...now browsing by tag


Crisis seen from the Sinosphere (II)

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

From the post left unfinished last week. Some of the main arguments read (or heard) in China Crisis discussions:

The Time

Economies don’t grow indefinitely.  Low cycles follow high cycles and after 30 years it is about time. China cannot break the laws of economics, so the recession must necessarily come in the next X years. The country hasn’t prepared itself politically and psicologically to face this period. In the end, we are sure to have trouble.

Of course, this argument is of little value without the X, and many proponents of a time limit have failed in the past. This is the field of technical analysts and other mystical thinkers. Mythology also plays a role:  In Chinese history, cataclysms mark the end of a cycle. An earthquake preceded this crisis, and a solar eclipse is coming in July, the dynasty has lost its virtue. These arguments tend to work better with a bit of hindsight.

The Markets

The World’s economies are interdependent today. China’s economy is largely dependent on exports and FDI. The weight of these external factors in China’s growth has been much discussed, but regardless of the exact numbers, few doubt that it is a significant motor of the economy. External motors failing, China turns to internal ones: investment and consumption. Today, strong public investment, mostly in infrastructure and energy, is making up for the loss. Click to continue »

Crisis: Those that see the glass half full

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Xinhua has come up with the most brilliant in-depth analysis of the economic crisis that we’ve read to date.

BEIJING, March 8 (Xinhua) — China’s relatively fast economic growth has caught the eye of the world at a time when most of the countries are experiencing the full wrath of a raging economic slowdown.

As some Western media questions why China works, the world’s economic experts and scholars are also wondering the same thing: What tools China has to keep its economy resilient and why it is well-positioned to weather the financial crisis?

The answer lies in the nation’s unique growth mode featuring a “scientific outlook on development.”

Economists and bloggers of doom, read and learn.  For the sceptics, this editorial is based on the work of recognized specialists, such as:

  • “Analysts”
  • The vice president of Stellenbosch University
  • The Colombian ambassador to China
  • “The international community”
  • Velia Hernandez, professor from the A.N. University of Mexico

And many other “economic experts and scholars”.

Finally,  science at the service of the community.  And the question is, what do I do now with my two months worth of canned tuna?

Chinese FDI in Barcelona. This is the end.

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

I have a bunch of friends back in Spain who are always quick to send me the juiciest China news coming up over there, and to supervise that I’m fulfilling my duties as a bridge blogger.

This time I have received a couple of links from Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo where there is evidence of at least two different Chinese industries that continue their cheerful expansion to the West in spite of the World Crisis: These are the industries of Shady Barber Shops and Mahjong Gambling Dens. Fourteen of them have been closed down in a recent police raid in Barcelona.

These are the two articles, one very recent, one from last year:

In recent months local residents of the districts of Eixample, Sants-Montjuïc, Gràcia, Horta-Guinardó and Sant Martí, had brought to the police their suspicions that many hairdressers opened recently by Chinese citizens were something more than to cut and dye hair.

Yes, how perspicacious. I never knew of these things  during the three years I lived in Barcelona. For linguistic reasons I had quite a few friends in the Chinese migrant community over there and I frequented the Chinese areas of the city. As far as I know these FDIs must be very recent.

Anyway, so much for the Chinese hairdressers’ expansion. Although gambling and prostitution are not among the Rights that this blogs stands for,  I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for those Chinese that see their  business seized by the police. Something must have gone wrong with their otherwise perfectly profitable business model. Perhaps they didn’t remember to “glocalize instead of globalize”. Perhaps the local police superintendent is not keen on Asian chicks, or maybe they chose the wrong hand to oil. Who knows.

The New Iceland?

Since we are at it, and on a completely different subject, check out below this scary chart of Spanish unemployment that newspaper El Correo published this week. Two little thoughts:

First, I am seriously afraid that Spain is going to turn into the next Iceland. The growth of these last years was so based on the real estate bubble that troubles could be smelled all the way from China. Am I going to turn into a poor immigrant in Shanghai working my ass off to send money back to homecountry? It would be an interesting role reversal, after all the Chinese I met doing exactly that in Barcelona. Oh well, it was  inevitable at some point, I guess, I just never imagined it could come so soon.

