August 31, 2015
As we headed out on the Happy Hooker from Doolin, the second mate sidled up beside me and whispered, “Not to worry, but hold on, there’s going to be a bit of rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll is what he called it. The waves were enormous.
To keep my eyes from the wall of water crashing down, we nattered away – me nervously, yer man, chilled. While the islanders were unfazed, my group of Jackeen lads blanched at every swell.
The stoic locals told me that this year they’ve seen a surge in Chinese tourists. When they say a “surge”, they said they saw a good few busloads of Chinese tourists heading from Doolin to Aran for the first time ever.
Sitting outside An Teach Osta on Inishmaan is hardly the most obvious place from which to discuss events in China, but the odd thing about globalisation is that what was once remote becomes local and, in turn, what was local can be projected to the most remote parts of the world.
China matters to everyone.
This came home for me a few weeks back while making an upcoming documentary for RTE. While filming at a high-end luxury goods shop in London, the manager confided to me that close to 40 per cent of all the goods were sold in China.
The whole world is selling to China.
Take that in for a second.
We are so used to the expression “Made in China”, but we never use the expression “Sold to China”. This article is all about “Sold to China”.
Quite apart from being buyers of Irish tourism on remote Inishmaan, China is the world’s largest consumer of copper, steel, iron ore, cars, aluminum, mobile phones, nickel, rice, cigarettes, meat, Swiss watches, television, rubber, potash, energy, robots, beer, red wine, machine tools, dried milk, wheat, rare earths and coal, as well as many of the luxury goods that we associate with Europe and the US.
Because of China’s seemingly endless demand for everything, many companies – and entire countries – have built their business and economic strategies around selling to China.
As a result, since 2008 the global economic story has been not so much “Made in China” but “Bought by China”.
China’s story since 2008 is a bit like Ireland from 2000-2008. It is a story of easy money, easy lending and easy growth. Although I am no China expert, I fear China is hurtling towards recession.
The reverberations of the first great Chinese recession will be felt all over the world.
In 2008 when the world economy went into spasm, no country was more potentially exposed than China.
The reason for this is political. For the Communist Party to survive, it had to ensure no social tensions – the type of social tensions that come with recessions. The Chinese Politburo had seen what happened in the Soviet Union when the party lost control and the country went into a tailspin in 1990.
Beijing was determined not to make Moscow’s mistake. Therefore control of the economy was paramount.
Unlike most countries, China had money in 2008. While countries like Ireland needed other people’s money to survive, China had the cash. Having spent 20 years exporting to the world and building up massive foreign reserves, the Chinese government had money to spend. And they spent it.
After the global financial crisis, China pumped four trillion yuan ($586 billion in 2008 US dollars) into its economy to protect it from the global fallout.
The story of what happened next will be familiar to everyone in Ireland. The double-digit growth attracted foreign investment and as all this cash came in it drove up prices. Everything looked brilliant.
China has experienced the triumvirate that Ireland knows too well – (1) easy money, (2) easy lending leading to (3) easy growth.
The result tends to be too much investment, too much optimism and then too much extra borrowing. Again think of the dynamic in boomtime Ireland.
With everything going up and everything looking rosy, all sorts of investments looked attractive and the sky was the limit. Easy money begot yet more easy money. Chinese companies borrowed from “everywhere”; and “everywhere” was prepared to lend to Chinese companies. The whole world was beguiled by the “Made in China” idea.
This is when the whole world began to experience the “Sold to China” phenomenon.
Over the past few years, China’s borrowing has exploded. Today there is a huge $28 trillion of debt in China. This is the problem now. China is deeply in debt. Even though the debt is largely internal, it still has to be paid.
When the economy is growing at 8 per cent per annum, debts don’t matter so much, but when the economy slows quickly, debts become not only material, but hugely and horribly significant.
Now the process of too much debt, leading to bankruptcy, leading to more panic will take hold – as it did in Ireland. Good companies with too many debts will become bad companies with too much debt overnight. The money that flowed into China will flow out and the growth rate will fall. The problem for China is that after years of 7 per cent growth, a 4 per cent growth rate will feel like a recession.
We know in Ireland what happens to human nature when things suddenly turn for the worse. The Chinese are no different. Years of ridiculous optimism are followed by a bout of irrational pessimism. We are seeing this now in the Chinese stock market with greed rapidly giving way to fear. This torpor will spread to the real economy too – as it did in Ireland.
China is entering a recession not unlike that which afflicted Ireland and the US in 2008. This slump could well cripple China. I suppose, no better place to talk about cripples than Inishmaan.