26 April 2013 10:11 [Source: ICB]
Perhaps the only surprise about the announcement that China's Q1 2013 GDP growth was a relatively subdued 7.7%, should have been that most economists were surprised.
China's new president, Xi Jinping, and its new prime minister, Li Keqiang, have given plenty of indications that the economy will be rebalanced at rapid speed. The focus is on the quality rather than the quantity of growth, which was made clear during last month's National People's Congress, China's annual parliamentary meeting. An improved quality of growth means less expenditure on new industrial capacity and infrastructure.
For many years, capital investment has been the easy way for provincial governments to hit GDP targets. This has led to overcapacity in many industries. For instance, Chen Letian, an economist at Rising Securities in Beijing, estimated that the average factory capacity utilisation rate in China was just 57% in 2012. Overcapacity is a problem across several petrochemicals. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is one of the most prominent examples. Operating rates were just 55% in 2012, according to ICIS. Methanol, too, is affected by oversupply, with butadiene facing a surge in capacity during 2012, which could leave the market very long.
China is also anecdotally littered with bridges and roads to nowhere, barely used public buildings and underutilised regional airports.
When the economic multiplier effect of investing in new buildings has run out, one approach of local governments has been to blow up perfectly public facilities, such as exhibition centres, so construction work can resume.
Blowing up perfectly good public buildings has, of course, come at a huge environmental cost, as has building an excessive number of factories. Margins are obviously squeezed because many industries are so heavily oversupplied. This has led to high emissions levels and the use of cheap, highly polluting technologies, in an effort to reduce costs.
China's new leaders, in frequent public statements, have recognised the need to better protect the environment. For instance, Li, in his first speech as prime minister, said on 17 March that the news media and the public should hold him accountable should the government fail to clean up China's contaminated water and food supply.
"Poverty and backwardness in the midst of clear waters and verdant mountains is no good," he said, "nor is it [good] to have prosperity and wealth while the environment deteriorates."
Highly polluting chemicals plants are thus being shut down, according to an Indian aromatics trader who recently visited China.
Regulations making it tougher to buy new autos continue to be introduced. Guangzhou became the fourth city in China to place a cap on auto sales because of worsening pollution.
And, obviously, with so many industries blighted by overcapacity, China can ill afford to add yet more output, for economic, as well as environmental, reasons.
One theory is that because lending in China jumped by 58% in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2012, GDP growth will be a lot stronger in the second half of 2013.
But government officials and financial analysts have warned that the out-of-control credit growth in the first quarter was largely used to refinance existing debt and further inflate the property bubble.
And the surge in credit, and with it bad debts, threatens a financial sector crisis that could put US sub-prime in the shade.
Fitch Ratings, in response to this growing risk, cut China's sovereign credit rate from AA- to A+ on 9 April. This was the first time that an international ratings agency had cut China's sovereign rating since 1999.
"Credit has grown significantly faster than GDP since 2009. China experienced the second fastest expansion of credit in real terms, behind only Qatar, between end-2009 and end-June 2012," wrote Fitch when it made its announcement.
The ratings agency believes total credit in the economy, including various forms of shadow banking activity, may have reached 198% of GDP at end-2012, up from 125% at end-2008.
Hence, much tougher measures to rein in credit growth and reduce property prices seem likely.
The "shock" Q1 GDP number, along with the release of disappointing US employment, retail sales and consumer confidence data, led to a sharp correction in oil prices and equity markets.
But in chemicals markets in China, evidence of a faltering real economy has been evident for several months.
The big question is: how much more will China's GDP growth decline while economic rebalancing takes place?
"More than ever I am convinced that if China is to rebalance its economy towards a more sustainable growth mode - and rebalance it must if it is to avoid a financial crisis - its GDP growth rate will drop sharply," wrote Michael Pettis in an 11 April post on his blog, China Financial Markets.
China's average annual growth would be unlikely to exceed 3-4% over the next decade, said Pettis, who is a finance professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management.
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