Second, as an engineer I note again how numbers and charts are powerful tools of manipulation. The chart below  goes so high on the Y axis that it almost needs logarithmic scales to fit in the paper. A mere problem of the units chosen, of course… or of the number of copies the newspaper wishes to sell.

Inversely, it would be very easy to make this graph look flatter with a more harmonious  objective in mind… CCTV, take note, you might consider hiring a specialist like me to re-engineer your charts and numbers for harmonious results. But then, what do they care, they simply would not publish the negative charts.

(yes, it is CCTVbashing week this week)


3 Reasons why we might be sitting on a 鞭炮

Friday, February 6th, 2009

More bad news about the Crisis. Yesterday All Roads had another of those worrying posts: 3 Announcements and 2 Rumours, and not one of them good.

Still, on our return from the double New Year’s season, many of us are suprised to see the sky is not falling on our heads, and the dire predictions we did before the holidays have not quite turned true. Indeed, the Crisis in China seems to have a very annoying quality for bloggers: it is not happening. Yes, we’ve had bad news coming every week for the last months, we’ve seen experts we respect telling us how bad the unemployment is, how many factories are closing. And all of them are right, if we look at the numbers. Yet, on the street, no Crisis to be seen.

What is going on here? Who is taking our Crisis away, depriving the dismal scientists of their fair share of joy and fulfilment? And more importantly: is it not time to deem the whole affair a bluff, and go join the ranks of the optimistic, together with the guys at the World Bank and the CPC?

Where are all the Crises Gone, long time passing?

You might remember that post I wrote where I started out wondering about the different perceptions of the Crisis in China and in the West. 3 months have passed and this contrast is, if anything, sharper than before, as I have seen during my New Year’s travels. Right now Europe is bleeding, there is no question about this. China, on the other hand, looks to the casual observer like a normal, almost healthy economy. One cannot sense the Crisis.

In Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian, three of the engines of China’s economy, I have seen nothing going on but normal everyday life. The shops are full of people, “we hire” signs are on the windows, and taxi drivers remain for the most part optimistic - at least those who didn’t buy shares. One of them even told me: “Riots only happen in Guangdong, in Shanghai we are civilized”

Back to the office, in my work with industrial investors in China I see the same picture: while some Western clients have cancelled or postponed their 2009 FDI projects, not a single project has been stopped by our Chinese clients, which are all large SOEs.

The time’s for the Ox and don’t give me no Bull

Here are 3 reasons that might explain this strange gap between theory and observation: delay, transparency and inertia.

  • Delayed effect: The crisis comes to China in a very different way than to the West. In our case it was a bursting financial bubble,  hitting us all with the speed of sound. In China, it is different. They didn’t have the “complex financial instruments”,  their financial system was relatively isolated. In China the Crisis is caused by exports and FDI, which is a far less explosive mix. Look at FDIs, for example: a typical project cycle to build a factory is 3 years, and there’s a point of no return somewhere in year 2, when the construction is mobilised and the equipment paid for. This introduces a long delay while the ongoing projects finish and until the absence of new projects cause panic in subcontractors. Same effect with the production of factories which had a large backlog in 08.
  • Inertia: China is a massive system that has been moving at high speeds for 30 years. This doesn’t stop in one day. It is not only the phisical momentum of the thousands of ongoing projects, it is also psycological inertia. in the minds of many Chinese the system is strong, and there is no reason to believe in a Crisis that has never happened in their working lifetime. Behaviours do not reflect fear, and many go about their New Year’s shopping like any other year. Worse still, some seem happy to believe that it is America’s fault and this is an American Crisis; and mind you, not all agree that smart China need lend the old brother a hand.
  • Transparency: This is the most important reason of the three, and the one that scares me most. For all the good things that one can say of CPC’s economic policy (yes, they did draw 300million out of poverty) there is one serious fault that nobody fails to notice: Lack of Transparency. With the largest part of the economy dominated by SOEs or following direct orders from the party, it is not unreasonable to think that there might be a bigger soup on the fire than we are led to believe.

