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The Christmas season, upcoming exams, student job hunting, and lots of visitors have made this a tough time to keep track of things but, before I go on to discuss the reason for the title of this entry, I wanted to make a quick comment on the economic numbers that came out last week. As expected all the economic data points in the same direction as in the past three months. If you are an optimist, you take great comfort in the fact that the data seems to be pointing towards continued growth in most indicators. Industrial production was strong and lending for November was way down from previous months.

If you are a pessimist you worry again that the rapid growth has clearly been fueled by little more than massive credit and investment expansion, and you note that although at RMB 295 billion, net new lending in November is much lower than the 890 billion monthly average for 2009 (and even lower than RMB 477 billion net new lending in November, 2008 – the first time this year any month in 2008 exceeded the same month in 2009), it nonetheless brings the 2009 year to date total to an astonishing RMB 9.2 trillion. The market consensus is that next year’s lending will total RMB 7 trillion, which is being presented as a gentle tightening of credit conditions.

Since 2008’s net new lending was RMB 4.9 trillion, I would suggest that in any other year RMB 7 trillion would have been considered an extraordinary expansion in lending. After a year in which net new lending will probably come close to RMB 10 trillion, we would probably need something much lower even to pretend that loan growth next year will be prudent. Also bear in mind that gossip among bankers suggests that in the rush to grab funding when it was freely available, a significant fraction of 2009 lending is still sitting as unused deposits, to be used next year for current investment projects, so that in terms of real new lending, a part of 2009’s net new loan figures really belong in 2010. This means that it is very possible that if there really are “only” RMB 7 trillion in net new lending next year, real credit expansion next year will be equal to or even greater than this year.

The other thing to bear in mind is that the RMB 7 trillion that the market expects is not carved in stone. As I wrote last year in my “All but the Kitchen Sink” entry, Beijing will do whatever it can to generate whatever growth rate it deems necessary, and Beijing can get any growth rate it chooses to get as long at its borrowing capacity is credible.

Next year we will almost certainly see growth of over 8%, and the total amount of new lending will be determined by whatever credit expansion Beijing requires to get there. This means that the external environment, the increase in trade tensions (the recent “Buy Chinese” provisions announced for government procurement will almost certainly make things worse), and the impact of inventory build-up, among other things, are going to determine what amount of domestic credit expansion we will need. Since no one can accurately predict any of those things, it is pointless to predict loan growth next year. One thing that will almost certainly happen, as my friend Logan Wright told me, is that banks will rush to lend early in the year, so we should be prepared for shocking new loan numbers in the fist quarter which will moderate quickly over the rest of the year.

Pessimists looking at the recent economic data would also note the very high investment rates and worry about the cost to future consumption of misallocated investment. They would hear the continued, and louder, worry about lending at the PBoC and CBRC. On Tuesday for example both the PBoC and the BoC warned again about credit quality and loan growth, covered in front page reports in the People’s Daily. Since a rise in inflation will create a real difficult problem for monetary policy, pessimists will also wonder whether or not it is time to start worrying about inflation (I think it is too early, although my students are telling me that their parents are complaining about rice prices). According to an article in Friday’s Financial Times:

A series of data published on Friday indicated that the rebound remained firmly on track, with industrial production and imports both increasing well in advance of forecasts. One of the main risks to face the economy is a surge in inflation as a result of the massive monetary and fiscal stimulus measures introduced this year.

Consumer prices rose 0.6 per cent last month from a year ago, after falling 0.5 per cent the month before, while prices at the factory gate fell 2.1 per cent last month compared with a 5.8 per cent decline the month before.

Several economists argued that the shift back to inflation was caused specifically by rising food costs, as well as by some rises in energy prices, rather than as a result of the money supply increasing at an annual rate of nearly 30 per cent.

However, the return of even modest inflation will feed into the intense discussion in Beijing about how quickly to ease stimulus measures and whether to abandon a de facto peg against the US dollar and to allow the renminbi to appreciate.

So to summarize, as I have for the last three series on monthly economic data, the numbers will do nothing to resolve the debate within China. Optimists and pessimists both have more grist for their mills.

Turning away from the recent data, I wanted briefly to discuss urban migration in China. For a lot of analysts, it seems that the phrase “urban migration” is the correct response to many of the problems you might identify with China’s growth model. Is there a real estate bubble? No there isn’t because urban migration will create a near infinite future demand for residential and commercial real estate. Does China under consume? Yes, but urban migration will raise consumption rates.

This latter claim was highlighted in a Tuesday article in the South China Morning Post, which claims that “President Hu Jintao’s pledge yesterday to spur urbanisation and domestic demand next year has been seen as an attempt to tackle the growing problem of industrial overcapacity.” The article goes on to say:

Announcing the development strategies at the end of the annual three-day central economic work conference, Hu said the government would focus on urging the rural population to work and live in small and medium-sized urban cities while boosting further the spending power of workers and low-income groups.

At the same time, he ordered that new investment in industries with excess capacity be reined in and the problem of underutilised plants be addressed. The moves signalled domestic demand had left much to be desired, as the latest statistics showed 21 out of 24 industries incurred excess capacity in the third quarter, compared with 19 in the first quarter, said Zhang Tao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“The latest data tells us that overcapacity is not only a problem for several industries but across the industries,” said Zhang, who cited a 2010 economic development blueprint backing Hu’s strategies. “It also shows weak domestic demand.”

