Must Read: Victor Shih And Carl Walter On The Chinese Banking System

Recommended reading – or in this case, viewing — for this week is a series of video interviews sponsored by G+ with Victor Shih, of Northwestern University, and Carl Walter, co-author of Red Capitalism, on China’s banking system.  You can watch Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4 by clicking on the appropriate links.  The interviews tell a familiar story for anyone who’s been reading this blog, but it’s good to hear it laid out in detail by two experts who really know their stuff.  The tale they tell — particularly at the beginning of Part 2, under the title “2009: how a flood of credit drowned reform” — is exactly what I warned would happen in a Wall Street Journal op-ed I wrote in May 2009 (“Undoing Chinese Bank Reform”).

Incidentally, Victor Shih also wrote a guest blog in yesterday’s Financial Times that is well worth reading.  He argues that the expansion of China’s state sector is fueling corruption that threatens to undermine the country’s economic progress:

Given the dominance of the state at every level of government, government officials learned long ago that the best way to make some money on the side was to form their own companies, which “bid for” and often won lucrative contracts from the government and from state-owned enterprises.

In many cases, these parasitic companies do not do the contracted work themselves but instead farm out the work to the highest bidders. The owners of these connected companies, often officials themselves or their close friends and relatives, can make money without doing anything. It is rent-seeking in its most naked form.

As this “unspoken rule” way of business proliferates to every corner of the Chinese economy, quality, safety, and basic trust all go out the window, replaced by the subcontractors who could pay the highest bribes.

Victor correctly points to the proliferation of rent-seeking (rather than wealth-creating) behaviour as a serious problem.  Not only does it undermine economic growth, it also fuels growing public anger over careless and greedy practices that people perceive as profoundly unfair.

One of the topics Victor and Carl discuss in their interview is China’s dangerous levels of overinvestment as a result of its stimulus-driven credit boom.  Reporter David Pierson offers a good perspective on this in Tuesday’sLos Angeles Times, noting the many empty malls and office buildings one sees, even in booming Beijing.   David quoted me about “the limits of stimulus” and my concern that China will reopen the credit floodgates should growth begin to slow.  Another comment in the article, from a Chinese scholar, seemed to more directly echo Victor’s concerns:

“If all this investment remains unprofitable for the long term, there will be serious risk to the banking system,” said Yi Xianrong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. “The problem is it’s become a tool for local government officials to compete and a hotbed for corruption.”

Along similar lines, reporter Michael Gsovski recently wrote a two-part article on overconstruction in China’s real estate market for The China Beat, which you can read here.  Part 1 takes a concrete look at the “ghost city” phenomenon, in which investors stockpile entire developments (or entire cities) full of empty high-priced apartments, this time on the outskirts of Kunming in southwestern Yunnan province.  Part 2 steps back and looks at the bigger picture, what is driving these distortions, what risks they pose, and what (if anything) can be done to correct them:

economists like Tsinghua University’s Patrick Chovanec are doubtful that local officials are going to comply with the central government policies to slow the pace of development due to the financial incentives they face to continue encouraging high levels of construction …

Chovanec believes the price and purchase controls on consumers were ineffective, as they did not lessen the demand to invest in housing … As for the monetary tightening, Chovanec argues that unless investors believed the periodic increases in the interest rate and reserve requirement were a message portending further, more drastic policies, they were not large enough to be a deterrent, due to the high rates of return real estate has thus far produced.

It’s interesting to note that this view, which used to be quite contrarian, is rapidly becoming conventional (or at least accepted) wisdom.  I was pleased to read an IMF blog post by the organisation’s resident China expert, Nigel Chalk, on what he now calls “China’s bubbly housing market.”  He notes — as I’ve been arguing for some time now – that demand for property-buying in China is driven by a deeply entrenched combination of high savings rates, lack of investment alternatives, and low holding costs, which cause people to stockpile empty units as a “store of value,” like gold.  Nigel goes on to observe that:

all of these efforts [to rein in the property market] are still only treating the symptom of the problem—the pace at which house prices are going up—but the underlying impetus remains in place. Ultimately, the solution has to involve higher interest rates (on both deposits and loans), efforts to create a broader set of financial assets for the population to invest in, and a broad-based property tax that covers the majority of China’s housing stock. None of this will be politically easy and it will all take time. However, only this kind of deep-rooted change will create the environment where households view their apartments as shelter rather than as a (literal) concrete store of value.

I couldn’t agree more.  This is precisely what I’ve been arguing since China began its “cooling measures” in April of last year, as you can see from this clip from Chinese TV from July 2010.