I don’t want to cause alarm or instigate hoarding behaviours like that of our old professor, but this is not looking good. If there’s one single best way of making a Crisis more deadly, that is withholding information and letting it burst only when it is too late.

The two pillars of China’s growth in the 2000s were SOEs and FDIs. The FDI leg is seriously failing now, and the effects will be felt progressively. Even with all the financial might of the Chinese State, it is hard to imagine the SOEs taking the place left by the FDIs, let alone going out to take over the World. I cannot see the Chinese companies leading the effort, I can’t see their necessary creativity and initiative to open new markets to replace the lost export ones. All I can see is a bunch of Giant SOE’s which are better at leveraging their massive size and influence than at impressing us with their products.

There is something quite anomalous in this perceived calm of today, and this blogger thinks that he can smell a Rat. But the time is not for Rats anymore, it is for Ox.

Which is one 2 bits short of a Bull.

Listening to His Master’s Voice

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Wow! The People’s Daily (AKA the Mouthpiece Newspaper) is getting state-of-the-art technology for its online English edition: you can now listen to the articles at the same time as you read them. I’m just back from their website where I have heard these words of Grandpa Wen pronounced by HAL 9000:

“We must have faith and determination”

Now this is reassuring. I am going to play it to the old professor of my last post and I’m sure he will quit his compulsive hoarding and get back to enjoying life again. Other than that, I am not sure the device is of much practical use for the readers, as it reads English slower than I read Chinese.

Then again, come to think of it, the English edition of the People’s Daily has mainly 2 groups of readers:

  1. Chinese Communist Party members studying English, and
  2. Western political analysts studying the Party members.

Which probably accounts for the rather schizophrenic readership that expresses itself on the comments section. Mind you, this doesn’t stop  them from commenting openly on many issues and it is sometimes a lively forum. The Mouthpiece, who doesn’t “endorse or oppose”, is relatively tolerant and does not censor all the comments against the party.

Anyone familiar with this blog knows that I’m a keen commentator and I’m always ready to go and share my ideas with others. So I thought that The Mouthpiece was one of the few websites were I hadn’t left my trademark, and I prepared a comment for their topic “”Nonviolence” in the mouth of “Dalai Lama”"  (note the dense population of inverted commas).

This was my comment:

Dear Comrades, Dear Lamas!!! You must all show fraternal feelings and respect for each other and abandon your fruitless arguments. You must work united and be prepared to overcome difficulties with great enthusiasm, courage, care and stamina. Your Chairman, Mao

I was just about to press the publish button - for I am intrepid and I know not fear - when I realized that a slight detail had escaped my notice: comments have the author’s IP  published for all to see. This has discouraged me somewhat and I have kept my little message to post on my own, more intimate blog. Oh, well, just a little passtime for those condemned to browse the Mouthpiece on a daily basis.

Unemployment and the Spark of the Revolution

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

You will excuse me for writing two serious posts in a row. It’s been ages we don’t do anything on the Crisis, and these days there’s been a series of articles on the subject that I couldn’t just let pass.

Two of them have to do with the growth projections for 2009. Yawn. We’ve been seeing new projections and discussions thereof almost every week, and after the holidays break it looks like here it is all over again. It is mostly fruitless, because there’s not enough new information between one projection and the next, and so most of the times the changes reflect the mood of the expert more than anything else.

It was however interesting to read this PD article Sunday where one CPC “renowned economist” worried that “China is likely to lose 3.9 million jobs in 2009″ if GDP growth slows to 8 percent. Well, he need not worry anymore, according to other top CPC officials quoted here the very next day, “China Risks Missing 8% Growth Target”, which will be “extremely arduous” to achieve. They are starting to change their tune, again.

