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Vitaliy Katsenelson predictions from 2010: shadow over Asia
Five years ago, almost to the day, I was interviewed by David Galland, who worked at Casey Research at the time. This interview covered three topics: the Chinese overcapacity bubble, the Japanese debt bubble, and my sideways markets thesis. Five years is a long time, but with the exception of updating some statistics (for instance Chinese debt has gone up fourfold since), I really would not change anything. I have not been writing much on Japan or China lately because things haven’t really changed much – their respective bubbles have just gotten much bigger.
I hope you enjoy this interview. Don’t kill your eyes; kill a tree (print it). Or you can watch a presentation I gave on the same subject at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (link here).
The Casey Report (TCR): Is China’s system better than everyone else’s? Is it really possible the Chinese economy can keep steamrolling along?
Vitaliy Katsenelson (VK): A few months ago, I watched a movie about Ayn Rand and it talked about how Americans in the 1930s looked at the Soviet Union’s flavor of managed economy as being superior to the American version of capitalism. At the time America was just coming out of the Great Depression, so that view made a lot of sense. So in the short run, and especially after the ugly side of creative destruction has paid us a visit, the grass of managed economy may look greener.
So when we look at China, the conventional wisdom says that the government is very, very smart, and therefore they can do a very good job in steering the economy in the right way. Chinese government may have the best intentions, its leaders may have IQs of 250 each on a bad day, but it is impossible to centrally manage an economy of China’s size.
I am a big believer that in the boxing match between a visible and an invisible hand, though the invisible hand may lose a few rounds, it will win the match every time. Last century we had the most amazing economic experiment take place when after World War II, Germany was split into two countries with different economic and political systems. But they were the same people, with the same language and culture, separated by a wall. We know how that story ended.
Of course, for a time, having government control over the levers of the economy can have advantages. For example, by taking prompt action, the Chinese government was able to pull the economy out of the recession remarkably fast, basically by fire-housing the stimulus package that was equivalent to 12% GDP. That’s the advantage. The only problem is that these kinds of short-term advantages come with long-term, painful consequences.
For example, when you have a huge government presence in the economy, you also have a huge bureaucracy, and bureaucracy brings corruption. This is one of the reasons why China is rated so poorly on Transparency International’s annual corruption rating. Corruption breeds misallocation of capital, because the capital flows not to the best use, but it basically flows to whatever the political connection or whatever the bribe is directed to.
In addition, when you have a government-managed economy, it creates excesses. China has huge excesses in the industrial sector, as well as in commercial and residential real estate. We see plenty of evidence of these excesses, but