous and risky as we move forward in time.  Now we have a point in the bears favor, there may come a time at which the risks become simply unmanageable provoking a crisis, but currently it seems unlikely we will have a Chinese crisis in the near future.  There are clear signs of stress across a variety of sectors in the economy, however, I do not believe these signs are so dire that Beijing cannot prevent a crisis for the forseeable future.

There are however, a host of smaller reasons that the bears could be wrong.  In real order, they could be:

  1. Estimates of Chinese non-performing loans are overstated. Even Chinese securities firms have come up with estimates of 10%, which I would personally use to establish the baseline estimate.  In reality,  we simply have opaque ways of estimating what might the true number of NPLs be.  Could they be the higher range estimates of 20%+? Sure but do we really know for sure? No, we don’t and we need to leave open the possibility that many are wrong on this.
  2. The structure of debt within the economy matters and may signal less risk of crisis than is understood. Many analysts focus on the total debt level but omit more commonly that most of this is corporate with relatively small levels of government and household debt.  What if corporate debt as a percentage of GDP stagnated but household and government continued to rise over the next 5-10 years? That would imply that total debt as a percentage of GDP could continue to rise for some time.  This would also allow investment and consumption to rise as a percentage of GDP if the public sector assumes greater responsibility in investment and household consumption increases.  The problem with this story is that it implies enormous debt levels in say 5-10 years with very high levels of financial fragility.
  3. Real estate is less of a financial risk and more of a social risk than is appreciated. While implied marginal leverage rates on new purchases of housing in China is rising rapidly, the overall debt associated with housing in China, especially when placed against the current estimated value, is minimal.  Financially, this would seem to imply that there is little actual risk of a crisis being caused by a downturn in the real estate market.  However, it is a poor analysis to conclude there is no risk from a real estate price decline.  There are two specific factors.  First, real estate prices might be the most concerning trigger for social instability.  If for instance, there was a 30% decline in real estate prices in China, I have little doubt that there would be wide spread social urban instability.  That presents a wide range of risks that the Party is simply not willing to tolerate and consequently will do everything to prevent.  Second, depending on the exact estimate you believe an astounding amount of Chinese economic activity is tied to real estate.  On average over the past few years, probably almost 50% of government revenue, 20-30% of GDP, and tied to a grossly disproportionate share of lending in different ways.  Consequently, while real estate does not represent the first order financial risk that the 2008 subprime crisis did, it absolutely represents second order or indirect impact on potential downturn in real estate development, lending, and potential defaults from colleateralization drops.
  4. The transition to a service and consumer driven economy is better than presumed. I find this argument unsatisfying.  Empirically, there appears strikingly little growth in consumption service focused industries.  For instance, travel and hospitality within China, which represents approximately 98% of Chinese travel, flat to low single digit growth.  Virtually the only service sectors enjoying demonstrable real and nominal growth are financial services (for very concerning reasons) and logistics/supply chain/postal services.  However, while it is wonderful for the Chinese consumer, the growth in logistics/postal services are doing little more than cannibalizing activity from brick and mortar retailers.  The marginal boost to growth, after accounting for the cannibalization, is minimal.  There is no evidence of double digit or near double digit wage growth that would drive the consumption/retail sales growth Beijing touts.

The picture we are left with, seems to be an economy that has a wealth of problems, is driven by credit, but one that is not as of January 2017 on the verge of eminent collapse.  Furthermore, each of the supposed arguments of why China will continue to thrive have major problems.  Additionally, if we carry forward the counter argument of the bulls to counter the bear crisis argument, we left within 1-3 years of astoundingly perverse outcomes.

China may be able to prevent a financial crisis through capital controls but that would require hard draconian capital controls.  China may be able to prevent a financial crisis by having the PBOC intervene but that would require widespread debt monetization which brings a whole host of problems on its own and assumes as “soft” or “semi-controlled” debt crisis.  Absolutely neither of these should be considered positive outcomes.  That would be like saying someone had a quadruple bypass and is bedridden for 6 months but didn’t die.

Next week I’ll consider the argument, this is all overblown and China will continue to grow rapidly for the next 10-25 years.