And this brings us to a more interesting subject which, although it is as difficult to predict, at least it is more telling than the empty statistical artifice of GDP. I am speaking of Unemployment.

There has been two contradicting articles over the weekend, by Wang Tao from UBS and by Victor Shih. They hold different positions as to what will be the unemployment figures in 2009 and what will be their social impact. In any case, it is worth noting that both of them, with their 15 Million (Tao) and 35-50 Million (Victor) figures, are way above any calculation by the “renowned economist” of the People’s Daily, who gives 1 Million for every % of GDP lost.

Needless to say, I am with the relatively pessimistic predictions of Victor on this issue. Partly because I deeply distrust socio-economic projections issued by banks (you can hardly blame me on that). But mostly because the arguments that Victor puts forward are more solid than Tao’s. Based on his deeper knowledge of Chinese politics,  Victor goes on to analyze the possible consequences of his prediction in a worse-case scenario.

Noting that, even if the government has the capacity (as he calculated here) to subsidize the unemployed families for an extended period,

the current wave of layoffs affects a young and vibrant cohort most capable of carrying violent collective action against the state. Without any systematic triggers, we at least will see a spike in localized riots which necessitate the mobilization of People’s Armed Police (PAP) units all over China. The central government would also be compelled to (and they are doing so already) roll out generous unemployment benefits for migrant workers and college graduates (to the tune of 300-400 billion RMB). If a systematic trigger occurs and instability spreads to a sizable city, we will see the large scale mobilization of both PAP and army units and possibly substantial bloodshed. In most scenarios, the CCP regime would still survive a large scale, cross regional rebellion. However, “overall investor confidence” will be lost.

What is the “systematic trigger” which I refer to? I don’t know exactly what it would be. However, if we look back in history, it can be a wide range of events, including the death of a popular leader, a serious natural disaster, the spread of a deathly infectious disease, a small student demonstration turned violent, religious groups…

This idea of the “trigger” (I called it the “Spark” on my previous post) is right on. It is exactly the element that is missing and the one that will make all the difference: when we have social tension to get the people in action, and intellectuals to draft the road map, the mix is an unstable equilibrium waiting to get in contact with a spark. Of course, Victor doesn’t know what exactly this spark would be, and neither do I because its own nature makes it unpredictable. But I would add to his hypothesis one of my own:

The emergence of a massive wave of protest on the internet that extends to all the forums and BBS simultaneously, with new sites being created faster than the government can block the old, which could create a cascade effect that would force the government to commit its worst mistake: close down the internet altogether. This would add to the protesters millions of online game addicts released from their cybercafes, constituting a serious army of instability.

Check out today’s post by Imagethief on the subject, showing with 2 nice graphs that we have an unprecedented situation in China. Also,  yesterday Jeremiah of the Granite Studio did an interesting comparison of the present situation and the one in 1919 during the May 4th movement. In those times, there was a clear “trigger”: the humiliating treatment of China by the Western powers in the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, including the unforgivable transfer of territories to Japan.

One last note for the optimists: this weekend I learnt of a reputable economics professor living in Shanghai who recently bought 3 months advance of canned food to store in case the situation gets rapidly unmanageable. In a city like Shanghai, if the logistic networks are disrupted we can run out of food in a matter of days. I am still not quite there myself, but I must admit that, since I heard this, the idea hasn’t quite left my head and I tend to go more generous on every visit to Lawson’s.

UPDATE: Oops, I completely missed this one. All Roads has been doing the same comparison and drawing his own conclusions. You can see it here.

Exchange Rates and multilateralism

Friday, December 12th, 2008

This week David Dollar has a very informative post: On exchange rates, think multilaterally. It is an analysis of the RMB exchange rates and their change over time. Using one of those useful trade-weighted indexes that the World Bank likes so much, David goes over the history of RMB exchange rates from the 90s to now, drawing conclusions on the policies of the Chinese government and their consequences at each stage.

