How Sustainable are China's Copper, Cotton, Steel Imports? What About Chinese Purchases of Canadian and Australian Real Estate? Fresh Thinking on Balance of Payments

Inquiring minds as well as commodity bulls need to consider the likely economic impact of China's commodity imports and how sustainable those imports are.

For example, please consider China’s Cotton Reserves Enough to Meet Deficit for Six Years
Cotton stockpiles in China, the world’s biggest importer, are set to climb to about 9 million metric tons this season, enough to cover the country’s deficit for the next six years, according to Allenberg Cotton Co.

Inventories are rising as the government boosts purchases to support domestic prices and lift farmer incomes, Joe Nicosia, chief executive officer of world’s largest cotton trader, said at a conference in Hong Kong today. The country may buy 5 million tons for reserves this year, up from 3.2 million tons a year earlier, he said.

“As long as China maintains this regime to subsidize cotton farmers, the world will be prone to overproduction,” he said. “Can you imagine a world without China importing any cotton for six years? They hold all the cards.”
What About Copper?

A similar setup has developed in other commodities, especially copper. Please consider the FT Alphaville story China’s growing copper fetish

Commodity Imports and Balance of Payments

Michael Pettis at China Financial Markets has given considerable thought to the economic impacts (and distortions) of commodity speculation and writes via Email ...
When it comes to defining the balance of payments components I don’t think all commodity imports should be treated equally. Commodities that are imported for use or for working inventory should certainly show up in the current account, as they do. Commodities that are imported for speculative purposes or for stockpiles, however, should be included in the capital account, since they really are a form of external investment more than a form of domestic consumption.

This is how they would recorded, for example, if rather than import physical commodity for storage a local speculator purchased a commodity-linked note from abroad. There is no real economic distinction between the two transactions, but the former would be treated as a current account import while the latter would be treated, correctly, as a capital account export.

This matters because the numbers can be significant, and so heavily distort the balance of payments numbers. br />
Cotton stockpiles in China, the world’s biggest importer, are set to climb to about 9 million metric tons this season, enough to cover the country’s deficit for the next six years, according to Allenberg Cotton Co.

When you have stockpiled enough cotton to cover the next six years of imports, it seems to me, most of your stockpile represents a speculative bet on cotton prices. It should be treated no differently than any other speculative bet, and the fact that it warehoused domestically rather than off-shore is largely irrelevant.

It is not just cotton, of course, for which large speculative positions distort the balance of payments numbers. FT Alphaville quotes a Goldman report on copper.

This, of course, is an old story, and it is not hard to figure out what the consequences of this kind of thing are likely to be.

China Daily says Steel industry outlook worrisome

China's steel industry is a big cause for concern in the fourth quarter due to shrinking demand and heavy losses, according to an industry official. The fears were outlined by Huang Libin, an official from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, in an interview with China National Radio.

"The steel sector's performance has been bad since the beginning of the year," Huang said. "Their revenues are falling and demand remains weak." The entire steel sector is now operating at a loss and struggling with problems of oversupply and a broader economic slowdown, he said. MIIT data show that 45 percent of the country's steel companies suffered losses in the first nine months of 2012.

Clearly there has been too much stockpiling of a wide range of commodities, and just as I have warned for many years, Chinese stockpiling of commodities is a very dangerous balance sheet management given the positive relationship between Chinese growth and commodity prices. It was just a matter of time before a slowdown in Chinese growth would cause a collapse in commodity prices, saddling already-struggling Chinese producers with soaring inventory losses. This seems already to be happening, and of course there is a lot more to come.

Understanding the Balance of Payments

We are probably stuck with this very distorted way of recording commodity purchases in the balance of payments, and there is not much we can do to change it. It does suggest however that rather than accept the commonly accepted definitions of the balance of payments – or of other things, like GDP, and whether housing must be classified as consumption or as investment – as if they were fundamentally meaningful, we should constantly remind ourselves why exactly we need the information and then adjust the numbers accordingly.

In the case of China, this means that to the extent there has been an increase in commodity imports held for speculative or investment purposes, we should reduce imports and increase the current account surplus correspondingly, in our private calculations. We should also increase our estimates of capital account exports.

One way to think of it is that in the past China shifted out of whatever foreign assets Chinese owned abroad (or borrowed privately) into US and European government bonds. Now China is shifting out of US and European government bonds into whatever assets wealthy Chinese are acquiring abroad as they flee the country. The numbers are pretty big, especially if the current account surplus is understated, which it almost certainly is, and so the effect of these various shifts should show up in relative pricing.

