China’s Newest Export: Empty Buildings
A little over six months ago the owners of the Baha Mar, a $3.5 billion Bahamian resort, filed for bankruptcy. Shoddy construction from the China State Construction Company led to delays resulting from leaking plumbing, porous Chinese concrete and large cracks at critical stress points. The doomed project even led to the death of two Chinese workers. Although the building is 97% complete, the structural deficiencies make it uninhabitable. Given the Chinese proclivity to build ghost towns, it makes you wonder if their construction crews are accustomed to erecting buildings that are never intended to be occupied.
The Bahamian Baha Mar can now join the Hall of Shame of Chinese exports that include cancer causing laminate flooring, noxious drywall and exploding hover boards…just to name a few. As if they don’t have enough vacant edifices of their own, one has to also wonder if the Sino Scam artists in Beijing have now resorted to exporting empty cities.
But perhaps the most troubling export from China has yet to come. It is the financial crisis that will unravel with the unwinding of the country’s $30 trillion credit bubble. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Harvard professor Ken Rogoff described China’s credit bubble as the “Last big domino to fall as the global debt super cycle unwinds.”
Professor Rogoff believes the stated 1.5 percent rate of non-performing loans held by banks is just as fictitious as China’s inflated GDP data. He considers the real figure to be between 6 and 8 percent.
The growth of China’s bad loans is troubling; they have risen by 256 percent in the past six years, even as the ratio to total lending has dropped. The actual amount of delinquent debt is unknown because banks conceal bad loans by rolling them over. But the problem is that the credit in China is now growing much faster than the economy.
Therefore, it doesn’t appear that China will be growing out of their bad debt anytime soon but will instead be headed for a crash landing. January exports fell by 11.2 percent year over year and imports were down a whopping 18.8 percent. In fact, Chinese imports have now plunged for 15 months in a row.
The slowing economy is making it harder to sustain surging debt levels. According to Bridge Water Capital, it now takes four yuan of extra debt to generate a single yuan of economic growth; that ratio was almost one to one a decade ago.
The China Bulls would gladly tell you that the nation has unlimited room for error thanks to its enormous cash reserves. While these reserves are still impressive, they are shrinking at an alarming rate. A year and a half ago China held as much as $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. Those foreign reserves have dropped by $700bn to $3.3 trillion, as capital flight overwhelms the inflows from the country's trade surplus. And more than a third of the shrinkage has been in the last three months, prompting speculation about how much longer Beijing will be able to mitigate the fall in the value of the yuan.
With debt growing at a rapid pace, it is uncertain if China's banks are healthy enough to handle a new wave of defaults. And because of the smaller pool of reserves, their leaders have less room to manage currency depreciation.
None of this is lost on the megalomaniacs who mismanage the Chinese economy. However, in the government’s typical short-sighted fashion, instead of curbing lending and asking banks to write off bad credit, they are reducing the ratio of provisions that banks must set aside for non-performing loans. And has recently cut the Reserve Requirement Ratio for banks for the fifth time in the past 12 months. This latest reduction was by 50 basis points, to 17%.
After all, one way to keep the ratio of nonperforming loans under control is to increase the number of loans outstanding (the denominator in the ratio); and then hope that the new loan creation will steadily outpace the number new non-performing loans. In the short term the scheme is working to force banks to push more debt on the debt-saturated economy. China's new yuan loans jumped to a record 2.51 trillion yuan in January significantly surpassing the 1.9 trillion median estimate of Bloomberg News. Aggregate financing, the most comprehensive measure of new credit, also rose to a record 3.42 trillion yuan.
In fact, the number of troubled loans in China ($645 billion) has already risen to a greater level than the entire sub-prime mortgage market ($600 billion) back in 2006.
Eventually, the despots in Beijing will lose control of their banking system and exchange rate, causing capital to flee at a pace that is beyond the ability of their currency reserves. While significant capital reserves may afford them a few more months at the helm of their currency; it is only a matter of time before their entire economy is exposed to be as hollow as their vacant cities and the communist house of cards collapses.
But this isn’t just a Chinese problem. Global government suppression of interest rates, along with massive new debt issuance just for the sake of hitting centrally-directed growth targets has resulted in unproductive and unsustainable GDP growth--and an unprecedented misallocation of capital. This, along with a humongous debt overhang that cannot be serviced at a free-market interest rate, has virtually guaranteed to produce a global recession of historic proportions…one in which governments have largely become impotent to rectify.