Over the past two decades since China was admitted into the WTO, its national industrial base has made unprecedented strides to emerge as the world’s leading economic producer in many major areas. The academic debates over whether China’s GDP is larger than that of the USA are misplaced. GDP is largely worthless as a measure of a real economy. When measured in real physical economic production, China has left the USA and everyone else in the dust. Therefore, the future course of industrial production in China is vital to the future of the world economy. Globalization of the world economy made it so.
Steel production is still the single best indicator of a growing real economy. In 2021, China produced more that twelve times the tonnage steel as the USA, over one billion tons. The USA, once world leader, managed a piddly 86 million tons. In tons of coal, China produces some 50% of world total coal. She controls 70% of world rare earth mining and over 90% of its processing, thanks to bizarre US policy actions going back several decades. China today is far the world’s largest motor vehicle producer, almost three times the size of the US at 27 million units annually, one third of world total in 2022. China is by far the largest producer of the essential cement for construction, and is the world’s leading aluminum producer. At 40 million tons in 2022, this compares to not even one million tons in the USA. It is also the world’s largest copper consumer. The list goes on.
This is merely to suggest how essential the economy of China has been to world economic growth over the past two decades. A mere four decades ago China was insignificant in world real economic terms. So, if China goes into deep economic contraction, the effect this time will be global. And this is just what is now underway. Important to note, the contraction began well before the severe three-years of China’s zero covid lockdown. Simply put, China since the so-called Great Financial Crisis of 2008 managed to create a financial bubble the size of which the world has never before experienced. That bubble began to deflate, beginning in real estate, around 2019. The scale is systemic and is only beginning.
Colossal Deleveraging and Hidden Debt
A huge problem with China’s economic model over the past two decades has been the fact that it has been a debt-based finance model massively concentrated on real estate speculation beyond what the economy can digest.
Fully 25 to 30% of the total Chinese GDP is from real estate investment in homes, apartments, offices. That’s significant. The problem is that real estate, especially apartments in China, for more than two decades, appeared to be a guaranteed money maker for owners as well as builders and banks and above all, local government officials. Prices rose annually in the double digits, sometimes by 20%. Millions of middle-class Chinese bought not just one, but two or more apartments, using the second as investment for future retirement. China’s land is owned by the Communist Party, at the local level. It is leased long-term to construction firms who then borrow to build.
Here it gets murky. For CP local government officials, revenue from local real estate land leasing and their infrastructure projects is their major revenue source. Until now municipal property taxes are forbidden despite a huge pressure from local officials.
In the months of 2018 and 2019 China real estate prices peaked. Since then they have been in a prolonged decline. China has a unique and very abuse-prone real estate model. Typically a buyer must pre-pay the full purchase price when a developer has merely begun the construction. “Buy today as the price will be even more tomorrow” was the mantra. He takes a mortgage, usually from local banks, to do that. If the builder does not complete on time, the buyer must still pay their mortgage. Even if the developer goes bankrupt as is now happening, leaving abandoned unfinished housing behind. No other country uses that model. Typically in Western countries a small deposit on a home to reserve until completion is enough. The mortgage comes when the property is finished. Not in China.