Data doubts

Abacaus. By HB (Own work) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

THIS BYSTANDER HAS long not given undue credence to the case that China’s economic data misrepresent the real state of the economy — or at least they don’t misrepresent it any more than any other country’s data.

That assertion comes with a bunch of caveats, notably that counting the output of any economy is fiendishly difficult, and especially one as large as China’s. Also, as nations evolve from being manufacturing- to services-based, the task gets even more challenging.

The way the world counts GDP was designed for an industrial era where there were hard outputs to measure:  ingots of steel;  sacks of coal; trucks full of widgets. In a services-dominated economy, GDP, which is, after all, no more than the value of the output of goods and services, can be increased merely by having bankers raise their fees.

China has a track record of announcing GDP data closely aligned with official targets. It is reminiscent of the way the General Electric Corporation in the United States in days past used to report quarterly earnings bang in line with the guidance it had given stock analysts.

Smoothing earnings, that was called. State planners would appreciate the technique if anyone would.

China’s national GDP number is derived from data collected across the country and while the National Bureau of Statistics fields a team of more than 20,000 data collectors, they still need local assistance.  The importance, real and symbolic, that Beijing attaches to the overall GDP figure is an incentive for local officials and state-owned enterprises to bolster the numbers they furnish.

President Xi Jinping has set a national target of doubling output and income levels by 2020, goals that demand annual GDP growth to average 6.5%. Patriotic statistical duty becomes self-evident.

Longstanding readers may recall Prime Minister Li Keqiang once saying that the country’s GDP data was “man-made” and that measures such as electricity consumption and freight volumes carried by rail were better indications of economic growth.

However, it is almost a decade now since he said that — and analysts named a now barely remembered index of such proxies after him.

China’s national statistics have become much more robust over the ensuing period, particularly those for industrial output which a decade or more back had known methodological flaws in their collection. Paradoxically, those have been mostly fixed just in time for industrial data to become relatively less important than that for services in the overall GDP number.

Similarly, measures like electricity consumption have become less reliable indicators of growth as the economy has become a more efficient consumer of power. Furthermore, is that electricity being used to run a mill or a mall?

Wang Baoan, who took over as head of the National Bureau of Statistics in May 2015, has said that tax data support his office’s GDP numbers — not that that is an assertion that can be easily verified by outsiders.

In short, China’s numbers may have a wide margin of error, and state statisticians have become adept in optimising the GDP deflator used to convert between nominal and real growth (underestimating the inflation measure will give an impression of faster real growth), but fudge is not the same as fabrication.

For one, policymakers themselves need a more not less accurate GDP number to direct the economy along its decelerating glide path towards ‘rebalance’. Even China would be unlikely to be able to conceal the existence two sets of books indefinitely.

China now publishes so much economic data that evidence of activity, in piecemeal parts of the economy at least, is hiding in plain sight. Perhaps the one thing that can be said with certainty is that both the official statistics and the numbers proffered by their critics are now mostly headed in the same direction.

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China Eyes Global Nuclear-Reactor Export Market

 

A model of a Hualong One (HPR1000) nuclear reactor

An export that glows in the dark: a model of a Hualong One (HPR1000) nuclear reactor

THE REAL PRIZE for China in the United Kingdom’s nuclear industry is not Hinkley Point but the plant at Bradwell that is planned to come after — and all the foreign sales of its new nuclear reactors that may come after that.

China, though the state nuclear company China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), will finance one-third of the £18 billion ($23.5 billion) cost of Hinkley Point C, which will be the UK’s first new nuclear plant in decades. The other two-thirds and the technology will be supplied by the French utility EDF.

The deal gives EDF a showcase that it hopes will offset setbacks in projects in Finland and France for its latest design of reactors, but CGN gets a toehold in western Europe. Bradwell would be built using an indigenously designed Chinese reactor.

It would also be a key early sale in what could be a global export market for, at best guesstimate, at least 130 nuclear power plants. At $15 billion-25 billion each, that adds up to a decent chunk of change. China’s nuclear industry has its eyes firmly on the prize.

Beijing has enthusiastically pursued nuclear power domestically as a low-carbon energy source. As of March, there were 33 nuclear reactors operating in the country, with a total capacity of 28.8GW. A further 22 were under construction with a capacity of 22.1GW. The goal is for nuclear to generate 6% of China’s electricity by 2020, against 2% now.

Other countries are warier of nuclear power, and in particular since the accident at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 (which also caused a temporary suspension of new plant building and approvals in China while new nuclear safety rules were drawn up).

Earlier this month, the new British government of prime minister Theresa May put Hinkley Point on hold for further review.

First, there are the perennial environmental and safety concerns about nuclear energy.

Second, there are concerns about the economics of the deal. The UK government gets out of the upfront building costs and plugs a looming energy shortfall, but it has had to guarantee a price for the electricity Hinckley Point will produce that is twice the current wholesale price — and to do so for 35 years.

