Sunday, August 2, 2009

Command and Control?

Much is made of the rebound in China's 2nd quarter GDP and the drivers certainly merit a closer look. We are going to focus on just one key metric today - credit. In an effort to reach escape velocity from the global collapse, China has ordered its banks to make lots of loans and the banks have complied. So just how much lending has occurred and what is the scale of the likely impact. Let's look at the numbers, shall we? Various sources have reported the lending numbers and this article from the Globe and Mail is typical:

Chinese banks lent 1.5 trillion yuan ($220-billion U.S.) in June, the central bank reported on its Web site Wednesday. That exceeded forecasts and was up from May's 665 billion yuan ($97-billion) in lending and April's 590 billion yuan ($86-billion).

Keep in mind that the entire Chinese economy was approximately 30 trillion yuan in 2008. Another way to look at things is that China's economic output is roughly 2.5 trillion yuan per month and in June bank lending was equal to 60% of that output. One might safely say that credit expansion on that scale might have some impact on the economy. Keep in mind, this does NOT include bond issuance by corporations, the government in Beijing or the provincial and local governments; but the amount is enormous even without them. For perspective, the Flow of Funds shows total non-financial debt added in the US economy during 2006, the last full year of the UDB was $2.41 trillion in a $13.4 trillion economy - so borrowing was 18% of GDP in an extreme environment. Maybe this was just an aberration of one month? After all April and May were much lower. Well, let's look further down in the article:

The latest figure would push total bank lending for the first half of the year to 7.3 trillion yuan (just under $1.1-trillion).
So monthly loans averaged over 1.2 trillion yuan and June was more typical than the prior months. Interestingly, CNBC reports that Beijing's minimum bank lending target for all of 2009 is 5 trillion yuan and the banks have already exceed that number by 46% in just six months. Having established that the lending spree is enormous, the other key question is how much of a change it represents. For that, we will take words straight from the horse's mouth - a PBOC press release:

At end-June, outstanding RMB loans reached RMB 37.74 trillion, up 34.44% year on year, accelerating by 15.71 percentage points year on year and by 3.83 percentage points month on month. In the first half of the year, RMB loans increased by RMB 7.37 trillion, up RMB 4.92 trillion year on year.

Total debt grew 34.4%, while lending TRIPLED from 2.45 trillion to 7.37 trillion yuan year over year. Are the mental alarms going off yet? Again we will refer to the Flow of Funds for perspective. During the peak of the US housing bubble, mortgage lending took 6 years to triple from the trough in 1995. Yet China has compressed the impact of a historic multi-year bubble into 12 months. There also has to be dramatic deterioration in credit quality. There is no realistic way to triple lending without severely compromising lending standards - as we saw so dramatically with liar loans, nothing down, NINJA lending and option ARMs. Does anyone doubt that something comparable or worse is happening in China now?

The game plan for China should be obvious by now. They are following the path of every other participant in the UDB with a vengeance. Tripling lending until it reaches nearly half of GDP for the first half is the real stimulus in China. By contrast the US Federal government borrowing 14% of GDP looks downright conservative. China is attempting to reinflate their bubble economy but even if they "succeed" the price will be hideous. The price of failure is nearly unthinkable.

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