Posts tagged ‘Beijing’

Chinese Declaration of Independence

This is a story I don't know enough about

Farmers from 18 households in Xiaogang signed a secret life-and-death agreement ending collective farming with their thumbprints. (From Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principles: Macroeconomics)

The Great Leap Forward was a great leap backward – agricultural land was less productive in 1978 than it had been in 1949 when the communists took over.  In 1978, however, farmers in the village of Xiaogang held a secret meeting.  The farmers agreed to divide the communal land and assign it to individuals – each farmer had to produce a quota for the government but anything he or she produced in excess of the quota they would keep.  The agreement violated government policy and as a result the farmers also pledged that if any of them were to be killed or jailed the others would raise his or her children until the age of 18. [The actual agreement is shown at right.]

The change from collective property rights to something closer to private property rights had an immediate effect, investment, work effort and productivity increased.  “You can’t be lazy when you work for your family and yourself,” said one of the farmers.

Word of the secret agreement leaked out and local bureaucrats cut off Xiaogang from fertilizer, seeds and pesticides.  But amazingly, before Xiaogang could be stopped, farmers in other villages also began to abandon collective property. In Beijing, Mao Zedong was dead and a new set of rulers, seeing the productivity improvements, decided to let the experiment proceed.

China Spending Its Way Over a Cliff

Hayekians would argue that both the Japanese lost decade and the recent US housing crash were both caused by massive mis-allocations of capital driven by a variety of government interventions and corrupted price signals (particularly on interest rates).  This may be an early signal of a lulu of a bust coming to China, in an story on the high speed rail system in China

With the latest revelations, the shining new emblem of China’s modernization looks more like an example of many of the country’s interlinking problems: top-level corruption, concerns about construction quality and a lack of public input into the planning of large-scale projects.

Questions have also arisen about whether costs and public needs are too often overlooked as the leadership pursues grandiose projects, which some critics say are for vanity or to engender national pride but which are also seen as an effort to pump up growth through massive public works spending.

The Finance Ministry said last week that the Railways Ministry continued to lose money in the first quarter of this year. The ministry’s debt stands at $276 billion, almost all borrowed from Chinese banks.

“They’ve taken on a massive amount of debt to build it,” said Patrick Chovanec, who teaches at Tsinghua University. He said China accelerated construction of the high-speed rail network — including 295 sleek glass-and-marble train stations — as part of the country’s stimulus spending in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and a longtime critic of high-speed rail, said he worries that the cost of the project might have created a hidden debt bomb that threatens China’s banking system.

“In China, we will have a debt crisis — a high-speed rail debt crisis,” he said. “I think it is more serious than your subprime mortgage crisis. You can always leave a house or use it. The rail system is there. It’s a burden. You must operate the rail system, and when you operate it, the cost is very high.”

It should be noted that this is the system that has been lauded by folks from Thomas Friedman to Barack Obama as something we should emulate in the US.  By the way, this problem identified in China is in fact endemic to the US -- the cost overruns in every rail system.  In the US, this probably has less to do with outright individual corruption (i.e. the stealing of money for personal gain) but more common political corruption, in the form of purposefully underestimating costs to get public approval, knowing that when inevitable overruns appear, it will be too late to stop the project.

Part of the cost problem has been that each segment of the system has been far more expensive to build than initially estimated, which many trace directly to the alleged corruption being uncovered, including a flawed bidding process.

I wrote earlier on high speed rail as triumphalism rather than real investment here.  Why the US actually has the best rail network in the world is here (hint:  from an energy, pollution, and congestion standpoint, the best thing to put on rails is freight rather than passengers, and the US does that better than China or Europe, by far)

Bursting the Chinese Bubble

This is one of the more interesting things I have read this week, and confirms a hypothesis I have developed, which is that whenever the Left in this country begs that we emulate some fast growing government planned economy, we are probably looking at a bubble about to burst (e.g. the Left's desire to emulate Japan's MITI in the late 80's and their envy of China's authoritarian economic interventions today).

The Royal Bank of Scotland has advised clients to take out protection against the risk of a sovereign default by China as one of its top trade trades for 2011. This is a new twist.

It warns that the Communist Party will have to puncture the credit bubble before inflation reaches levels that threaten social stability. This in turn may open a can of worms.

"Many see China's monetary tightening as a pre-emptive tap on the brakes, a warning shot across the proverbial economic bows. We see it as a potentially more malevolent reactive day of reckoning," said Tim Ash, the bank's emerging markets chief.

