16 January 2019
China's rapidly aging population is a flashing sign, along with its massive local government debt, overpriced stocks and a bubbling property market. Photo: todayonline
China's rapidly aging population is a flashing sign, along with its massive local government debt, overpriced stocks and a bubbling property market. Photo: todayonline

Why China will end up as a would-be economic superpower

China is not going to surpass the United States as the world’s main economic power any time soon and a major crisis will expose its weaknesses that are not apparent now.

That’s how Japan imploded in 1990 as its land-price bubble began to burst, according to Roy Smith, a former Goldman Sachs partner who correctly called the Japanese meltdown.

“Nobody agrees with me. But they didn’t agree with me in 1990, so at least I have one right,” said Smith, 76.

Smith was writing a newspaper column in the 1990s in which he foresaw Japan’s eventual demise a year before it happened.

“The vulnerabilities in China today are very similar to the vulnerabilities in Japan,” Smith told Bloomberg.

Bad loans, overpriced stocks and a frothy property market are flashing danger for China’s economy and putting pressure on a fragile financial system.

These are similar to conditions that triggered Japan’s fall, said Smith, a finance professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

A further parallel is the burden of an aging population, with mounting pension and healthcare costs, he said.

While China probably will avoid prolonged Japan-style stagnation, a major crisis could expose weaknesses that aren’t apparent now.

“Most people today are talking about China displacing the United States as the great power of the 21st century,” he said.

“My view is that it is more likely to end up like Japan — that is, the status of a former would-be superpower that isn’t.”

China surpassed Japan to become the world’s No. 2 economy by gross domestic product in 2010 after three decades of rapid growth, fueled by the largest urbanization in history.

It is tipped by many forecasters eventually to overtake the US in output. By other measures, such as GDP per person, China is further behind the US.

On a per-capita basis, China’s GDP in 2013 was still just half of where Japan was in 1960, according to World Bank data. That leaves plenty of scope to catch up to rich-world peers, more optimistic observers say.

“The key difference I see between China now and Japan in 1990 is that China is at a much lower stage of development,” said Louis Kuijs, chief China economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc. in Hong Kong, who previously worked at the World Bank.

Even so, China’s progress has confronted mounting challenges in recent years.

In 2014, the economy expanded at the slowest full-year pace in almost a quarter century.

The slowdown has thrown a spotlight on a mounting debt pile that includes souring loans to local government financing vehicles, or LGFVs, which funded a boom in construction.

Doubts about the creditworthiness of LGFV debt deepened last year when Premier Li Keqiang started to pare back implicit guarantees for the regional financing units.

China’s total debt pile, including borrowing by households, banks, governments and companies, ballooned to 282 percent of national output in mid-2014 from 121 percent in 2000, according to an estimate by the McKinsey Global Institute.

“The Chinese financial structure is very fragile because a lot of it is misreported and will reveal a great deal of weakness when it comes out,” said Smith, who specializes in international banking and finance at the Stern School.

“I don’t know when it is going to come out, but when it does it is going to have consequences and take away a lot of the world’s confidence in the Chinese system.”

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