This article is from Sovereign Man, whose e-mail reports I get daily from Simon Black, who must be the most traveled man in the world. They specialize in finding advantageous places for people who would chose an expatriate life (“Survive and thrive in the Age of Turmoil”) and his commentary is usually pretty interesting.
Today’s piece is about China and illustrates some of the things we have been writing about China for some time. Namely, it is still a command economy largely directed by the Party mandarins in Beijing, it spends money like water on infrastructure that has a high degree of useless projects that are a waste of capital, that you can’t trust the numbers they produce because they can make them almost anything they want.
The author, Tim Staermose, talks about Wuhan, a place that I visited a few years ago, whose population has skyrocketed in the past 20 years. The article is eye-opening.
November 10, 2011
By Tim Staermose of Sovereign Man
There’s a key concept in economics called the law of diminishing returns. It sounds complex, but it’s actually very easy to understand.
Imagine for a moment that there are two towns cut off from each other by a vast river. Communications and trade are infrequent at best. But if you build a bridge, you’ll get a tremendous boost to the possibilities for trade and commerce. Economic activity rises dramatically.
Build another bridge a half-mile from the first one and you’ll ease congestion, speed up travel times, and create some further improvement in the region’s economy. But the additional returns on investment for the second bridge pale in comparison with the first.
So on and so forth for the third, fourth, fifth bridge that you build. Each successive bridge provides less and less of a boost to the regional economy.
What China has been doing for years now, is the equivalent of having built thousands of bridges, each one providing diminishing returns to its economy. Even more concerning, China has been building these economic bridges, so to speak, even though when they weren’t necessary.
Consider that the share of fixed asset investment in China, at more than 65%, is the highest for any major economy in modern history. What’s more, China’s own electricity authority recently reported that there are 64.5 million dwellings in China where absolutely no electricity is being used. The investments they’re making are producing little return.
When I was back in Wuhan this summer, I saw exactly this phenomenon. You may never have heard of it, but Wuhan is an important commercial city of more than 10 million.
Barreling along one side of an 8-lane highway towards the airport with hardly another vehicle in sight, we passed apartment block after apartment block, sitting empty like a construction graveyard.
Eventually we crossed a gigantic new bridge over the Yangtze River. Barely half a mile downstream, another equally vast and expansive bridge was nearing completion… and others further down the river.
I was astounded. There was no traffic. No commercial activity. No people. No tolls. Just empty space and a lot of ridiculously expensive bridges. It was something out of a bizarre zombie flick.
There are thousands of similar projects all over China, many funded by debt. And, with no direct cash flows earned back and the ongoing maintenance required, these infrastructure projects have become huge liabilities on the Chinese government’s balance sheet.
The conventional wisdom is that China’s economy will continue to grow 8% or 9% per year indefinitely. And a lot of people are drinking this Kool-Aid. It sounds a lot to me like the other old songs that we’ve heard over the past few years, like “real estate always goes up in value.” Famous last words.
I live by another rule: “All booms bust. The only question is when.” And China has had one of the biggest economic booms in history over the past decades. In fact, per capita consumption of cement in China is at the same levels as Taiwan and Japan right before those infrastructure-boom economies hit a brick wall.