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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.
More Foolishness on China:
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