Is Chinese Mortgage Data Waaaay To Low? (No, seriously)

So recently a lot of ink has been spilled on the rapid growth in Chinese mortgages.  On the face of it the increase is certainly worrying.  New mortgage lending in 2016 is up 111% and the total stock of mortgages is up 31%.  Even if we take a broader measure of household lending that likely captures a not insignificant amount of real estate related debt, medium and long term loans to households is up 31%.  The numbers on their face appear large with medium and long term loans to household registering 22 trillion RMB and personal mortgages clocking in at 16.5 trillion RMB.

These sound like big number and in some ways they are, but in reality these numbers are if anything suspiciously too low.  Most get caught up on the size of the numbers but never place these total numbers in any type of context.  In fact, if you place these numbers in context, these numbers are absurdly low.  Let me explain.

For conservatism, data, and simplicity sake, I am going to limit the analysis to urban housing units.  In other words, let us assume that all mortgage and medium to long term household debt is owed only by urban households.  This does not change the outcome in anyway and if anything make it much more conservative than it would be otherwise.

The primary thing we want to do is adjust for the number of households in urban China.  Without going into all the underlying calculations, which come from all official data, there are approximately 272 million urban households in China and according to official data, only a very small number of households do not own their housing.  Again, this is all relying and strictly using official data.

If we then estimate urban residential real estate wealth using the 100 City Index price per square meter as our high value and the Third Tier City Price per square meter as our low value, we have both a high and low value for our estimate of urban residential real estate wealth.  This gives us an estimated upper bound of 330 trillion RMB and a lower range of 189 trillion RMB.

Here is where it gets interesting.  If we translate this into a broad loan to value number, this means that urban China has an estimate loan to value ratio on its real estate holdings of 5-9%.  In other words, almost all of urban Chinese real estate is owned almost entirely free and clear according to official statistics.

If we apply this analysis backwards, the numbers are even more nonsensical.  In 2011, the urban loan to value ratio ranged from 3.3-4.5%.  If we use absolute numbers, the appear even more absurd.  When the average housing unit in 2011 cost 665,000 RMB using the third tier city price and 910,067 using the the 100 City National Index, mortgage debt totaled only 29,675 RMB per urban housing unit.

If we focus just on the new mortgages and new urban units, the numbers look decidedly problematic.  For instance, if we use the 100 City Index housing price, this would give us an implied equity share for new housing units from new mortgages of 71%.  In other words, if we assume that only newly constructed units are purchased with new mortgage debt, owners would be providing a down payment equal to about 71%.

Now while I use the slightly more restrictive mortgage debt, even if we include the broader label of medium and long term this would barely dent the number.  If we use the medium and long term household debt number instead which is only about 4-5 trillion RMB more, again using only urban households, this would still barely move the per unit or value debt number.   To bring Chinese urban housing wealth up to a 20% LTV, would require about a 41 trillion RMB increase in mortgage debt.  Put another way, outstanding mortgage debt would need to go from about 16.5 trillion RMB to 58 trillion RMB. Including the obvious candidates that some have nominated simply does not come close to making these numbers plausible.

We are left with a conundrum: either believe the data at these levels or find a better candidate when no good obvious source of debt under counting exists.  I’ll be honest in saying I’m not sure whether to accept them as vaguely reasonable representation or believe that they are not even close.

If we consider the possibility that these debt numbers are relatively accurate, while there are positives, there are also very real risks.  First, it raises the scope that Beijing could further increase urbanization and home ownership rates by loosening credit.  However, there is evidence that rural households migrating to urban areas are already debt budget constrained and that Beijing is uncomfortable with the level of debt even at these levels.  Additionally, this raises the possibility that real estate prices have a long way further to appreciate which seems implausible given already elevated price to income levels.

Second, this would imply that households have put very high level of savings into their homes and may have less liquidity available than understood.  By some recent estimates, Chinese households had 70% of their wealth in real estate.  Liquidity constraints may exacerbate any real estate or broader economic down turn placing additional pressure on prices.

Third, this would seem to place enormous pressure on public officials to maintain housing prices at elevated levels.  If Chinese households have placed the vast majority of their wealth into their home, though lack of leverage will not magnify the financial returns, it will place enormous pressure on the government to prevent price declines.