In the complex economics of energy pricing that may not prove to be as expensive in the long term as it looks, but the sums — and their underlying assumptions — certainly warrant a second look

Third, May is said to be concerned about China’s involvement, both on grounds of national security and because she has long been critical of the ‘gung-ho’ approach to Britain’s welcoming of Chinese inward investment championed by her predecessor administration of David Cameron and in particular by his finance minister George Osborne.

Osborne and May have long had a distrustful political relationship. Replacing him as finance minister was one of her sets of appointments.

State media have been admonitory of the last-minute delay, saying that cancellation of Hinkley Point could threaten what President Xi Jinping called the ‘Golden Era’ of China-UK investment relations during his state visit to the UK last year. Beijing’s ambassador to Britain, writing in the Financial Times this week, called the times a ‘crucial historical juncture’.

In October last year, before the ‘Brexit’-induced change of prime minister, the UK had reached a strategic investment agreement with China covering three nuclear power plants:

  • Hinkley Point C;
  • an investment in Sizewell that will also use French EPR reactor technology; and
  • Bradwell, whose construction China was expected to lead and which will use Hualong One reactors.

The Hualong One has evolved from upgraded Chinese versions of the French 900MWe class pressurised water reactors already widely in use in China. CGN has developed it jointly (at Beijing’s direction) with China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC).

The Hualong One is considered to be a ‘third-generation-plus’ reactor, which means it complies with the post-Fukushima safety requirements. It is entirely Chinese designed and intended for sale in international markets as well as domestic deployment.

A Hualong One nuclear reactor under construction at FuqingSix are to be built in China, according to CGN. The International Atomic Energy Agency lists three as under construction. The one in Fuqing in Fujian province is shown to the left.

Internationally, two are to be built in Pakistan and a third is planned for Argentina. CNNC chairman Sun Qin has been quoted as saying that China plans to build 30 nuclear power units in countries along its “One Belt, One Road” initiative by 2030.

Bradwell, though, would be the first build in a developed economy. As such, it would be a highly prized sale that China does not want to let slip through its grasp.

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Straddling Buses And Wireless Trams

 

Traffic-straddling busA GIANT TRAFFIC-STRADDLING bus (seen above) has caught the world’s attention, but it may be a different public transport technology that has the lasting impact.

The day after a prototype 2 metre-high Transit Elevated Bus made its inaugural test run along 300 metres of track in the northeastern city of Qinhuangdao in Hebei province, China’s first fully indigenous super capacitor (‘supercap’) tram rolled off the production line in Zhuzhou in Hunan province.

Both tick several boxes for China: road-congestion reduction, green transport that will lower carbon emissions and cutting-edge technology.

The electric-powered Transit Elevated Bus can carry 300 passengers, with, its manufacturers say, up to four of its 21 metres long by 7.5 metres wide units eventually being able to be strung together.

It runs along a track that can be laid on an existing road and sweeps over the traffic below (or at least over vehicles low enough to fit under) at speeds, it is said, that will eventually reach up to 60 kilometres per hour. It is touted as being like a subway system without the need to build the tunnels, thus reducing construction costs to a fifth of that of constructing a new subway line.

CRRC ZELC supercapacitor tramThe super capacitor tram  (seen above) does not have the futuristic look of the elevated bus. It looks like, well, a tram. Built by the electric motor division of the giant state-owned rolling stock manufacturer CRRC Corp., ZELC, the tram can carry up to 380 passengers and travel at 70 kilometres per hour. Its key feature is that its batteries can be fully powered in 30 seconds — i.e. while it is stopped to take on or put off passengers — so there is no need to install unsightly fixed lines above the track to provide the power.

The technology is at least a decade old and lets trams run for up to 5 kilometres on a single charge. Centenary-less supercap trams using technology from Germany’s Siemens are already running Guangzhou. Nanjing will be next. China’s cities have 5,000 kilometres of tram track with plans to have half as much again by 2020.

But why bother with tracks at all? Super capacitors can also be used to charge electric buses. ZELC has already developed a prototype in Ningbo, a bus that still travels on the road rather than over it.

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End Of The Road For Uber in China

 

Licenced under Creative Commons from iphonedigital

A BILLION DOLLARS loss here. A billion dollars loss here. Pretty soon you are talking serious red ink.

That is the scale of the annual loss that US ride-sharing service and poster child for the sharing e-economy, Uber, has apparently been making in an effort to break into the China market since 2014. In the face of bitter resistance from local rival Didi Chuxing (app seen above), it has now decided to end the debilitating price war between the two by selling its China operation to its competitor.

The deal struck will leave Uber owning 17.5% of Didi Chuxing, which itself was the fulmination of a merger between Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache. Didi Chuxing, which also owns a stake in Uber’s US rival, Lyft, will end up with a 90% market share in China (and an estimated market valuation of $35 billion).