At some level, the dynamic is not surprising and is one seen in every developing country -- early development is based on export markets taking advantage of low cost labor.  But as growth proceeds, demand for labor increases and bids up labor costs.  A transition has to occur from exporting low-cost merchandise to making a higher-value products and services for the domestic market.  Dislocations are nearly inevitable

On a recent visit to a chemical plant in Suzhou, I was told by the English manager that wage bonuses for staff will average nine months pay this year. This is what it costs to keep skilled workers. His own contract is fixed in sterling, which has crashed against the yuan over the last two years. "It is a sobering experience," he said.

China may have hit the "Lewis turning point", named after the Nobel economist Arthur Lewis from St Lucia. It is the moment for each catch-up economy when the supply of cheap labour from the countryside dries up, leading to a surge in industrial wages. That reserve army of 120m Chinese migrants everybody was so worried about four years ago has already dwindled to 25m.

This tends to be made worse in a heavily planned economy.  As any Austrian-schooler will tell you, government intervention in the economy and credit markets tend to distort investments, pushing investment capital from the most productive uses into less productive assets that are favored by the government distortions.  Thus the Japanese 80's and American 00's real estate bubbles.  And now the Chinese:

The froth is going into property. Experts argue heatedly over whether or not China has managed to outdo America's subprime bubble, or even match the Tokyo frenzy of late 1980s. The IMF straddles the two.

It concluded in a report last week that there was no nationwide bubble but that home prices in Shenzen, Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing seem "increasingly disconnected from fundamentals".

Prices are 22 times disposable income in Beijing, and 18 times in Shenzen, compared to eight in Tokyo. The US bubble peaked at 6.4 and has since dropped 4.7. The price-to-rent ratio in China's eastern cities has risen by over 200pc since 2004

Great Minds Think Alike

Coyote, November 10

But what is really happening here is that the dollar is being devalued.  This is one of the semantic quirks that make me laugh "” when Argentina or Zimbabwe do this, its called devaluation.  When a western nation does it, it is called quantitative easing.

Don Boudreaux today:

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, fresh from injecting hundreds of billions of new U.S. currency units into the economy "“ and from planning the injection of yet an additional 600 billion such units "“ criticizes the Chinese government for injecting hundreds of billions of new Chinese currency units into the economy ("Bernanke Takes Aim at China," Nov. 18).  Apparently, when Beijing increases the supply of Chinese currency it does so as part of what Prof. Bernanke ominously labels a "strategy of currency undervaluation," but when Uncle Sam does the same thing with U.S. currency units it's called "quantitative easing" and "a move in the right direction."

In A Recession, Obama Presses Chinese to Raise Prices to the Poor and Middle Class

Consider this story in the context of my previous post on the poor having a lower inflation rate due  in part of the effects of Wal-Mart and Chinese -made goods:

President Obama increased pressure on China to immediately revalue its currency on Thursday, devoting most of a two-hour meeting with China's prime minister to the issue and sending the message, according to one of his top aides, that if "the Chinese don't take actions, we have other means of protecting U.S. interests."...

The unusual focus on this single issue at such a high level was clearly an effort by the White House to make the case that Mr. Obama was putting American jobs and competitiveness at the top of the agenda in a relationship that has endured strains in recent weeks on everything from territorial disputes to sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

Democrats in Congress are threatening to pass legislation before the midterm elections that would slap huge tariffs on Chinese goods to undermine the advantages Beijing has enjoyed from a currency, the renminbi, that experts say is artificially weakened by 20 to 25 percent.

Somehow this was written with words like "competitiveness" and "artificially weakened" to hide the fact that what we are talking about is raising prices to American consumers (by as much as 20-25%, one infers from the last paragraph).  Not only would this make Chinese goods more expensive, but it would reduce the downward price pressure on goods made elsewhere.

Which of course is the whole point, because this is a narrow special interest issue putting a few vocal industries interests over those of the broader group of American consumers.  How many of us are consumers?  How many of us work for service and manufacturing and retail businesses that buy Chinese goods?   Now, how many of us work for a product business that competes directly with Chinese manufacturers?  The first two groups dwarf the second, but Obama is just as beholden to these interests as was Bush.

The Timeless Appeal of Triumphalism

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects?  Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.  First it was Thomas Friedman, and now its Joel Epstein in the Huffpo, eulogizing China.    These are the same folks who tried, disastrously, to emulate Mussolini's "forward-thinking" economic regime in the National Industrial Recovery Act.    These are the same folks who wanted to emulate MITI's management of the Japanese economy (which drove them right into a 20-year recession).  These are the same folks who oohed and ahhed over the multi-billion dollar Beijing Olympics venues while ignoring the air that was unbreathable.  These are the same folks who actually believed the one Cuban health clinic in Sicko actually represented the standard of care received by average citizens.  To outsiders, the costs of these triumphal programs are often not visible, at least not until years or decades later when the rubes have moved on to new man crushes.