There is one possible scenario, though we do not have the data to say for sure this happening that would explain the discrepancies we see.  Given the mismatch of the mortgage data and required down payment this raises the possibility of the leverage upon leverage scenario.  For instance, a home is owned with no mortgage debt.  The owner then pledges the real estate as collateral to borrow money for the equity share and borrows money in the form of a mortgage to purchase additional real estate.  In this instance, only one mortgage appears outstanding where, if we assume the second property is financed with a 50/50 debt/equity split at the same value of the first property, then we have a mortgage per unit value of 25%.  However, in reality the risk level is much higher as both properties have debt against them and depend on stretched cash flow valuations or capital appreciation.

There are many possibilities but the only thing we can say for sure at the moment, once we break down mortgage data into per housing unit basis, the numbers seem implausibly low.


Brief Follow Up to GDP as Misleading Indicator

I want to do a brief follow up to my piece for Bloomberg Views on why GDP misleading indicator when looking at the Chinese economy.  As usual, start there and come back here for additional detail.

I know that there is a vigorous debate about whether Chinese data is legitimate or not and if you are reading this, you’re probably very well aware of my opinion.  To this day, I do not understand how anyone can look at the headline data and say it is a good faith accurate representation of statistical reality.  Even most people who defend Chinese data anymore set a much lower bar of something like “well the directionality is accurate.”  Talk about an absurdly low threshold.

However, one of the things that has generally escaped notice is that even if GDP is perfectly scientifically accurate, it is a stunningly poor indicator of how we our understanding of the Chinese economy.  In other words, let’s assume for our purposes right here that it is accurate.  If it is accurate, do we understand and frame the Chinese economy well?  The answer is a resounding no.

The fundamental reason is that GDP is a non-existent measurement for quantifying the ability to pay for things.  Whether it is consumer spending or debt coverage, no one can pay for anything in GDPs.  I would encourage you to walk into a bank sometime, apply for a loan, and when they ask you for repayment ability tell them your cash flow is weak but your GDP output is high.  Seriously, try it sometime.

We assume that GDP measures are correlated with measures of economic activity and cash flow but in China for a number of reasons, this assumption, while not necessarily wrong is much much weaker.

For one reason, corporate China, where most of the debt is, has been dealing with long term deflation.  Consequently, while liabilities have been increasing moderately to rapidly their total revenue and revenue per unit have been flat to declining.  In other words, even if GDP is completely accurate, the weak cash flow growth of firms is even worse than the GDP growth making firms ability to service their debt even worse than the GDP numbers make it appear.  This is the problem with deflation but that is what is happening.

We even see this mismatch when looking at per capita GDP which is sued for a variety of individual focused measures not match the cash flow people have to spend.  Household income is on average 45% of per capita GDP and in some major cities like Tianjin, significantly lower than that.  If they pay in GDP’s, then many consumer measures look maybe stretched or excessive but not wildly crazy.  However, if we change to measures of income, the measures look decidedly excessive.

Again, my purpose here is not to revisit whether or not to trust Chinese GDP, but much more fundamental how do we use GDP, even if it is perfectly accurate, to frame issues like risk and consumption.  I would say, not very well.



April Trade Data and Foreign Exchange Reserves

A lot of how you decide to view the Chinese April trade and foreign exchange report, depends on what exactly you measured.  April exports were higher than March exports but were down YoY and YTD YoY if measured in USD.  However, if measured in RMB exports YoY was actually up 4% but remains down YTD 2.3%.  In some ways, this data can be viewed positively or negatively, but I am going to try and help provide some personal perspective.