The deal comes, ever so coincidentally, within days of China agreeing to provide a legal framework for taxi-ordering apps, which have existed in a grey area. The new rules, due to come into effect in November, will make the heavy discounting that Uber and Didi Chuxing engaged in during their price war illegal.

In that, there may be some succor for Chinese taxi drivers, who, in common with cab drivers in many countries, have been protesting against the new competition of ride-sharing apps which they say is destroying their business.

Didi Chuxing will be able to rebuild its margins, to the pleasure of major shareholders which include Alibaba and Tencent. It is also likely to benefit from the $1 billion it is to invest in Uber’s global operations under the deal, especially once Uber makes its intended initial public offering in the United States.

That share offering will be even more attractive to investors without billion-dollar-losses in China weighing down Uber’s profit and loss account.

There are echoes of Yahoo!’s experience in China. The internet media company sold its China businesses to Alibaba in 2005, along with taking a stake in the Chinese tech group. Regardless of what is happening to Yahoo! now, that China deal paid off handsomely for it.

The model well may be repeated by other U.S. tech companies that are finding doing business in China to be a long and expensive road.

 

 

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Giant Seaplanes Add To China’s Maritime Reach

AG600

THIS BYSTANDER NOTED earlier that a year ago to the month Aviation Industry Corp.’s China Aviation Industry General Aircraft subsidiary had completed the fuselage of a giant modern flying boat. That aircraft (seen above), conceived as the TA-600 Water Dragon but born as the AG600, has now rolled off the production line.

It is bigger than Japan’s Shinmaywa US-2, currently the world’s largest seaplane in service. The AG600 can carry up to 50 passengers and has a range of up to 5,000 kilometres. AVIC once said it could be modified to meet the needs of “maritime surveillance, resource detection, passenger and cargo transport”. State media now say its purpose is to “fight forest fires and perform marine rescue missions”.

We confess to not having counted how many forests there are in the South and East China Seas prone to combustion events, but any that might be blocking the PLA-Navy’s access to the blue waters of the Western Pacific, and even those as far away as Australia’s northern coast, will be within the AG600’s dousing range. Coincidentally, the country’s first indigenous large military transport aircraft, the Y-20, has a similar range.

When not fighting fires, the AG600 could, no doubt, be productively employed hopping between those islands  — or ‘rocks’, by the light of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration’s recent ruling under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — in the East and South China Seas that Beijing claims as its own.

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IMF Ups Its Economic Outlook For China

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY Fund exempted China from its ‘Brexit’-induced downgrades to its global economic forecast. In its mid-year update to its World Economic Outlook it has raised its forecast for China’s growth this year by 0.1 of a percentage point from its April projection to 6.6 percent and left its forecast for 2017 unchanged at 2.2%.

The Fund notes the effectiveness of the infrastructure spending stimulus in the first half of this year and the relative isolation of China’s economy from Brexit effects. However, it does warn that China would not escape the effects of a severe downturn in the European economy should that happen as a result of Brexit. And this Bystander has noted some of the risks to stimulus spending.

The IMF’s key paragraph:

In China, the near-term outlook has improved due to recent policy support. Benchmark lending rates were cut five times in 2015, fiscal policy turned expansionary in the second half of the year, infrastructure spending picked up, and credit growth accelerated. The direct impact of the U.K. referendum will likely be limited, in light of China’s low trade and financial exposure to the United Kingdom as well as the authorities’ readiness to respond to achieve their growth target range. Hence, China’s growth outlook is broadly unchanged relative to April (with a slight upward revision for 2016). However, should growth in the European Union be affected significantly, the adverse effect on China could be material.

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Stimulus Spending Steadies China’s GDP Slowdown

THE SECOND-QUARTER GDP growth figure came in at 6.7%, the same as for the first quarter. So growth for the first half was surprisingly steady and, surprise, surprise, bang in the middle of the government’s target range for the year of 6.5%-7.0%. Policy support through state-sector infrastructure spending has done the trick.

More of it will probably be needed in the second half. The economy expanded at 6.9% last year, so the slowdown is real if gradual.

However, it cannot slow below 6.5% if the 2021 centenary of the founding of the Communist Party is to be celebrated by hitting the goal of doubling GDP from its 2010 level and thus creating a ‘moderately prosperous society’.

That, in turn, will require more progress on ‘rebalancing’ the economy than has been made to date. At the same time, the infrastructure spending being used to juice growth risks a build-up of more debt with the accompanying concerns that more of it will go bad.

As IMF deputy managing director Mitsushiro Furusawa noted at a symposium on July 11:

A rising share of debt is held by Chinese companies that do not earn enough to cover their interest payments. The most recent IMF Global Financial Stability Report estimated that “debt-at-risk” had increased to 14 percent of listed Chinese companies’ debt, up from 4 percent in 2010.

Still within the bounds of manageability, but moving closer to them rather than away.

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