Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Chinese Not-Recession-To-Be

I want to clarify my earlier article by saying that, if you were a pessimistic investor like me, you will need to start hedging against the possibilities that the economy will really take off soon, given that employment may pick up soon. For example, you should start getting back into the stock market, if you recently moved your 401k and IRA into money market in anticipation of that W-shaped stock market.

One issue from the employment article is on world trade. Specifically, the deficit spending in China and India to stimulate domestic spending, and to make up for the deglobalization. I can't speak for India, since its economy is not much in the American news. However, China is continuing its real estate boom. So I want to visualize its end state, to help with policy responses.

The Chinese real estate boom will end in a couple of years. The mega-cities of Shanghai and Beijing cannot expand forever. The primary input into the Chinese economy, export, is declining. So they're becoming a closed economic system, and real estate value cannot rise forever in that. They can grow the money supply by issuing more currency or increase monetary velocity. Due to the excess production capacity, inflation is not a big issue. However, real estate is a sinkhole and will limit the velocity growth. So the point is that the real estate will either flatline or dip a bit. Until the world re-globalize and China export again.

Many China watchers and Chinese economists downplay the effects of a real-estate recession in China, because, they say, that Chinese banks do not give out home mortgages, that most Chinese pay cash for the condos, and that they hold the condos to rent out, instead of speculating on a rising value.

The above assertions are true, and these characteristics have constrained the velocity of the real-estate market. However, real estate investment is still tying up a big chunk of the Chinese savings. House purchase is a clan affair in China. The banks may not be lending money, but a shadow-financing system is operating in China to make up for it. A clan (or extended family) will pool its savings to buy a house. People can borrow money from relatives and good friends to put up the cash for the houses. They use the rent payments to pay back the informal mortgages they've incurred.

If the Chinese housing market deflates, all that savings is tied up in these informal mortgages. There may not be a precipitous crash, but there will be a sudden slow-down of the monetary velocity. Economic activity will slow down. And China will have few tools to start it up again, short of an economic-stimulating event (Like World War II) or increased global trade.

Because the lending is informal, the central bank cannot just lower the interest rate to stimulate lending (or mortgage re-financing). Because the saving is not liquid, China will have to borrow money from abroad if it wants to deficit spend its way out. Which does not seem favorable, and which may prompt China to start unloading its T-bills.

I supposed that the banks can start doing home equity loans to increase the liquidity of the real estate market, but that would require a culture change, and start China down a difficult path we've just tread.

Therefore, China may soon hit that real estate asymptote. And it will have to start aggressively export or face economic ennui.

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