Epstein, like Friedman, seems to think that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds much more stuff.  We are "asleep."  Well, I have a big clue for him.  Most of the great progress in this country was built when the government was asleep.  The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry  -  all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

Epstein in particular thinks we need to build more trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that Epstein in fact does not have the dictatorial powers he longs for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China's, 1/8 of Germany's).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe is not even close.

modalsplieuusjapan (source)

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail -- not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes.   Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars.  Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make an energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.  I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel -- especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real efficiency comes from moving freight.  More of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves.  Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail.    One reasons for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy.  Its not a government function in the US.  So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from and energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails.  In fact, the US would actually probably have even a higher rail modal percentage if the US government had not enforced a regulatory regime (until the Staggers Act) that favored trucks over rail.   If the government really had been asleep the last century, we would be further along.

The US has not been "asleep"  -- at least the private individuals who drive progress have not.  We have had huge revolutions in transportation over the last decades during the same period that European nations were sinking billions of dollars into pretty high-speed passenger rails systems for wealthy business travelers.   One such revolution has been containerization, invented here in the US and quickly spreading around the world.  Containerization has revolutionized shipping, speeding schedules and reducing costs (and all the while every improvement step was fought by the US and certain local governments).  To the extent American businesses are not investing today, it has more to do with regime uncertainty, not knowing what new taxes or restrictions are coming next from Congress, than any lack of vision.

I would argue that the US has the world's largest commitment to rail where it really matters.  But that is what private actors do, make investments that actually make sense rather than just gain one prestige (anyone know the most recent company Warren Buffet has bought?)  The greens should be demanding that the world emulate us, rather than the other way around.  But the lure of shiny bullet trains and grand passenger concourses will always cause folks like Epstein to swoon.

Update #2: The author Joel Epstein emailed me a response to this post.  I will give it to you in its entirety:  "You should get out of the country more often."  Wow, he played the provincial American card on me.  Except that I have been to about 20 countries, from Singapore to Argentina to Hungary.  Besides, I really don't understand what the hell he means by this in the context of my post, except as a bid for some sort of intellectual superiority.   Anyone else understand?

Postscript

Boring, but environmentally friendly and cost-effective:

10.9.2004-04

Sexy, but environmentally useless (at best) and tremendously costly:

high-speed-rail21

So, explain to me what drives these guys investment thinking.  Can it be anything but triumphalism?

Update: Energy use comparison of passenger modes. Note how close rail transit and cars, both at average occupancies, are in this analysis.  The differences in freight are much larger:

transenergy

Sucking the Life Out of the Environmental Movement

One of the points I make in my climate lectures - global warming panic has sucked the life out of environmental concerns that matter.  Illustration - US sewage plants still making massive untreated dumps.

I know this might sound retro to some readers. But we need to finish what the early 1970s environmental pollution control laws set out to do: clean up all the sources of air and water pollution. The environmental movement has run out of steam and gotten distracted. Get back to the basics.

Agreed.  Another point I often make - we don't know how to keep growing China without creating CO2, but we do know how to grow China without making the air in cities like Beijing breathable.  Instead of talking to them about CO2 capture, what about air pollution 101 type things like ash bags and exhaust scrubbing?

And while I am on the topic, do we have to keep destroying the Amazon just to clear land to grow more plants for ethanol that in the end does nothing to abate CO2 emissions?

Peoples Republic of Hawaii

Well, our most socialist state is attempting to repeal the laws of supply and demand:

Hawaii issued a list of wholesale price caps for gasoline, the
state Public Utilities Commission said, amid this month's
record-breaking run up in retail gas that saw island residents paying
some of the highest prices in the nation.

This marks the first state cap on gasoline prices since the 1970s
energy crisis, when the average inflation-adjusted price of a gallon of
regular unleaded hit $3.

Hawaii's recently enacted gas cap law goes into effect on September 1, with the pre-tax wholesale cap in Honolulu set at $2.1578

Gee, I bet this will work out really well.  Either the price cap will be set high, such that it is meaningless, or it will be set low, such that Hawaii will likely get this:

China_gas2
update:  given the structure of the price caps, the result could actually be higher rather than lower prices at the pump -- see update #2 below.

It's good to know that Hawaii is looking to China for economics ideas.

The Chinese government and its state-owned oil companies are locked
in battle over artificially low gasoline prices at the pump that has
caused a massive shortage in the southern manufacturing province of
Guangdong....

The crisis
highlights the persistent problems Beijing faces as the economy is
transformed to a more market-based system but that is often retarded by
authorities who fear loosing political control in the face of
full-fledged capitalist rules.

