Thursday, July 3, 2014

China is too big to fail

I was retweeted by Brad Delong today for linking to Stephen Koukoulas' latest missive on the results of the current Liberal federal government's campaign of talking down the domestic economy: it looks like it has worked as retail sales have tanked and we're about to enjoy the same sort of quarterly handbrake effect that the US has just endured. This lead to a short (of course) Twitter conversation with Patrick Chovanec about China, which lead to this observation which interested me.

Chovanec is a Chinese expert of some renown, a former employee under Bill Kristol and a former colleague of Paul Ryan. His blog is interesting reading, in that it is an ongoing attempt by a conservative theorist to understand why this is the Asian Century, and how this is going to lead to China belting the bejeesus out of America in both economic and political power games (if not actual war). He is a bear (despite his protestations), as a conservative academic looking at China must almost inevitably be to jive his beliefs with the ongoing economic and social experiment happening before his eyes based on what he must see as an unworkable melding of private and public control from above. China is still a command economy for the most part, only using those elements of capitalism which are useful for its centrally-determined agendas. As Chovanec notes on his blog, control is actually getting more concentrated among power elites not less. Despite all this, China continues to grow like topsy and it's winning a lot of the contests it enters - like currency wars and its increasingly dominant position in Africa.

Chovanec has issued dire predictions of calamitous domestic Chinese bubbles, as have many watchers over the years, but if the Chinese miracle is merely a mirage then it hasn't dissipated yet. For instance, after he spent a lot of energy talking about how the local real estate "bubble" was ready to pop, it surged again early in 2012, leading to a series of posts floating up reasons as to why stentorian bears like him were so wrong. From the Australian perspective, where it seems apparent that China's restrictions on multiple home purchases are probably why Chinese investors have invaded the Australian real estate market in such numbers to treat empty dwellings like gold deposits, there doesn't appear to be much of an end in sight to the Sino-Australian real estate boom.

Chovanec has also been quoted on recent movements in the heavily subsidised Chinese solar cell industry, as in this NPR interview, and here I think is where his own insights illustrate what is going on.
INSKEEP: So what do the Chinese do now?
CHOVANEC: Well, what they probably do is they dig deep dig into their pockets – the pockets of the central government – and bail out these companies. Because what they’re really afraid of is, you know, we've seen this over the past couple of months, that even relatively small companies, when they fail in China they're so intertwined in terms of their credit relationships and the local economy that essentially everything's too big to fail.
Just as the TARP bank bailout and the auto bailouts worked perfectly in America, so it appears that China has avoided a series of pitfalls from inefficiencies in its system by temporarily socialising the losses and keeping long-term-viable businesses out of bankruptcy. This is the positive side of too-big-to-fail. Keynesianism is all about smoothing out the peaks and troughs of economic happenstance to prevent long-term damage to the livelihoods of the relatively powerless workers who would otherwise have their careers thrown on the scrapheap of history, for the benefit of the economy as a whole.

No doubt there is an argument that China's socialisation of losses from Suntech et al is a different situation to TARP and the auto bailouts, since the latter actually made a profit in the end and there might not be such an easy denouement to the Chinese solar cell industry's woes. Similarly to the National Broadband Network in Australia - I'm talking about the original Labor vision, not the emaciated joke it has become under the Liberals - governments are in an unique position to invest in such projects and secure a solid rate of return, because they can accumulate many more benefits from positive externalities than do private corporations. Even if the NBN or Suntech were to represent paper losses on their own balance sheets, the indirect public goods from universal broadband in Australia or the popularisation of solar cells on roofs across China could very well translate into higher taxes from increased general production, or a decrease in spending on policing or environmental cleanups.

Under certain circumstances, where it is done for solid Keynesian reasons, TBTF works. Chovanec and those of his ilk like to say that Chinese leaders don't really know what they're doing and lack a coherent direction for the future, but so far in the 21st century they have been kicking ass and taking names in both economic and political realms. Australia may be inside a rapidly shrinking bubble as the bears say... or the lucky country may have just been lucky one more time.


  1. G'day mOnty - another powerful economic analysis by your good self there. The factors you've identified above provide strong grounds for Clive to have a significant ongoing input into Sino/Aust economic relations. He's one of the few people in this country who really understands the Chinese. A notable other of course, being Kevin Rudd.

  2. C4E, you're going to make me laugh if you interpret every one of my posts as a pro-Clive screed...

    Nevertheless, real estate and China are in Clive's wheelhouse, given his history. One wonders how he will implement his populist style in this area - does he give in to Hansonism, or does he somehow find a positive reason for supporting globalisation that will resonate with those whom globalisation has made economically redundant?

  3. Clive has spoken at length with great authority on these vexing issues, m0nty, including the issue of jobs for the unemployed in rural and regional areas - and you should know as well as anyone that Clive would never resort to cheap populism, unlike those two bit shysters, Abbott and Hockey.

    As long as Clive can encourage his influential Chinese friends to buy our raw materials, the opportunities for the marginalised will be there.

  4. Clive may have a modicum of power, but even he couldn't help the Chinese if their bubble bursts.

  5. "Under certain circumstances, where it is done for solid Keynesian reasons, TBTF works."

    Difficult to predict when and if that will happen, though. Better to minimise risk by having markets constantly cull the low achievers. Also difficult to tell if it was worth it until you're committed. Toyota took 17 years to turn a profit. Was that better than the counterfactual? Not easy to know.