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Backing off the Resource Boom

March 13, 2012

There are some troubling indicators on the resource front that could dramatically impact the plans of Western Canadian businesses. Let’s face it the Western resource economy is one of the ‘feel good’ stories in the Canadian economy, so a decline in its growth potential would not be welcome.

Recently, of course, the news has been fairly positive. Apart from declining contract prices for hard coking coal, metal (in particular) and oil prices have been buoyed by massive swings in the indexed commodity funds which have recently shifted back into long positions, based on improving jobs numbers in the U.S., rebounding auto sales and other ‘positive’ news like the Iranian situation (which may result in the closing of the Straits of Hormuz) which could dramatically hike oil prices.

Realistically though, these indicators are not the most significant indicator; that distinction still belongs to China and its continued growth potential.

The Chinese government recently cut growth forecasts to 7.5%, on worries over its over-built property and export manufacturing sectors.  These two sectors are highly leveraged but receive the bulk of foreign direct investment in China. The rest of the economy is bank financed and struggling. This is where the problems in China are really starting to get ugly.

China’s growth strategy has always been heavily debt focused. In the early days of the China miracle, the immaturity of its capital markets left China with few financing options. The model that emerged was unconventional, but very effective. Government controlled banks would lend to businesses up and down the economy; they did so without conventional restraints and with few hard-nosed business metrics. As a result many of these loans ended up under-performing or non-performing (NPL’s). Once a decade or so, the Chinese government would acknowledge the problem and clean these NPLs off the bank balance sheets,  often writing them off. This process essentially reset the Chinese banking clock once a decade.

According to Michel Pettis the debt problems are emerging once again, only this time the scale of the problem is much greater than in the past:  “China has instructed its banks to embark on a mammoth roll-over of loans to local governments. Unfortunately, to date these local government have already accumulated over Rmb10.7tn ($1.7tn) in debts – about a quarter of the country’s output – and more than half those loans are scheduled to come due over the next three years.”

This largely hidden ‘China Problem’ is a function of the rapid growth of un-repayable debts. The Chinese government, for a variety of political reasons, is not inclined to force asset sales. So, although there are no principal payments on these loans, the carrying costs alone will impact China’s growth model, which will clearly be handicapped. Michel Pettis sees debt burdened China growth slowing towards 5-6% annual growth over the next year or so, and longer term settling into the 3% region there after. Not bad, but not sufficient to drive marginal demand for commodities as it has in the past.

The impact on oil and other commodity prices will likely be dramatic, metal prices could fall sharply. None of this is going to happen over night, but over the next few years the sovereign debt crisis could cripple western economies. Optimists who expect China growth to offset this declining demand could be in for a surprise.

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