  1. While the month to month and year over year snapshots are important, I firmly believe that the YTD are much more important. MoM and YoY can induce a sense of noise or bias into analysis that skews our understanding.  YTD exports are down 8% from 2015 and imports YTD are down another 13%.  What makes the import growth some amazing is that full year import growth was down strongly in 2015 and flat in 2014.  It is difficult to see how these are positive signals for an economy as you stretch the time horizon out.
  2. While the trade surplus again remains strong this is a very deceptive measure for a couple of reasons. The trade surplus remains strong not because trade is increasing but because imports are shrinking much faster than exports.  Whether you look at it on a YoY or YTD YoY trend, it is clear that imports are shrinking faster than exports.  While some of this can be attributed to factors like commodity price drops, it is also clear that some of this needs to be attributed to weak Chinese demand.
  3. The other reason that the trade surplus is incredibly deceptive is that the actual surplus if measured by cash, which is really what matters, is much much smaller. Through March, Chinese Customs reported a surplus of $126 billion USD while banks reported a surplus in goods trade receipts of $23 billion.  This means there is a $103 billion discrepancy between the official trade surplus number and what cash is actually flowing into China.  Given the $46 billion surplus reported for April, we can probably expect that this resulted in a bank receipt surplus of $10-12 billion USD.
  4. Extrapolating this into the official amount of FX reserves is where things start to get a little debatable. To date, the only category in surplus on a cash basis in Chinese banks in goods trade and it is small at only $23 billion.  All others are in significant monthly and year to date deficit.  For instance, through Q1, YTD outflows are almost equal to Chinese net outflows through November in 2015 YTD.  Capital account receipts are plunging and outflows are up almost 40%.  This is a very consistent pattern in each month and summing across Q1.  If this patterns holds in April, this would imply a net outflow of at least $30 billion through official bank payment channels.    Despite talk of how USD valuation drove FX reserves up, the EUR was essentially unchanged against the USD in April.  The JPY which was up almost 5% against the USD but by most estimates comprises no more than 15% of PBOC reserves should not swing the portfolio that much.  If we assume the JPY has a 15% portfolio weighting and moved 5% in the PBOC’s favor, this should result in no more than a $24 billion boost.  This at least gets us closer to explaining the PBOC official data that reserves rose but as many have noted is an increasingly difficult number to reconcile to other data.  This would have to imply a much small outflow.
  5. The reason for the skepticism is that it is increasingly difficult to reconcile the ongoing outflows, even after accounting for valuation, with the stabilizing and actually increasing reserves. For example, in the past three months when FX reserves were stabilizing and then slightly increasing net outflows have actually gone up by most measures.  This is simply difficult to reconcile though I think it is fair to say that while there is suspicion and concern, there is as of yet no smoking gun or hard evidence of how they are making this number appear so rosy.
  6. Too many people focus on the level of FX reserves rather than the net outflow number. If you run a fixed exchange rate regime, you cannot sustain net outflows for an extended period of time.  Despite the rosy official trade surplus, underlying cash flows have if anything accelerated this year, though there may be some evidence that capital controls are starting to bite though it is too soon to tell if that is just Chinese New Year seasonal fluctuations.  Even if the FX numbers are perfectly accurate, the ongoing level of sustained outflows should absolutely be the bigger topic of discussion.

Economists and Danger: Welcome to Modern China

I do not typically write about individual news articles but I saw an article by the always excellent Lingling Wei (who in case you forgot also broke that the IMF was pushing the PBOC for more information about its derivatives portfolio) about Chinese authorities warning economists.  There are a couple of points worth mentioning and some of them are, warning you in advance are politically incorrect.

