China's Recovery: Is it for Real?

08/11/2009 6:40 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

The country's economy seems to have quickly responded to government stimulus— much more quickly than the US economy has—but appearances can deceive.

Any first-year accounting student knows that the easiest way to make a company's revenue and earnings look good is to change when a company recognizes a sale or an expense.

Recognize a sale as soon as the salesperson puts down the phone, and revenue goes up. Recognize a sale only when the money is in hand, or, even more conservatively, spread it out over the life of a contract, and revenue goes down.

China knows this, too. And, according to John Makin of the American Enterprise Institute, the country's official economic figures—we're talking the Chinese government's numbers here and not those reported by individual companies—systematically overstate the speed of the country's economic recovery.

In an August article entitled "China: Bogus boom?" Makin explains that China's system is designed to report production and not, as in US statistics, expenditure growth, which is the sum of consumption, investment, government spending, and net exports.

That's why China's November stimulus package has already got the Chinese economy humming at a growth rate close to 8%, according to the official numbers, even as Washington's package is still finding its way into the economy.

Here's how China's numbers machine works, according to Makin:Beijing decides on a $586 billion stimulus package in November. That money gets recorded as growth in gross domestic product as soon as it's disbursed. None of this waiting around for the money to stimulate economic activity before anything gets recorded as GDP. Nope, the money is counted as spent by state-owned companies and local governments in national economic statistics as soon as the check leaves the building. None of this messy lag, for example, while local governments identify projects, send out requests for bids, sort through bids, award the contracts, and then wait for contractors to get to work.

Selling (or at Least Counting) Fast

But the system doesn't stop there. As soon as something is produced, it goes into the national numbers in such categories as retail sales. Make it, ship it, and it's a sale. As Makin writes, "Shipments to retailers are counted as retail sales on the apparent assumption that ultimately all goods shipped will be sold at some point in the future."

China's retail sales numbers have climbed about 15% in the first half of 2009 from the first half of 2008. How much of that actually went home with customers and how much is still sitting on shelves or in storerooms is anyone's guess.

I wouldn't argue that US-style national accounting is perfect or even superior to the Chinese system. (See General Electric's recent settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over charges that the company fudged its accounting to make quarterly earnings numbers.) A hurricane that destroys New Orleans, requiring massive rebuilding, counts as a boost to GDP in the US system, for example, because it increases economic activity. (Of course, it decreases national wealth, but GDP measures activity, not wealth.)

But investors get into trouble when they assume that China keeps score like the US does.

For example, investors have bid up the price of commodities and commodity stocks in the belief that China is buying more iron, coal, copper—you name it—to fuel its manufacturing sector. A few economists have wondered whether the commodities bought on global markets are actually being consumed in China. They worry that much of it is going into stockpiles. If these commodities are going into products, they ask, shouldn't we be seeing a bigger increase in Chinese exports? Instead, Chinese exports are still declining, dropping 20% in the first half of 2009.

Why the Answer Matters

To which other economists and the great bulk of investors reply: Don't worry. Look at the numbers for internal consumption in China. Remember that retail sales have climbed by 15% recently. That's enough to soak up all those commodities.

In the short run, of course, it doesn't make any difference whether those domestic numbers include products made that haven't been sold to customers. A stove rusting in a warehouse and one carted out the door by a customer use up the same amount of raw materials.

But in the long run, it does matter. China watchers report anecdotal evidence of peasants "buying" washing machines and other appliances—often because the government is supplying enough cash to make these free to purchasers—even if they don't have running water or electricity in their homes. Unless you assume that the Chinese government has an unending ability to pour cash down a rathole—and even China's government isn't that rich—then at some point, all those "sold" goods still in the market clog the economy.

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How true are these anecdotal stories? How many billions in "sales" do they represent? No one knows. And the government numbers are constructed so that we can't know.

A Case in Point

Before you dismiss those anecdotes as just more China bashing, consider this example: We do know that the Beijing government has set ambitious goals for domestic wind energy. It has provided billions in funding and written strict goals into law.

But look at exactly what those mandates require. By the end of next year, renewable energy, excluding hydroelectric power, is supposed to account for 3% of generating capacity at Chinese utilities.

That's generating capacity, mind you. Not actual power generated. So the Chinese government has given its utilities incentives to buy the cheapest renewable energy equipment possible, even if it breaks down frequently, so they can up their generating capacity from renewable sources. And because it's capacity that counts toward meeting the government's goals, it doesn't matter whether the equipment actually works.

By the end of the year, Chinese wind turbine companies, some of which have never built a turbine before this year, will have 75% of the domestic market. Four years ago, foreign companies owned 75% of the market.

And looking at that, you're completely justified in asking whether the goal of Chinese policy was to increase supplies of electricity from wind power or to create a domestic wind turbine industry.

A Foundation, or Just a Facade?

In the same way, you're justified in asking whether the goal of Chinese economic policy is real, sustainable growth or the appearance of enough growth to keep the domestic peace—especially as the country approaches the 60th anniversary of the revolution that swept the Communists to power.

Investors don't need to answer or even be interested in those philosophical questions. But they do need to consider the possibility that China's huge acceleration in its growth rate is merely an artifact of the way the country keeps its books. And that the effects of China's stimulus will wear off the moment the government stops sending out the checks.

There is one thing that might tell us which view—sustainable growth versus accounting gimmick—is correct: If China's growth is real, investors can expect that the People's Bank, China's central bank, will start to slow growth in the money supply, growing at a mind-boggling 28.5% annual rate in June, before the economy, stock prices, and inflation get out of control. If, on the other hand, China's continued reported economic growth rests on Beijing keeping the money pump running because the real economy is still in a slump, then the People's Bank will rattle its sword, but do nothing.

More from Jim Jubak:

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Jim Jubak has been writing "Jubak's Journal" and tracking the performance of his market-beating Jubak's Picks portfolio since 1997 on MSN Money. He is the author of a new book, "The Jubak Picks," and he writes the Jubak Picks blog. He is also the senior markets editor at MoneyShow.com.

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