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Checking China's real crisis

By Advisor Perspectives
Capital Markets

The world’s investors seem to have changed their collective mind. Recent panic selling implied an implosion in China and recession elsewhere. The sudden turn to recovery and moderation indicates something much less pessimistic, if not absolutely upbeat. Since markets, as always, remain vulnerable to future emotional outbursts of this kind, it might help to take this moment of relative calm to examine some of the issues that contributed to the recent panic and that might contribute to a future panic. Of one particular importance is China’s by now long-standing real estate crisis.

Though the evidence is muddled, statistics nonetheless yield a picture that should at once sober optimists and embarrass pessimists. On the side of bad news, there is no denying that China faces a significant real estate bubble. The adjustment to it will take a considerable time, and inevitably will have negative economic and financial implications. On the side of good news, it is clear that the adjustment has already begun and is proceeding in an orderly fashion that promises to avoid the kind of financial collapse many fear.

The Bubble’s Extent
The evidence of excess and all that goes with it is clear. Between 2012 and 2014, China engaged in significant overbuilding. By early last year, spending on residential construction had reached an unsustainable 10.4% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). That is the second highest figure on record for any country. (Only Spain’s 2006 bubble, which took such spending to 12.5% of GDP, surpassed it.) China’s rate tops Japan’s 1973 bubble peak at 8.7% of GDP and certainly this country’s 2005 peak at 6.5% of GDP. China’s breakneck pace of residential construction was at its 2013 peak in increasing floor space at a clearly unsustainable annual rate of 50%. It had increased the per-capital available floor space in China by 20%, to some 30 square meters, far above any other emerging economy and even some developed economies. Spain, for instance, has only about 27 square meters of living space per capita, and Japan has only some 22 square meters. Only the rich nations of Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia offer their populations more. This construction so far exceeded sales that unsold inventories reached astronomical levels of over two year purchases.

Debt problems inevitably have accompanied this kind of overbuilding. Though government debt in China is still a relatively low 25% of GDP, real estate-related debt in recent years has exploded to more than twice that figure. At last measure, almost half of all outstanding credit in China was somehow related to real estate. The excesses promise to force a significant portion of this debt into default, with some estimates indicating that a fifth of all the real estate debt will fail in one way or another. Since that figure amounts to nearly one-tenth of the country’s GDP, the legacy of this overbuilding cannot help but strain Chinese financial institutions, investors, financial markets generally, and, consequently, overall economic growth prospects. The need for construction cutbacks will further impair growth prospects, not the least because residential building has until recently accounted for so much of China’s economic activity.

Still, It Is Not the End of the World
As strained as all this looks, and is, much suggests that China can avoid the implosion many from time to time have feared. After all, the evidence suggests that the adjustm

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