After some retrospective paragraphs that I absolutely recommend to read to anyone who wants to understand past Chinese currency policy, he goes on to speak of the future:

There is a lot of potential for misunderstanding in this area. China feels that it has had a rapid effective appreciation and now wants to see what the real effects are before going further.The U.S. is probably looking at a substantial devaluation of the dollar against other major currencies, as the immediate financial crisis wanes and the U.S. needs to rein in its consumption and save more. If that happens, it is not in China’s interest to follow the dollar down. It will take good coordination between China and the U.S. to resolve their large imbalances in a smooth manner.

And I have the same objection that I always make to the World Bank Chinese publications: they stick to strictly economic terms, and avoid Chinese politics as much as possible. OK, I can understand being part of the WB he is not as free as this anonymous blog,  and he prefers to not stick his nose into sensitive matters. The trouble is, looking at the economy without the politics around it leaves you completely blind to see the immediate future.

I am not even close to having the experience of David Dollar or the number crunching capabilities of the World Bank, but I have eyes to see that something very big is missing in his picture. Multilateralism? Misunderstanding? Before any misunderstanding can actually happen, there has to be a will to understand. And this is far from sure at this point.

I just copy here part of the comment I wrote on his blog to show what I mean:

Still, as you imply yourself in the post, economists are always better at explaining things in retrospect. I am not sure at all that Chinese authorities will do the right thing in 2009.


We need to keep in mind that Chinese politics always give priority to internal issues over external image or foreign affairs in general. Examples of this abound in recent times, such as their attitude towards protesters during the Olympics, or their cancellation of latest EU Summit because of DL, etc.


If it comes to a point where unemployment gets even slightly out of control I have no doubt that Beijing will do what it takes to avoid internal problems. Including playing with the RMB, engaging in trade wars, and all the while siding with the “people” against the “Western menace”.


We should keep an eye on Unemployment and Currency.

Stimulus: 3 Days that will change the World

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

This week the international observers are observing us with renewed interest: China’s Annual Central Economic Work Conference is being held in Beijing Monday to Wednesday, where the country’s leaders will decide how to maintain a stable economic growth that will “improve people’s livelihood.

Expectations are high on the meeting that will change the World. The trouble is, it will not. Xinhua has just published a first official explanation from NDRC, containing no news. The 40BRMB for “healthcare, education and cultural undertakings”, or the 280BRMB for housing projects were already announced before the meeting. If anything, note that now they have added the “cultural undertakings” for extra flavour.

What about all the rebalancing of the economy that we were supposed to see?

Wishful Thinking

What began as a series of advice by some economists has evolved into a streak of generalized optimism, as  more people started to believe that Chinese leaders will take the chance now to rebalance the economy. I suspect this very optimistic and profusely quoted World Bank report is partly responsible for this state of mind.

But the rebalancing of China’s economy, including a social safety net, health care, and all sorts of measures to bring into the economy the 900 milion rural residents that have been left out is not going to happen now.  Because it doesn’t make sense.

Here is why:

1- Hu Jintao hasn’t been able to implement his rebalancing policies during the first half of the 11 year plan. It is difficult to imagine that the development hawks in the CCP will allow him to implement them precisely now. Especially considering that things like a health care system are costly and someone needs to finance them. How much power do Hu and Wen really have to oppose the immediate interests of business?

2- Chinese like to save money, that is just the way they are, it is a trait of character. No amount of health care or land reform is going to make them spend more in 2009. How would it make sense that the same people who were saving during an economic boom decide to spend more now that there is fear of crisis?

3- All the social rebalancing and Scientific Development of Hu might be great for the long term, but they will not help China weather a difficult 2009. The real worries of the leaders now are: How well will the system resist the social and political tensions that will arise? And how well will Hu Jintao and an already fragile Social Wen resist them in the Party?

An emergency package

But there is a more fundamental objection to the notion that the stimulus package will implement any serious structural change: it is not its role. It is an effort to save an emergency situation and avoid the worst aspects of the crisis (notably unemployment) getting too serious.

