If you weren’t worried about China, now would be a good time to start.
China has been the main driver of growth in the region, accounting for nearly 38% of all Asian GDP last year. Now the Chinese government is acknowledging that growth is in a downturn, publicly forecasting growth in the 7% range – well below the double digits of only three years ago.
China’s fixed capital formation grew like Topsy during the expansion years. But many of these were empty make-work projects designed only to inflate GDP, leaving the country awash in unused airports, unfinished roads and office buildings – and in bank loans for these projects with no revenues.
China’s banks are a loudly ticking time bomb. Their assets are bloated to an estimated 270% of GDP. A huge percentage of those “assets” are already in creditor limbo, having secured roads and bridges and tunnels and airports to Nowhere. China’s banks face a potential crisis as investment in major fixed asset projects declines amid eroding liquidity throughout the financial system.
Rising Rates should hit China’s markets too, pushing Asian rates higher. This will clobber the region’s capital-intensive economies, many of which expanded capacity specifically to serve Chinese demand. Rising rates – globally, but especially in the “safe haven” US Treasury market – coupled with a strong Dollar, should punish overvalued Asian currencies, sparking inflation, but in the context of economic decline. This spells economic trouble, and the potential for social unrest.
Senior analyst and keen-eyed Asia watcher Darius Dale says Chinese policy makers are starting to appear less concerned about a possible domestic asset price bubble. This could give them more flexibility in some kind of easy-money policy aimed at domestic stimulus. Any such policy move is likely to be slow to be implemented, and much slower to take effect. Dale cautions that massive debt rollovers generally sloweconomic growth by sucking liquidity out of the financial system, “diverting incremental credit from productive enterprises.” Perhaps more crucial is the impact on a fragile economy, which can hamper the creation of a stable economic base by diverting liquidity away from marginally productive business, or from temporarily unproductive ones that are merely trying to weather the economic storm.
Finally, any debt rollover China’s leaders may contemplate will almost surely not be offset by a significant increase in private savings. Without China to fuel the engine, Asia’s economic racecar looks to be in for a long pit stop.
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