For much of the past two decades, China's economic surge has been viewed with intense skepticism in the financial world and with substantial distrust in foreign-policy land. Yet at every turn, China has defied skeptics and continued to expand, albeit at a slightly slower pace than the near double-digit growth rates seen over the past decade. In fact, for some time, many observers -- as well as the government in Beijing -- believed that China's growth was a bit too strong. Yet the recent market blip has now just added to the widely held conviction that China's economic emergence is a chimera built on rotten foundations of too much real estate, too much credit, and too much government spending on infrastructure.
Last week, latent concerns erupted into a sudden surge of panic that the Chinese economic miracle is about to crash. China's stock market plunged to lows not seen since the heart of the financial crisis in 2009. More ominous, global markets reacted as well, taking seriously -- and not at all in stride -- the possibility that this time an implosion is imminent.
Before dealing with the specifics of the past week, let's stipulate the following: China has defied expectations because it has found, until now, a functional economic and political formula -- whether or not we like that formula. Moreover, despite some minor disputes over islands with Japan and the Philippines, its leadership has avoided drastic foreign-policy missteps that might endanger its domestic economic trajectory. That has been the case at each point of crisis over the past 20 years, and it is likely to be the case now as well.
There were two proximate causes of the recent panic. One, lending rates between Chinese banks soared to alarmingly high levels after China's central bank, the People's Bank of China, made murmurings that credit has gotten out of hand and needs to be curtailed. Second, an evaluation of China's credit system by a Fitch Ratings analyst named Charlene Chu noted that Beijing's official figures mask the vast expansion of shadow banking and credit in China and that the level has now reached a critical point. That followed on the heels of Fitch downgrading China's credit rating.
You may recall what happened almost exactly two years ago when Standard & Poor's (S&P) downgraded the U.S. credit rating: markets plunged, Washington politics turned even more nasty and partisan, and global players jumped on an "I told you so" bandwagon questioning the integrity of the American political system.
In many ways, this week's China plunge -- with its attendant global ripples -- is the same story, except this time it was Fitch rather than S&P. Chu delivered a devastating critique of the Chinese financial system, and by adding up not just official credit outstanding but off-balance-sheet transactions and a host of other less obvious metrics, she came up with a figure of $23 trillion of debt, compared with only $9 trillion four years ago. That also raised the ratio of overall debt, adding up government, companies, and individuals, to nearly 200 percent of China's GDP. The preponderance of that debt is China's corporate debt, much of it funneled through local governments and their banks to state-owned corporations.
According to Chu, the conclusion is obvious: "The credit-driven growth model is clearly falling apart. This could feed into a massive overcapacity problem and potentially into a Japanese-style deflation," she said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. "There is no transparency in the shadow banking system, and systemic risk is rising."
The only way to describe the reaction to Chu's report is with a cliché: like a match on a tinderbox. Her report coincided with the lack of action taken by the People's Bank of China to ease the interbank credit crunch, and added to that combustible mix was the elliptical language used by U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to suggest that the Fed might soon slow or even halt its $85 billion of bond purchases each month. And voilà, a financial perfect storm. Equities globally plunged 5 to 10 percent. Even more startling was the sharp rise in bond prices, especially in emerging markets that are seen as exposed to China.
At the time of the S&P's downgrade of U.S. credit in 2011, I asked how it happened that we had given so much power to a few analysts at a private financial enterprise. Back then it was a man named David Beers who headed the team that downgraded the United States. This time it is Charlene Chu. Both of them may be brilliant, acute -- and even correct. But it is absurd that their views carry such weight and that financial markets and the media behave like lemmings in according those opinions such respect.