World Economy

China Will End Up Like Japan

China Will End Up Like JapanChina Will End Up Like Japan

Forecasts for China to surpass the US as the world’s main economic power are misplaced, so says an observer who foresaw Japan’s eventual demise a year before its land-price bubble began to burst.

“The vulnerabilities in China today are very similar to the vulnerabilities in Japan,” said Roy Smith, 76, who was a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner when he wrote a column saying Japan’s rise as a financial hegemon was done. “Nobody agrees with me. But they didn’t agree with me in 1990, so at least I have one right,” Bloomberg reported.

Among the risks: bad loans, overpriced stocks and a frothy property market are flashing danger for China’s economy and putting pressure on a fragile financial system – similar to conditions that triggered Japan’s fall, said Smith, a finance professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. A further parallel is the burden of an aging population, with mounting pension and health-care costs, he says.

While China probably will avoid prolonged Japan-style stagnation, a major crisis could expose weaknesses that aren’t apparent now, according to Smith.

“Most people today are talking about China displacing the United States as the great power of the 21st century,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “My view is that it is more likely to end up like Japan – that is, the status of a former would-be superpower that isn’t.”

  China’s Rise

China surpassed Japan as the world’s No. 2 economy by gross domestic product in 2010 after three decades of rapid growth, fueled by the largest urbanization in history. It is tipped by many forecasters eventually to overtake the US in output. By other measures, such as GDP per person, China is further behind the US.

On a per-capita basis, China’s GDP in 2013 was still just half of where Japan was in 1960, according to World Bank data. That leaves plenty of scope to catch up to rich-world peers, more optimistic observers say.

 “The key difference I see between China now and Japan in 1990 is that China is at a much lower stage of development,” said Louis Kuijs, chief China economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in Hong Kong, who previously worked at the World Bank.

Even so, China’s progress has confronted mounting challenges in recent years. In 2014, the economy expanded at the slowest full-year pace in almost a quarter century.

  Credit Concerns

The slowdown has thrown a spotlight on a mounting debt pile that includes souring loans to local government financing vehicles, or LGFVs, which funded a boom in construction. Doubts about the creditworthiness of LGFV debt deepened last year, when Premier Li Keqiang started to pare back implicit guarantees for the regional financing units.

China’s total debt pile, including borrowing by households, banks, governments and companies, ballooned to 282 percent of national output in mid-2014 from 121 percent in 2000, according to an estimate by the McKinsey Global Institute.

“The Chinese financial structure is very fragile because a lot of it is misreported and will reveal a great deal of weakness when it comes out,” said Smith, who specializes in international banking and finance at the Stern School. “I don’t know when it is going to come out, but when it does it is going to have consequences and take away a lot of the world’s confidence in the Chinese system.”

  Japan Call

“Japan’s extraordinary economic and financial success has carried the seeds of its own undoing, some of which have rooted and are now beginning to bloom,” Smith wrote at the time.

He isn’t counting on a paradigm shift out of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reflation program. Smith sees “some kind of twilight equilibrium” with economic stagnation and low inflation.