Is China Just Postponing the Inevitable?

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There is no question that China has rebounded from the export-driven shock in the fourth quarter of 2008. The Chinese stock market is up 85% for 2009 on the heels of government-mandated lending boom that has poured $1 trillion into the Chinese economy. So far, so good.

As I have opined before, however, government-mandated lending is not very productive and does not allow for the efficient allocation of resources. This lending boom is happening as the Chinese economy sports capacity utilization rates of below 80% in the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009, down from over 90% just a year earlier. The bulk of the stimulus has thus far gone to infrastructure projects and state-owned enterprise (SOE) capital spending, with companies like China Mobile (NYSE: CHL  ) and Petrochina (NYSE: PTR  ) likely to benefit from stimulus money.

But until private sector investment starts to pick up and take over leadership from the SOEs, the Chinese economy won't find the most efficient uses for additional capital and will likely struggle with continuing overcapacity. So far, it doesn't look like the stimulus money has gone toward very productive uses.

Looking at the long-term picture
More importantly, Asia in general -- and China in particular -- has traditionally had an export-driven growth model. That doesn't work well when your export partners are all in deep recessions of their own.

In 2008, China's private consumption came in at about $1.6 trillion, roughly equal to that of the United Kingdom. However, that pales in comparison to the $10.1 trillion in private consumption in the U.S., and $7.6 trillion in the Eurozone. While those figures remain so lopsided, China will remain dependent on its export markets as a primary source of economic activity.

The key to long-term growth is to promote internal consumption within Asia. But the savings rate among Asian consumers is notoriously high, and any shift toward higher consumption will take years to accomplish. I doubt this can happen with government-mandated lending boom that promotes overcapacity in the Chinese economy. So even if the Chinese stock market runs higher from here, there's a real risk of an abrupt stop as stagnant or falling demand from the Western world puts a monkey wrench into China's growth story.

This is why when a bellwether like BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) says that restocking of commodities may have ended in China -- and given how much commodities and commodity stocks have already rallied -- investors need to pay attention. This calls into question whether stocks like Freeport McMoran (NYSE: FCX  ) and Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP  ) can continue to advance.

The same is true for oil and energy stocks. Some analysts are citing the largest oil glut in 30 years, yet the price has doubled since December. That's partially based on hopes that China -- along with the rest of the emerging-market world -- can keep growing without the West.

Until Chinese consumers start stepping up to the plate, though, the global consumption figures above suggest the contrary. As I see it, China isn't the best place for investors to put their money right now.

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Fool contributor Ivan Martchev does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2009, at 5:55 PM, arizonalawdawg wrote:

    While Chinese consumers may continue to be top savers, the Wall Street Journal and other experts project China's GDP to average 8% for the next 5 years, which beats the pants off the projections for Europe (2-3%) and U.S. I like the ETF FXI as the best diversified investment for China. It will easily beat any U.S. maket index fund going forward. . . .

  • Report this Comment On July 28, 2009, at 10:55 AM, GCCStelee wrote:

    If we understand what the Chinese have been exporting todate; relatively low value products - then there is less question of the recession heavily impacting this market. In fact, the recession drives many to source cheaper goods; the main obstacle towards this is protectionism and barriers errected to protect jobs at home.

    The Chinese are only starting to move up the value chain; targeting higher value products and now, services. The market size is also growing as the wealth starts to spread. There is still a very sizeable untapped market for their own and other products. They have much room to grow, unlike the developed/ OECD countries which are bumping against their growth ceiling.

    It takes much understanding of the Chinese economy, the way they are running their economy, their culture etc.. to truly understand what's going on. Unfortunately we have many analysts and investment advisors who claim expertise just looking at China from the outside....and consequently their comments have to be carefully weighed...

  • Report this Comment On July 28, 2009, at 4:27 PM, biz232 wrote:

    I bet Ivan Martchev speaks and reads Chinese; otherwise, how can Ivan provide such an in depth analysis for the Chinese consumer market. But this article is really giving us a feeling of an outsider trying very hard to look into the Chinese consumer market based on some macro numbers. I will tell you this ... one reason for the most recent surge of China Mobile stock price is that CHL may be listed in its domestic Chinese market in the near future.

  • Report this Comment On July 28, 2009, at 4:44 PM, ivanmartchev wrote:

    Regrettably, no Madarin skills here...

  • Report this Comment On July 28, 2009, at 7:53 PM, biz232 wrote:

    That's exactly my point: if one does not speak the language, I seriously doubt that person can become an effective financial analyst for that country.

    Let's say: China Mobile CEO talks to 3rd party content developers to open up its mobile market place to increase its 3G traffic. If an analyst does not read Chinese news, this analyst will not be able to report the event quickly and make any stock recommendations. (btw. this event happened.)

    Oh yeah, the Chinese news will eventually be translated into English days later.

    btw: it is "mandarin" not "Madarin."

  • Report this Comment On August 02, 2009, at 1:57 PM, ivanmartchev wrote:

    biz232, your superior spelling skills---and 20/20 vision---clearly show your intellectual superiority...

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