The township of Huaxi in the Yangtze River Delta is a proud symbol of how Chinese communists embraced capitalism to lift 300 million people out of poverty during the past three decades.
Its leaders took a farm community with bamboo huts and ox carts in the 1970s and transformed it into an industrial and commercial powerhouse where today many of its 30,000 residents live in mansions and most have a car. Per-capita income of 80,000 yuan ($11,700) — almost four times the national average — allows Huaxi to claim it’s China’s richest village.
Huaxi is also emblematic of the country’s construction and real estate boom. Communist Party officials there are building one of the world’s 30 tallest buildings, a 2.5 billion yuan, 328-meter (1,076-foot) tower. The revolving restaurant atop the so-called New Village in the Sky offers sweeping views of paddy fields, fish ponds and orchards, Bloomberg Markets reports in its April issue.
Marc Faber, publisher of the Gloom, Boom & Doom Report, says China is overdoing it. “It does not make sense for China to build more empty buildings and add to capacities in industries where you already have overcapacity,” Faber told Bloomberg Television on Feb. 11. “I think the Chinese economy will decelerate very substantially in 2010 and could even crash.”
Huaxi has an even more ambitious project coming up: a 6 billion yuan, 538-meter skyscraper that would today rank as the world’s second tallest. The only loftier building is the new Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Dubai Times a Thousand
Such undertakings figured in warnings hedge fund manager Jim Chanos delivered in January that China is Dubai times a thousand. The costs of wasteful investments in empty offices and shopping malls and in underutilized infrastructure will weigh on China, Chanos, president of New York-based Kynikos Associates Ltd., said in a speech at the London School of Economics. “We may find that that’s what pops the Chinese bubble sooner rather than later.”
China has defied the global recession of the past two years and remained the fastest-growing major economy. Gross domestic product soared 10.7 percent in the fourth quarter. The government has provided 4 trillion yuan in stimulus spending and encouraged banks to lend a record 9.59 trillion yuan last year, trying to bridge the gap until demand for exports rebounds or domestic consumption takes off.
Risk for Commodities
Last month, banks lent a further 1.39 trillion yuan — almost one-fifth of the target amount for the whole of 2010. Also in January, foreign direct investment climbed 7.8 percent to $8.13 billion. Retail sales during last week’s Lunar New Year holiday rose 17.2 percent from the same period in 2009, according to the Ministry of Commerce.
While China’s resilience has helped support the world economy, raising demand for energy and raw materials, the bursting of a bubble would have the opposite effect. Government efforts to wean the economy off its extraordinary support may roil markets.
In January, the central government ordered banks to curb lending, which put China’s stock market into reverse. In a sign, in part, of how dependent the world has become on China, stocks and currencies slumped in places such as Australia and Brazil that supply commodities to the People’s Republic. On Feb. 12, the eve of the one-week Lunar New Year holiday, China for the second time in a month ordered banks to set aside more deposits as reserves. The Shanghai Composite Index has fallen 8 percent year-to-date, after gaining 80 percent in 2009.
Bidding Up Prices
“If the Chinese economy decelerates or crashes, what you have is a disastrous environment for industrial commodities,” said Faber, who oversees $300 million at Hong Kong-based Marc Faber Ltd.
The stimulus tap that Beijing turned on has flowed to projects such as its 2 trillion yuan high-speed-rail network. The 221 billion yuan Beijing-Shanghai line has surpassed the Three Gorges Dam as the single most expensive engineering project in Chinese history.
Some beneficiaries of the government efforts have plowed their loans into real estate and stocks. Property prices across 70 cities jumped 9.5 percent in January from a year earlier, according to government data.
Bridge of Strength
Instead of concentrating on their core businesses, giant state-owned enterprises, or SOEs, have bet on real estate, according to Zhang Xin, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analyst who’s chief executive officer of Soho China Ltd., the biggest property developer in Beijing’s central business district. “All the SOEs are bidding the prices up to the sky,” Zhang told China International Business, a magazine backed by China’s Ministry of Commerce, in December. That’s despite office vacancies in China’s capital being at record highs, according to Boston-based commercial real estate company Colliers International.
Chanos, a short-seller who was early to warn about Enron Corp., is one of a growing number of investors sounding the alarm. “Right now, the Chinese market is overheating,” George Soros said in a Jan. 28 interview.
Local-government officials have wasted stimulus funds by replacing infrastructure that was fine in the first place. State media complained in May 2009 that party chiefs in Jianyang, Sichuan province, decided to help boost the local economy by rebuilding a bridge that was in such good condition it had emerged unscathed a year earlier from the earthquake that killed 70,000 people. The so-called Bridge of Strength withstood a demolition crew that tried to blast it to pieces with dynamite, the official China Daily reported.
Real Estate or Soybeans?
Another example Chanos has cited is the city of Ordos, where party officials have built an entire new downtown on the windswept grasslands of Inner Mongolia, 25 kilometers (15 miles) outside the existing municipality of 1.5 million people.
Mark Mobius, meanwhile, is sticking with China. The executive chairman of Templeton Asset Management is encouraged that the government is pulling back some of its extraordinary economic support. “We see the government’s tightening of lending as a positive because it moderates the risk to some degree,” says Mobius, who oversees $34 billion. “This is a correction in an ongoing bull market.”
Chris Ruffle, who helps manage $19 billion for Edinburgh- based Martin Currie Ltd., also remains confident China will avoid a bust. “It’s not a highly leveraged situation,” says Ruffle, who works in Shanghai. “I was in Japan in the 1980s, and that was a bubble. Here in China, we are nowhere near that.”
Still, even Mobius says investors have to be wary. He got rid of an investment in a Chinese food company after discovering that it was using funds to buy apartments instead of to process soybeans.