And the sad fact is that great restructurings are not done in advance of crises, they are done afterwards. Hard times comes first, then reform. As an example, a quick look back at one of the historical cases that is most fashionable these days: FDR started his famous New Deal only in 1933, well after the crash of 29. In the meantime what was Hoover doing? Investing in infrastructure, like the Chinese now.

“Social” Stimulus

So will the package improve the livelihood of the peasants? Well, if you consider that buying a new color TV at a discount price is going to change their lifes, then yes. But otherwise, not.

The subsidies to buy home appliances that WSJ mentions here are clever measures, and they will probably be effective to boost the consumption of some farmers in the short term. Which makes sense, because the factories producing those TVs have to keep running, unless someone imagines that a legion of jobless manufacturing workers can be set to construct roads and railways overnight.

But nobody should be fooled: these are no social measures. They are measures to help the manufacturing companies to find a substitution market for the failing exports.

Another related “social” measure which might be hidden in the stimulus budget is an emergency fund to cover the possible cases of layoff riots. Victor Shih estimates it in his blog to be around 120BRMB in the worst of cases. I don’t think the government would be announcing this fund publicly, as it is a signal for disaster. But if 120B are missing in the 4Trillion package, now you know were to look.


It is all very healthy to dream, but I am afraid the largest part of China’s money in 2009 will go to help the companies resist the crisis and to mitigate the effects of it. The leaders are nervous, and the time is not for experiments.

But enough of stimulus already. Too much has been said, and I have the feeling that there are more important things to watch right now. Namely: Unemployement and Currency.

I have done enough tea leaf reading in my posts as of late, so I will leave these two subjects for next time. But if you want to know what 2009 is going to bring us in China, make sure keep an eye on them.

Unemployment: the missing Link

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Now that inflation seems under control, unemployment has been identified by most as the real threat to Chinese stability in 2009. The risk of massive layoffs and social unrest is so obvious that you hardly need an economist to identify it. My blue taxi driver was telling me about it only a minute ago.

In the media and the specialized blogosphere we’ve seen many articles lately discussing the problem of closing factories. Mostly wondering how bad the situation really is, or how the government will be able to deal with it. Interestingly, opinions come in waves, one week exaggerating the damage, the week after dismissing it as seasonal closings.

Which just comes to show that, in times of crisis, bloggers and economists are all equally clueless.

The World Bank, Economists and Chinese Characteristics

The other day I commented the latest World Bank Quarterly Report, and I raised the issue that it does not take into account some obvious non-economic factors. Today, after reading the latest post on All Roads I went back to the WB report and performed a search for “unemployment”.

The number of results for this search in the 23 pages report is: 0.

Fair enough, there are 5 instances of “employment” (think positive), but most of them are explaining how the Magic Stimulus Plan is going to solve all the problems. The more I read it, the more I see this Report as loaded with Chinese Characteristics. It has been done in Beijing, by a mostly Chinese team… and like I said, it carries a highly suspicious 7.5% projection.

In spite of this, the WB report is an informative read, and one can hardly be surprised that an international institution tries to avoid conflict with one of its member governments. But what I did find quite surprising is that econoblogger Brad Setser’s analysis of the report doesn’t even mention unemployment either.

This is what made me think that we are going to need something more than economists if we want to see clear in the China 2009 scene.

Recommended Reads for the Fall

So, with all due respect, I have to desagree with Mr. Setser’s advice: If you only read one thing on China this Autumn, do NOT read the World Bank Report.

But then, what to read? Who knows really what’s going on in China?

Let’s analyze the root of the problem: China is not a transparent System. Even worse, unlike other non-transparent countries that we are used to deal with, China is a highly influential country. And it is in a position to not only hide the facts behind a painted veil, but also actively manipulate information and have hundreds of experts around the world scratching their heads.

So the answer to the question “Who knows China?” is:  A bunch of old men that are sitting in Zhongnanhai.

Now, forget your google, you will not find the Politburo Standing Comitee Blog, they will not take your phone calls to arrange an interview or explain their actions.