Beyond the obvious run-up in world-wide oil prices and Hawaii's logistical isolation that raises all of the prices on the island, the article on CNN identified one other possible culprit for high prices: the state government

Higher-than-average taxes on gasoline in Hawaii contribute to those
high prices. The state levies a 16 cent per gallon tax, and various
local authorities add on other taxes.

In Honolulu, for example, total state, federal and local gas taxes
amount to about 53 cents per gallon, one of the highest rates in the
United States. The national average, according to the American
Petroleum Institute, is about 42 cents per gallon

It seems like only a few days ago I was pointing how governments have a hard time resisting meddling in oil markets, and that this meddling never works out well.

Even in the US, which is typically more comfortable with the operation
of the laws of supply and demand than other nations, the government has
been loathe to actually allow these laws to operate on oil.  During the
70's, the government maintained price controls that limited demand side
incentives to conserve, thus creating gas lines like the ones we are
seeing in China today for the same reason.  When these controls were
finally removed, a "windfall profits tax" was put in place to make sure
that producers would get none of the benefit of the price increases,
and therefore would have no financial incentive to seek out new oil
supplies or substitutes.  Within a few years of the repeal of these
dumb laws, oil prices fell back to historical levels and stayed there
for 20 years.

Like the gas rationing and price controls in the 1970's, this occurs in a Republican administration (Hawaiian Governor Lingle).  It continue to be difficult to take the Republican Party's professed support for free markets seriously.

Hawaii's Star Bulletin reported that Governor Linda
Lingle (R) is an opponent of the caps. The newspaper said Lingle
believes it would be better to force oil companies to open their books
and show consumers how much money they make at each stage of business.

If she is so opposed to it, why didn't she veto the bill?  And is having government officials marching into private offices to confiscate accounting data really her preferred "free market" alternative?

Update:  Apparently the cap in Hawaii was passed pre-Lingle, and she fought to reverse it, so I will cut her some slack. Lynne Kiesling has more details on the plan, which includes how the cap will be calculated week to week.  Politicians there are calling it a "market-based price cap".  LOL.  Next we will see freedom-based speech limitations and privacy-based telephone taps.  Note that how the cap is calculated does not change the statement I made before:  Either the price cap will be set high, such that it is meaningless, or
it will be set low, such that Hawaii gets gas lines.

PS- Lynn is the economic goddess of energy markets, so if energy and power markets and regulation interest you, I recommend her blog.

Update #2:  Jane Galt makes the good point that the Hawaiian price caps are on wholesale gasoline prices, so while there may be gas shortages at the wholesale level, retail prices may be able to float higher to close the supply gap.  This would ironically lead to higher, not lower prices at the pump, and large profits for gasoline retailers.  Since wholesale sources of gas tend to be out-of-state corporations, and gasoline retailers tend to be smaller, locally owned businesses, I wonder if this is a case of rent-seeking by gas station owners.

China and California Following Similar Energy Policies

A couple of years ago, California suffered through a summer of electricity blackouts while the state and  state-protected power monopolies nearly bankrupted themselves.  While California politicians have tried to cover their behinds by blaming Enron for the problems, the real mistake that led to the debacle was allowing the wholesale price of electricity to float higher, while the retail price remained low and fixed.  As a result, as wholesale prices skyrocketed, the State and the power monopolies had to buy high and sell low, causing massive financial losses.  At the same time, consumers saw no change in prices, so they had no incentive to change their behavior and cut back on usage, which they would have done if retail electricity prices had been allowed to rise with the market.

Via Instapundit and Gateway Pundit, comes this article about gas shortages in China and the ensuing lines at retail gas stations, that look worse than anything we suffered through in this country.  The article makes fairly clear what is going on:

The Chinese government and its state-owned oil companies are locked
in battle over artificially low gasoline prices at the pump that has
caused a massive shortage in the southern manufacturing province of
Guangdong.

For weeks skyrocketing global oil prices and rising
demand has led to a fuel-supply crunch as domestic refineries have been
caught short in Guangdong.

Some fear it is only a matter of time before gas-guzzling cities such as Shanghai are hit too.

The
government has blamed recent stormy weather for the shortfall, which is
feasible but not enough to result in the kilometre long queues at
filling stations that drivers in Guangdong have endured for nearly a
month.

As oil prices climbed, a standoff erupted between China's
National Development Reform Commission (NDRC) -- a key economic policy
planning body -- and the country's two largest state oil groups
PetroChina and Sinopec, analysts said Wednesday.

The crisis
highlights the persistent problems Beijing faces as the economy is
transformed to a more market-based system but that is often retarded by
authorities who fear loosing political control in the face of
full-fledged capitalist rules.

I blame Enron.  Anyway, I wrote about gas line and what caused them in the US here.  Some genius also attempted the same policy as China is pursuing in post-war Iraq, with similar results.