  1. Any China bull or anyone who still has any remote belief that Chinese data is anything other than art: you’re just embarrassing yourself. Assume the Chinese economy really is in good shape and economists are just misinterpreting data, why do you need to go around threatening people?  One thing that I get from certain non-Chinese economists (with one senior person at well known institution telling me “we have no reason to believe Chinese data is systematically manipulated”) is that I just don’t understand China or Chinese data.  It is widely accepted in China that Chinese data is heavily manipulated.  This is not some dastardly foreign plot but accepted wisdom in China.  I learned about this, as I have said many times, not from academic work but from my students who thought I was moron for believing it in the first place. If China known to censor the news do you really think they are choir boys on economic data and that the economy is humming along at 6.7%?
  2. Self censoring of economic and financial reporting in business community is wide spread. I was told point blank by a senior executive from a major financial institution that they no longer publish any report that is remotely critical of the Chinese economy or markets.  Of course this is not put in the employee handbook but that is unofficial policy.  We already know this is happening to Chinese reporters but his is increasingly happening to economists. To argue that Chinese doesn’t censor economic data is simply delusional.
  3. Politically incorrect warning (but something that should come as no surprise): I am personally only able to say what I say because I am white and American. Consider the race card played. If you have been following China at all, this should come as absolutely no revelation even if it is maybe somewhat politically incorrect to say straight up. Most all Chinese economists do not want to talk publicly about the economy, even those that are pro-Beijing for fear of saying something that will get them into trouble. In today’s China I cannot tell you how much respect I have for a Chinese economist who says anything publicly and even more so for those who do not perfectly conform to what Beijing says.  I know an economist, decidedly pro-Beijing, who gave an interview to local media but laughed when his comments aired as he mentioned they removed his suggestions and comments about how to reform. Mind you this was not a critical voice. This was in fact a very pro-Beijing voice but even he saw the irony.  I have never been approached to stop writing or saying what I am seeing in the Chinese economy, but if I was Chinese by passport or ethnically, I believe there is no chance I would be allowed to write what I write.
  4. The change in China has honestly given me pause to reconsider my own position for fear I might face retaliation in China. Despite my critiques of the Chinese economy and data on largely technical issues, I can say with hesitation I enjoy what I do, my job at Peking University, and the city of Shenzhen. My family enjoys living in Shenzhen, a very comfortable and pleasant city except for the stifling humidity, and my incredibly white kids speak native quality Chinese which has won me many a bet.  However, the entire environment in China is changing and changing rapidly and not just the economy.
  5. Some absolutely great comments by economists who realize how absurd the system is internally. Some of my favorites:
    1. “You can see they’re not happy when you tried to tell them foreign speculators are not your biggest problem,” said one of the officials who attended the meetings.
    2. “As a Chinese reporter, you can do anything but journalism these days,” said a senior editor at a state-owned media outlet.
    3. “I was told by regulators not to recommend shorting the renminbi,” Ms. Lin told the gathering, “so I’m just going to recommend buying the dollar.”
    4. the city’s propaganda department recently instructed a local think tank to stop researching a planned debt-for-equity swap program aimed at helping big state companies reduce debt, according to economists familiar with the matter. The reason, these economists said, is that officials don’t want the research to turn up unfavorable evidence after Premier Li Keqiang and others have endorsed the swaps.
    5. Despite recent signs of a rebound, Gao Shanwen, chief economist at brokerage Essence Securities Co., told investors that “a lot of the official data aren’t reliable” and the economy still faces “big problems,” according to people who attended the closed-door event. Words of those remarks crackled across social media. Two days later, Mr. Gao issued a clarification on his public account in the popular Chinese messaging app, WeChat, saying those remarks were “made up.” He then released a report on the economy shorn of critical commentary. Mr. Gao and representatives at his firm didn’t return requests for comment.

Just a Little More on Capital Outflows

So just a little more follow up to my most recent piece for Bloomberg Views on disguised capital flows from China.  As usual start there and finish here if you haven’t already.