But what they actually DO every day is leave lots of traces, from the articles on the Chinese press to their announcements in economic policy. And these traces we can track down to the real intentions and the real information that they’re handling.  So it is by reading between the lines of People’s Daily, Xinhua and the likes that you can get a clue of what is going on here.

In conclusion, to understand China, economics is not enough: we also need politics.

Political Economics

So if you are only going to read one thing on China, I suggest you look for a political economist.  For example the blog of Victor Sish, which I discovered recently. He is a professor of political science at Northwestern University specializing in Chinese politics, and he also writes on Nourini’s monitor. He has a keen eye for interpreting the news from a Chinese government perspective. Don’t miss his last post on unemployment. For my part, I’m adding him to my Roll.

In fact, I am opening a new section on my Blogroll for Chinese politics and economy, and I would be grateful if you can recommend some other Crisis Watching sites, in English or Chinese. I am looking for sites that focus on making sense of the Chinese government’s moves.

Any more missing Links? Tips welcome. Thanks.

Picture credit: The shade of Zhongnanhai by Zhongnanhai 10毫克.

Projections, predictions, oracles

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Yesterday I read the World Bank’s Quarterly Update on China. It is the report where they forecast the 7.5% annual growth for 2009.

First of all, I should thank chinalawblog for showing me the way to it, and also the World Bank itself for doing a very useful report that can be understood by dummies. This makes sense too, since we are paying for it through our taxes.

There has been some discussion on the net about the last 7.5% forecast given by the World Bank. The subject is so hot, and China is so overpopulated by pundits that any kind of statement about the economy can easily get you in trouble.

That was the case of China Herald publishing an 8.94% forecast. It was obviously a joke, but in the heat of the moment it was misunderstood by some readers. The actual message was simple: after many years seeing many crisis forecasted for China, Fons has learnt to be skeptical. Experience makes as good a prediction as anything these days, so at CYR the point is well noted.

Now, back to the WB report. This might sound obvious to many people, but it is just as well to say it: to issue a deterministic prediction of economic developments in China 1 year ahead is only second in difficulty to predicting next’s year weather. Just to give a little insight, the forecast for 2009 is based on dozens of graphs like the one below, where particular aspects of the economy are projected into the future. A single one of these factors that deviates from the projection can completely change the whole picture.

But the comment above could apply to any economic forecast. For the China report in particular we can add the following important points:

  • It assumes that the Chinese government will continue to make good choices in fiscal and monetary policy, as it has done up to now.
  • It assumes that Chinese authorities are transparent, and that they do what they announce. For example, implement the mysterious land reform announced last October, or the famous list of 10 points for the stimulus plan.
  • It assumes no big change in non-economic variables, such as social and political impact of the crisis, i.e. unemployment, social unrest, rise of nationalism and protectionism,  etc.

In the end, a 7.5% or even a 6% during 2009 is only a little break in the race, and in itself is not at all catastrophic. In fact it can be positive for China to allow her to implement the much needed “rebalancing” policies, as David Dollar explains here.

But the question that remains is not whether the growth will be 6, 8 or 9. The question is whether China’s government is clever and flexible enough to adapt to the new situations that will arise, and whether the delicate social and political balance that has been working in China for the last 30 years will resist the impact of a global crisis. Or, as I like to say and link in all my posts, whether the Wall will resist.

Scary Scary News

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

The China blogosphere brought us some disturbing news again today. This time it’s about Foxconn, aka the Hon Hai Precision Industry, based in Taiwan. The rumour has it that it’s planning to lay off 100,000.

You might remember Foxconn from the funny episode of the IphoneGirl that became world famous for a day. It might also ring familiar because this is the company that manufactures the new iPhones and iPods.

What you might not know is that Foxconn is:

    • The largest exporter in China, according to their website.
    • The biggest electronics manufacturer in the World.
    • Employing close to half a million people only in PRC.

Now, I don’t want to come across as a rumourmonger, but I think it is worth to have a closer look at this. Because if it is true the social and economic impact in China will be seriously felt this time.