There is a surface plausibility to these claims about the benefits of urbanization, but they need to be considered much more carefully than they sometimes are. First, as far as urbanization and consumption go, what China needs, as I argued in last week’s posting, is not so much more consumption but rather, as Zhang Tao implicitly points out in the article above, to close the gap between the amount if produces and the amount it consumes.

It is almost certainly true that as migrants move from the rural areas to the cities, their average consumption is likely to rise, but the key here is their net impact, not their total impact. So if rural migrants move to the city and become engaged in expanding infrastructure or manufactured products – after all they need to earn an income before they can start consuming – they are not necessarily resolving the domestic imbalance. They may actually be exacerbating it. If however they migrate to the cities and take jobs in the service sector, then they have a positive net impact.

In that case it is not urban migration per se that matters but rather the structure of Chinese economic growth. If it continues to be capital intensive, and to favor manufacturers and real estate developers at the expense of service industries, then urban migration is not really part of the rebalancing solution. We would still be stuck with the same old problem – a growth model that favors overinvestment at the expense of household income, and that leads inexorably, in my opinion, to the very imbalances that China is trying to resolve.

After all, during the past decade there has been substantial urban migration in China, and yet the imbalance became worse, not better. Why? Because for whatever structural reason, urban migration has favored faster growth in the production of tradable goods than in their consumption. Until this structural reason (or reasons) changes, urban migration won’t resolve the problem – unless of course in some way greater urban migration itself forces the structural change.

The other claim, that urban migration prevents the possibility of the existence of a real estate bubble, is more pervasive and, to my mind, even harder to justify. First, I should point out that although I believe we are in bubble territory in both the stock and real estate markets, and clearly policymakers are increasingly concerned that we may be, I am less concerned than others about the economic impact of the bursting of the bubble. I am much more worried about overinvestment in infrastructure and manufacturing.

Last week (sorry, but I lost the article) I read that the head of one of Beijing’s and China’s largest real estate developers (Vance, I think I remember) publicly warned that we are in the midst of a property bubble, making it the second time in the past month that the CEO of one of China’s biggest real estate developers has made the claim. He may be right, and of course the muted warnings by the PBoC that we are in the midst of a stock market bubble may also be correct, but to me the wealth effect of collapses in the two markets are not large enough really to matter. The wealth effect isn’t likely to be big enough to affect consumption. Not only are these markets relatively small as a share of Chinese savings, but ownership is heavily concentrated among the relatively richer.

The main way a fall in real estate prices would hurt China, in my opinion, is if it causes a sharp drop in real estate development and, with it, a sharp drop in employment and the business activities of industries that feed the real estate sector. I suspect however that if we were to see a drop in real estate prices, the decline in activity would be much less than expected because banks and the government would continue actively supporting real estate development projects as long as they had the credibility to do so. This is not an economy where price signals always decide business strategy.

But to get back to urbanization and real estate overcapacity, the logic is that because we can expect 200 million, 300 million, 400 million or whatever number of people moving to cities in the next several years (any number is plausible as long as it is large), then by simple math it becomes obvious that there cannot be overcapacity in real estate. We need new buildings to accommodate all those new people.

But this argument, or some form of it, has been used to justify nearly every period of overbuilding in modern history. After all there was huge urban migration in the US in the 1920s, which was used to justify soaring real estate prices in the major American cities, but after 1929-31 real estate prices nonetheless crashed and apartments and offices when begging for tenants – even though urban migration continued for decades. Another example: I grew up in Malaga, in southern Spain, which has been since the late 1990s and until last year experiencing an out-of-control boom in real estate development and land prices. For years I had been telling my friends there in real estate (and nearly all my friends were in real estate – itself a very worrying sign) that prices were not sustainable.

But whenever I said this, they would immediately pull out the charts showing the inexorable rise in the number of aging Europeans, point out that all these old people wanted to retire in sunny communities along the Mediterranean, and that all the beaches in southern Europe simply could not accommodate a fraction of the expected retires. Conclusion? As long as the sun continues to favor southern Spain, real estate prices could not ever stop going up. The inexorable pace of migration justified rising prices.

Needless to say the sun is still shining over sunny Malaga, but real estate prices have nonetheless dropped sharply and sales of BMWs and Mercedes (the favorite cars, it seems, for successful real estate agents) have collapsed. The old people are still retiring, but new apartments are proving impossible to sell.

Massive expected migration, in other words, is not only perfectly compatible with overbuilding and real estate collapses, it may even be a prerequisite. Bubbles need a plausible-sounding story that allows people to throw caution to the winds, and near-infinite inward migration is one such story.

The problem of course is that even if the migration projections are true, they are long-term projections and they cannot possibly tell us much about either how many people are coming in next year and how much money they will have to spend. Worse, the migration itself is highly pro-cyclical – overbuilding to satisfy future migration encourages current migration, and more generally more people come when there are more jobs, and fewer when there are less. The migration pattern can become very irregular and, more importantly, it tends to exacerbate current trends. For the financial historians reading this, it is the pro-cyclicality of the process that is the grimmest warning signal.

I am not suggesting, of course, that expected urban migration is not important and will not radically change a number of Chinese parameters. But I will insist that urban migration is not at all incompatible with continued overinvestment, underconsumption, and overbuilding. In fact these things have gone hand in hand many times before.

Source: Urban Migration: The Solution to China's Problems?