Oil price shock means China is at risk of blowing up
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard Telegraph
Last Updated: 12:33am BST 07/07/2008
The great oil shock of 2008 is bad enough for us. It poses a mortal threat to the whole economic strategy of emerging Asia.
The manufacturing revolution of China and her satellites has been built on cheap transport over the past decade. At a stroke, the trade model looks obsolete.
No surprise that Shanghai's bourse is down 56pc since October, one of the world's most spectacular bear markets in half a century.
Asia's intra-trade model is a Ricardian network where goods are shipped in a criss-cross pattern to exploit comparative advantage. Profit margins are wafer-thin.
Products are sent to China for final assembly, then shipped again to Western markets. The snag is obvious. The cost of a 40ft container from Shanghai to Rotterdam has risen threefold since the price of oil exploded.
"The monumental energy price increases will be a 'game-changer' for Asia," said Stephen Jen, currency chief at Morgan Stanley. The region's trade model is about to be "stress-tested".
Energy subsidies have disguised the damage. China has held down electricity prices, though global coal costs have tripled since early 2007. Loss-making industries are being propped up. This merely delays trouble.
"The true impact of the shock will only be revealed over time, as subsidies are gradually rolled back," he said. Last week, China raised internal rail freight rates by 17pc.
BP 's Statistical Review says China's use of energy per unit of gross domestic product is three times that of the US, five times Japan's, and eight times Britain's.
China's factories "were not built with current energy levels in mind", said Mr Jen. The outcome will be "non-linear". My translation: China is at risk of blowing up.
Any low-tech product shipped in bulk - furniture, say, or shoes - is facing the ever-rising tariff of high freight costs. The Asian outsourcing game is over, says CIBC World Markets. "It's not just about labour costs any more: distance costs money," says chief economist Jeff Rubin.
Xinhua says that 2,331 shoe factories in Guangdong have shut down this year, half the total.
North Carolina's furniture industry is coming back from the dead as companies shut plant in China. "We're getting hit with increases up and down the system. It's changing the whole equation of where we produce," said Craftsmaster Furniture.
China is being crunched by the triple effects of commodity costs, 20pc wage inflation, and sagging import demand in the US, Canada, Britain, Spain, Italy, and France.
Critics warn that Beijing has repeated the errors of Tokyo in the 1980s by over-investing in marginal plant. A Communist Party banking system has let rip with cheap credit - steeply negative real interest rates - to buy political time for the regime.
Whether or not this is fair, it is clear that Beijing's mercantilist policy of holding down the yuan to boost exports share has now hit the buffers.
Foreign reserves have reached $1.8 trillion, playing havoc with the money supply. Declared inflation is just 7.7pc, but that does not begin to capture the scale of repressed prices, from fuel to fertilisers. "There is a lot more bottled-up inflation in this economy than meets they eye," says Stephen Green, from Standard Chartered.
Inflation merely steals growth from the future. It defers monetary tightening until matters get out of hand, which is where we are now. Vietnam has already blown up at 30pc. India is on the cusp at 11pc, so is Indonesia (11pc), the Philippines (11pc), Thailand (9pc) - leaving aside the double-digit Gulf.
Of course, oil prices may fall again. They plunged to $50 a barrel in early 2007 after the Saudis raised production. The scissor effect of slowing global growth and extra crude later this year from Brazil, Azerbaijan, Africa, and the Gulf of Mexico may chill the super-boom.
The US Commodities Futures Trading Commission is on an "emergency" footing, under orders from the Democrats on Capitol Hill to smash speculators. If it is really true that investment funds have run amok, we will soon find out.
I suspect that the energy markets have fallen prey to their own version of the "shadow banking system" that so astonished regulators when the credit bubble burst.
I also suspect that Hank Paulson and his EU colleagues have a surprise up their sleeve for the late-cycle über-bulls. Those who claim that derivatives (crude futures) cannot drive spot prices have overlooked a key point. The Saudis and others use the IPE Brent Weighted Average of futures contracts as their pricing mechanism. Futures now set the spot price.
But even if oil comes down for a year or two, the mid-term outlook of the International Energy Agency warns that crude markets will be tighter than ever by 2012. Call it Peak Oil, or just Peak Non-Cooperation by the dictatorships that control most of the world's remaining 5 or 6 trillion barrels (Mankind has used one trillion so far).
Come what may, globalisation has passed its high-water mark. The pendulum will now swing back from China to America. The mercantilists will have to reinvent themselves.