What are Chinese currently buying? They are buying homes and real estate in a number of countries, especially Australia, Canada, the United States, and, to the extent that they can get around newly imposed restrictions, Singapore and Hong Kong. They are also buying commodities and commodity-related companies. They seem also to buying a lot of unrelated businesses in places like Australia, which is good for Australian asset prices but perhaps bad for Australian manufacturers.

This has at least one implication. Real estate and commodity prices have been dropping, but this has come in spite of a massive program by Chinese effectively to swap out of US and European government bonds and into commodities and real estate. Where would prices have been absent this Chinese swap? Probably much lower, right?

So what will happen next? The demand for real estate may or may not abate at some point in the future, given the size of Chinese demand to hold assets in a safe place – a demand which is not likely to drop with slower Chinese growth but rather to speed up. The demand for commodities, however, will certainly do so once Chinese long positions, combined with much slower growth, make them excessive.

This can’t be positive for commodity prices. My point more generally is that growth in China is likely to be negatively correlated with Chinese demand for foreign real estate and positively correlated with Chinese demand for commodities. It will also affect other things for which China has effectively been swapping US and European government bonds, after many years of doing the opposite.

You can accelerate investment forever

It is, to me, astonishing that China in just five years is “replicating the entire US commercial banking sector”, and yet so many analysts are expressing delight with China’s return to growth. Of course you can generate growth if you force such a tremendous expansion in credit, but this is simply unsustainable.

I know I’ve said this many times, and I apologize for boring regular readers, but while I expected that politics would require a jump in growth over the rest of this year and the beginning of the next, this “good growth” tells us nothing about the health of the underlying economy. It only tells us how difficult politically the transition is likely to be.

My guess is that the more difficult the consolidation of power, the longer the period of above 7% growth – which is perhaps another way of saying that the happier the sell-side analysts are, the more worried long-term investors should be.
I Side With Pettis

Michael Pettis is in a debate with the Economist on the future of Chinese growth as noted previously in The Dating Game: Michael Pettis Challenges The Economist to a Bet on China.

Just this month there has been further discussion and debate in the Wall Street Journal.

I know clear economic thinking when I see it, and Pettis is thinking clearly.

What About Canadian and Australian Real Estate?

Pettis states "The demand for real estate may or may not abate at some point in the future, given the size of Chinese demand to hold assets in a safe place – a demand which is not likely to drop with slower Chinese growth but rather to speed up."

Demand to get money out of China will likely speed up. However, and in a rare (albeit slight) disagreement with Pettis, I suggest demand for real estate is likely to plunge once real estate investment is no longer considered a safe haven.

Property bulls in Australia and Canada will not know what hit them once that "safe haven" status disappears (and it will). When it does, Chinese demand will go down the drain as well, further depressing the markets.

Actually, Australia is already burnt toast and Canada's turn is coming.

Ghost Malls, Ghost Cities, Infrastructure Malinvestment

China is home to the world's largest shopping mall and it sits empty. For a discussion and video, please see How Will China Handle The Yuan?

Also recall that China is home to numerous vacant cities. For a discussion, please see World's Biggest Property Bubble: China's Ghost Cities Revisited; 64 Million Vacant Properties

The Video of Ghost Cities is a must see eye-opener for those overly bullish on China.

In effect China already has accelerated investment forever forward, so much so that it's no longer even investment but rather massive speculation, a point Pettis makes easily in his latest email.


I was laughing when I read the following paragraph from Pettis "I apologize for boring regular readers, but while I expected that politics would require a jump in growth over the rest of this year and the beginning of the next, this “good growth” tells us nothing about the health of the underlying economy. It only tells us how difficult politically the transition is likely to be."

I can offer the same apology for harping about GDP.

As I have pointed out before, GDP is an essentially useless measure. For example, government spending, by definition, adds to GDP. If the government paid people to spit at the moon, it would add to GDP.

Here's a more practical example: If the government gives out a union contract to repair a bridge for $10 billion, GDP will rise by the exact same amount as if it fixed 200 bridges using non-union labor for the same amount.

Is dropping bombs in Iraq or Afghanistan productive? I suggest it has negative benefit because of the enemies it makes and the economic distortions it causes.

In regards to government spending, the bigger the waste, the higher the GDP.

Everyone is worried GDP will drop. Given unsustainable government spending and Massive Misdiagnosis of the Fiscal Cliff, the worry should be that GDP doesn't drop.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock

"Wine Country" Economic Conference Hosted By Mish
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