First, what is the source of this info? Mostly a rumour among the workers in the Shenzen megafactory, reported by local press. To be noted also the Hong Kong stock market sharp fall of Hon Hai shares earlier in November (and those guys in HK know a lot about Shenzen).

Second, how likely is it to be true? Well, I guess we will know soon enough, but there is something in this rumour that sounds very real for anyone that has been following Chinese affairs.

It follows the typical pattern: Local press report, buzz on the internet, Xinhua press ignore and downplay.  It is very suspicious that English Xinhua hasn’t witten a single word about Foxconn (the biggest exporter!) since these good news they reported in July. This is scary, because it’s exactly what the Chinese PR geniuses do when they see trouble coming.

Like I said yesterday, fasten your seatbelts, it looks like we are going to live in interesting times.

Is the Crisis really hitting China?

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

One of the advantages of Crisis Watching in China is that there’s such a large community of observers dedicated to this country that you are never short of ideas. The downside is that with so many voices it is difficult to make sense of the whole thing. To the question in the title, for example, depending where you look you can find today the whole range of answers: yes, no, badly, take it easy!

What is most remarkable is how fast opinion is shifting towards the Yes side, when only 2 months ago most people still believed China’s system was immune to Financial Crises.

Especially interesting is the story of the closing factories on the Pearl River Delta, which has captured the imagination of western media in the past few days. Fortunately we have some sensible China bloggers to shed light on this mess. The guys at All Roads and the Law Blog are the first to question the significance of the events.

Factories are closing sure enough, and this picture I stole from the bbc website is not an evil western media setup. But take a closer look: do you see any difference between this “workshop” and any random car parking? Do you see any traces of heavy fixed equipment, hoisting devices, utilities? anything looking like proper working lights for the operators? It looks exactly like what it is, a precarious facility quickly improvised to catch some coming contract and quick to disappear the minute things start to look bad. It is probably in places like these that they put together the fakes sold at Qipulu.

So it is mostly the fat of the economy that is being lost for the moment. Business which probably would end up closing anyway in a normal economic system that didn’t have as many holes as the Chinese. The bread and meat of the economy are still producing, and doing quite well given the circumstances. The disappearing of these companies will make things easier for the ones remaining, eliminating the pressure of their (sometimes unfair) competition. It’s part of the good effects of a downcycle, really overdue in an economy that’s been racing nonstop for the last 30 years.

So from my point of view the Crisis has still not hit China in any significant way. The international economic slowdown is definitely starting to show, but for the moment we are still riding it better than most of the Western economies.The Wall is holding strong.

Now, what Crisis really means is what by now is in everybody’s mind. The New Republic calls it Crash and Burn. But many observers around the world got excited about the recent protests in the Delta, and failed to realize that those protests are essentially no different from the many other Crack and Burns that happen daily in China. If it is not a taxi strike, it is a drowned kid or citizens unhappy with relocations.  Each of them for their own reason, and usually with no intention to question the role of the central government, but rather trying to call its attention to help against local injustice.

Crack and Burn we have had for years, and it didn’t do much to unstabilize the system, because it was never meant to anyway.

But here is a method to estimate what might happen if some day the Crisis really hits China:

  1. Google “Riots China”
  2. Collect the first different 50 results
  3. Add up the number of people violently protesting in those results
  4. Add the thousands of people that are going to lose (or not find) jobs in the year to come.
  5. To that reactive core you can add hundreds of millions of unhappy peasants, too isolated to organize protests on their own, but happy to ride along if there is any serious movement.
  6. Now all those millions of chinese  put them together at the same time to protest against the same problem. Typically inflation, unemployment, corruption, injustice or inequality.

When there is a critical mass of unemployed and discontent rioting in a particular region, this could spark the chain reaction and spread to the whole country like gunpowder.

Looking at the economy today, I think we are still far from that situation. On the other hand, I also think that, if it ever happens, it will happen so suddenly that none of us will even smell it coming.