China stuck in overdrive

The Chinese economy reminds me of the movie "Speed", where Dennis Hopper wires a bus with explosives and sets them to blow if the bus goes slower than 50 miles per hour.

China stuck in overdrive

The Chinese economy reminds me of the movie “Speed”, where Dennis Hopper wires a bus with explosives and sets them to blow if the bus goes slower than 50 miles per hour.

The Chinese economy has 1.2 billion unsuspecting people on board. It could all blow if economic growth drops below its current pace of more than 8 percent. Even a small, otherwise harmless speed bump is likely to send this gigantic economy into a severe recession. Here are the reasons why:

  • China has become a de facto manufacturer for the world. With exception of food products, it is difficult finding a product that was not, at least in part, manufactured in China. Industrial production accounts for 53 percent of its Gross National Product (according to CIA Handbook), double the rate of most developed nations. Industrial production for the United States is 19.7 percent of GDP, UK 26.3 percent, Japan 24.7 percent. Chinese economic growth is largely driven by the manufacturing sector, as its industrial production growing at the double rate of GDP.
  • The manufacturing industry is very capital intensive. Building factories requires a large upfront investment. To make things worse, with commodity costs rising, the required investment has increased. Once it’s built there is a fixed cost associated with running a factory that is to some degree independent of utilization level – a classical definition of operational leverage. Laying-off workers is a politically sensitive process thus creating another layer of fixed costs.
  • Debt is an instrument of choice in China. Due to a lack of equity-fund- raising alternatives, bank debt and underground finance companies that charge very high interest rates are the predominate sources of capital in China – financial leverage.
  • Large piles of debt (financial leverage) combined with high fixed costs (operational leverage) create a very high total operational leverage. Total operational leverage in China is elevated further as factories are built to accommodate a future demand, and since it has been rising in the past automatically projected to climb in the future.

This greatly leveraged growth works fine as long as the economy continues to grow at fast pace. As sales are growing, costs are not growing as fast as they are largely fixed (thanks to operational leverage) leading to operating margins expansion – the beauty of leverage. Unfortunately leverage works both ways, as sales growth slows down the opposite takes place.

There are many factors that could cause the fatal slow down in Chinese economic growth:

  • Slow down of China’s largest trading ‘partner’ – the U.S. economy: China is financing its biggest customer – the U.S. consumer. Similar to Lucent Technologies trying to induce sales growth by financing its customers, China is in part financing U.S. consumers by buying U.S. Treasuries, thus keeping the U.S. interest rates at very low levels and creating what Mr. Greenspan called a ‘conundrum’.
  • Higher short-term rates coupled with debt levered balance sheets, doubling of credit card minimum payments (coming to consumer door steps in January 2006), high gasoline prices topped with a sprinkle of significantly higher heating costs may push consumer off the shopping train – lowering demand for Chinese produced goods.
  • An ever rising pile of politically motivated bad loans may bring the Chinese banking system to a halt (similar to Japan’s of late 80s). Though China is trying to Westernize its lending practices, a dangerous combination of semi-market economy and a in most part government controlled banks is very dangerous. In this environment loans are often made not on the merit of investment but based on political connection – a recipe for disaster.
  • Overcapacity – It is a human tendency to draw straight lines and thus making linear projections from past into the future. During the fast growth period the angle of the straight lines is usually tilted upward, causing over investment in fixed assets, as inability to keep up with demand may cause manufacturers to lose valuable customers. However, overcapacity is a death sentence in the manufacturing (fixed costs) world.

As companies face overcapacity or slowdown in demand, they try to stimulate sales by cutting prices, which in part lead to price wars (similar to what we observed in the U.S. between Sprint, MCI and AT&T (NYSE: T) in long distance business in mid 90s) and to a fatal deflation.

Currently companies emphasize their China strategy on their conference calls, in a similar fashion as companies were emphasizing their internet strategies in the late 90s. Though did not start re-naming themselves to incorporate China into their names -a common practice in late stages of internet bubble; It is very apparent that many are making large investments in China. As it usually happens after the bubble pops, the past assets turn into today’s liabilities. Thus, a highly touted exposure to China that was looked upon as an important asset lead to a written-off investment, leaving nothing but a trail of liabilities behind.

hough a pop in Chinese bubble is unimaginable to many, the same way as collapse of Japan and fifteen year recession that followed was unimaginable in late 80s. It is not a question of ‘if’ but more of a question of ‘when’ the Chinese economy will cross that metaphorical 50 miles per hour mark and falling into the deep abyss of prolonged recession and very possible deflation.

China is living through one of the greatest historical bubbles. Books will likely be written to describing its ‘ridiculousness’, but as always, they’ll be written after the fact. Here are some suggestions for the book titles: “The Chinese Conundrum” or “The Great Chinese Bubble” or “Irrational Exuberance 2”.

But, as with any bubble timing, the pop is very difficult. Bears are usually too early to call it and bulls are usually too late to see it.

As government published numbers of economic growth cannot be trusted, investors should look for anecdotal clues for the inflection point. Conference calls of U.S. companies doing business in China are probably the best source of information.

The risk of the Chinese bubble is real, thus it may be wise to prepare by immunizing portfolios from that risk. Though being completely rid of the China risk is impossible and impractical, it is very important to stress-test a portfolio against that risk, one stock at a time. Industrial commodities and companies that produce them are likely to be the first casualties of the bubble bursting. Oil stocks like Chevron (CVX), Exxon Mobil (XOM), Conoco Phillips (COP) and many others were great performers in 2005, up in double digits. Their run is likely to end when Chinese economy goes into a tail spin.

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