  1. Here are some slides I prepared for the Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing this week. You can clear see visually when the outflows really began and the direction they continue to go.  Hint: they are not reversing.
  2. You should not believe any of the official data on inflows or outflows. According to China, they had a pre-net errors and omissions balance of payment surplus of nearly $200 billion.  The NEO figure just brought the BOP into balance.  What country has large BOP surplus is bailing water  from the bowels of the Titanic to keep the RMB from dropping 25%?  This happens because BOP data is built on other faulty data like official trade surplus data.  So whenever someone cites the large trade surplus, they have proven to you that they do not know what they are talking about.
  3. All of the economic issues that people cite as attracting capital from China like the Fed and interest rates are simply compounding factors rather than driving factors. If China were actually enjoying large cash inflows from a $600 billion trade surplus, then the level of foreign debt repayment we are seeing would be completely and entirely irrelevant.  In fact, the PBOC would be forced to push down the RMB rather than prop it up.  However, that is not happening and that is why foreign debt repayment matters at all.  These are compounding factors but definitely not the driving factor.
  4. The Bank for International Settlements report a few months back was a classic piece of weak analysis without proper perspective. They cited foreign debt repayment as a primary factor for outflow but even by their own words, this analysis was extremely limited.  First, it only focused on the third quarter when the original devaluation took place. This omitted any look at a long time horizon.  Why does that matter? Between February 2014 and February 2016, foreign debt declined (drum roll please…..) by a grand total of $7 billion.  Second, by their own words, it only accounted for about a quarter of capital flows.  How does that count as the driving factor?  Given the magnitude of what we know about the gray market flow, foreign debt repayment is nothing more than a compounding factor and not remotely close to what should be considered a driving factor.
  5. I think there are three things that started this whole outflow process. First, China liberalized current account payments in 2012.  Consequently, if you wanted to buy a house in Sydney in 2012, you could either try and legally move it through the capital account, though with lots of difficulty.  You could also just import something from Sydney and enormously overpay so that money ended up in Australia so you could buy the house. Guess what people did? Second, economic activity peaked somewhere between late 2011 and early 2013 and has been on a downward trend ever since.  Given the vast over capacity and declining investment opportunities, this was likely Chinese seeing the declining opportunities taking some of their money off the table for better destinations.  Third, there was a political handover beginning in early 2013 that radically changed the atmosphere and likely well connected were hedging their bets well before it officially happened.  This is absolutely also a contributing factor.
  6. When I say that Chinese are moving their money abroad for additional security, I am using security in a very holistic sense. People are concerned about the cost of real estate, complete lack of the rule of law, the environment, getting caught up even tangentially in a corruption case, or so many other things.  No one in China views China as a secure destination, especially if you have any money.  Whether it is thoughts about where they want to send their children to school or comparing junk local Chinese government bond yields to high credit quality US corporate debt yields, for many reasons that bring greater security.
  7. This is not a short term process. Expect the capital outflows to continue. This is not going to turn around even if the economy does turn around for real.

Noise Vs. Trends or How to Look at the Chinese Economy

China has released a spate of good data which on the surface give a sense that the economy is turning around and everything will be fine.  However, if you look at the data in very straightforward ways, you can quickly see that the data is revealing significant underlying weakness.  Today rather than focusing on China, I am instead going to use China as the case study of how we need to analyze economies.

  1. What is the trend? Too many people will focus on a one month number and less about where does that number fall around the trend of previous months.  Economic data is noisy and most of the time simply bounces around a clear trend.  Just because it bounces above the trend in one month, does not mean the trend has reversed.  The trends with regards to China are obvious and need no revisiting but the key issue is that it is only normal that in some months, the data is above the trend line.  Take a simple example, if we believe the “rebalancing” story, which has more holes than a fisherman’s net, this absolute requires a long downward trend in roughly 50% of Chinese industry.  There may be short term data around that trend, but that trend is a long term structural shift and we would be advised not to read too much into month to month or quarter to quarter changes. Most every time people call some type of turnaround, plot the data and you can see that it is really just a bounce to slightly above the trend.
  2. What is the number measuring? Sounds a little simplistic but it is very important to make sure that the number being used is properly understood. As a simple example, joining forces with the previous point, many are rejoicing at the March trade data.  However, as China Beige Book so rightfully notes, the “bounce” was not a bounce at all after accounting for the previous years decline to the base and when considering the year to date numbers.  Year to date for the first quarter, Chinese trade numbers continue to decline.  As another example, the trade surplus measures the declared value of products at customs.  Officially China ran a nearly $600 billion goods trade surplus.  However, that measures the “declared value” not the cash transfer value.
  3. Put numbers in perspective. Many times people get excited over headline numbers and forget to put numbers in perspective.  Let me give you two examples. I think Chinese GDP data is completely unreliable, however, in most ways it doesn’t matter.  GDP is meaningless value to the man on street who pay their bills with cash.  Revenue across corporate China is essentially flat for quickly approaching about two years now while liabilities continue to grow significantly.  So for instance, while people say GDP is healthy, the key number of cash available to repay those debts is actually behaving very differently.  As another example, that thankfully many journalists and specialists picked up on is that Chinese bump in FX reserves was all about EUR strengthening against the USD not a decline in outflows.  Outflows remained right on trend.  Whenever you see a Chinese number, stop and think what is this number really telling me?

Sorry for the short post today been travelling in Beijing, Shanghai, and about to leave for Hangzhou before returning back to Shenzhen.  I’ll have some interesting slides to post in the next couple of days.