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article imageWarning from history: Could Japan-style crash hit China?

By Hiroshi HIYAMA (AFP)     Aug 16, 2017 in Business

Sizzling property prices, a groaning debt load, wealthy tourists and tycoons willing to slap down eye-popping sums for art: China is starting to look like Japan before its economic bubble burst in the early 90s.

The similarities are not lost on Beijing: President Xi Jinping has commissioned a study to help China avoid Japan's pitfalls, according to Bloomberg, as growth slows and ratings agencies sound the alarm over its debt.

Fears over China's groaning debt load were heightened after the IMF warned Tuesday the world's second largest economy was on a "dangerous" path, urging Beijing to take a more sustainable course and speed up structural reforms.

China was also downgraded this summer by Moody's with the credit rating agency citing the country's ballooning debt, sparking an angry response from Beijing.

Debt-fuelled investment in infrastructure and real estate has underpinned Chinese growth for years since the global financial crisis a decade ago decimated growth in Western markets that booming exporters relied on for growth.

Japan was the original Asian tiger  with growth surging at an average 9.0 percent annually between 1...
Japan was the original Asian tiger, with growth surging at an average 9.0 percent annually between 1955 and 1973 in the long postwar boom, turning it into one of the world's great economic powers.
STR, JIJI PRESS/AFP/File

Japan was the original Asian tiger, with growth surging at an average 9.0 percent annually between 1955 and 1973 in the long postwar boom, turning it into one of the world's great economic powers.

China has also basked in heady growth -- replacing Japan as the world's number two economy in 2010 -- and has not seen a single recession in decades.

- United in debt -

Japan too is groaning under a huge national debt, the legacy of monetary and fiscal policies aimed at boosting growth.

Japan's debt load is now more than 200 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. China's debt is around 260 percent of GDP, up from around 140 percent before the 2008 financial crisis.

Eighties-era Japan kept interest rates low, creating excessive liquidity in its economy.

Frenzied buying saw land prices quadruple in the mid-to-late eighties, and the Nikkei stock index hit almost 40,000 in 1989 -- double its current level.

The inauguration ceremony for Japan's first bullet train service  the Tokaido Shinkansen  in To...
The inauguration ceremony for Japan's first bullet train service, the Tokaido Shinkansen, in Tokyo in 1964, as the country enjoyed a long postwar boom.
STR, JIJI PRESS/AFP

But it all came to an end when the central bank abruptly tightened policy. Stock and land prices plunged, businesses stopped investing, consumers stopped spending and bad loans piled up.

That ushered in a period of low or no growth known as the "lost decades".

Chinese stock prices remain well off their 2015 highs. But mainland house prices have been soaring, particularly in hubs like Beijing, Shanghai and southern industrial powerhouse Shenzhen.

Both countries saw their arrival on the world stage announced by striking acquisition of foreign assets, as Chinese overseas investment hit $170 billion last year, surging 44 percent from 2015.

China's Anbang Insurance bought New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel for almost $2 billion in 2014, while tycoon Liu Yiqian purchased Modigliani's "Nu Couche" for a record $170.4 million in 2015.

Japan too is groaning under a huge national debt  the legacy of monetary and fiscal policies aimed a...
Japan too is groaning under a huge national debt, the legacy of monetary and fiscal policies aimed at boosting growth.
Kazuhiro NOGI, AFP/File

Those big-ticket purchases bear the hallmarks of when Sony scooped up Columbia Pictures for $3.4 billion in 1989 and Mitsubishi Estate paid nearly $850 million for the controlling stake in the operator of New York's Rockefeller Center.

In 1990, Japanese paper tycoon Ryoei Saito bought Vincent Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr Gachet" for $82.5 million and Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Bal du Moulin de la Galette" for $78.1 million.

"What's scary is that people in China are thinking, 'China is special, so we are OK.' That's exactly how people felt in Japan during the bubble era," said Kokichiro Mio, senior economist at NLI Research Institute.

- Reining in the rhinos -

Still, China is not a mirror image of Japan 30 years ago.

The Chinese economy and its currency are tightly controlled by the state and shielded from foreign influence to a far greater extent than Japan.

Some 80 000 people walking on Akashi Kaikyo bridge  the world's longest suspension bridge in Ko...
Some 80,000 people walking on Akashi Kaikyo bridge, the world's longest suspension bridge in Kobe, western Japan, one month before it opened in 1998.
STR, JIJI PRESS/AFP/File

And Beijing has launched a crackdown on "grey rhinos" -- powerful private conglomerates -- amid fears they are racking up dangerous debt levels through buying frenzies and threatening financial stability.

"The current circumstance in China is considerably better than that of Japan back then," said He Chao, assistant professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.

"The whole property market... is under relatively strong control of the Chinese government."

Lessons from Japan suggest officials should have acted more quickly to bring in stricter banking regulations to keep lenders from overextending themselves and better manage the economic slowdown.

But Chinese "authorities are more able to regulate bank loans and the financing of speculative transactions, and they can intervene in markets", said Ivan Tselichtchev, an economics professor Japan's Niigata University.

Others point out that China is not the advanced economy that Japan was at the time its bubble burst, meaning there is much more room for the economy to grow and increase productivity.

Since the 90s  Japan has endured a period of low or no growth known as the "lost decades".
Since the 90s, Japan has endured a period of low or no growth known as the "lost decades".
STR, JAPAN POOL VIA JIJI PRESS/AFP/File

But even if China is headed for Japan-style troubles, warnings from its neighbour may not mean much.

"Unless you feel the pain, I think the message doesn't quite hit home," said Mio of NLI Research Institute.

"China is not without people who are voicing concerns, but as it was in Japan, that doesn't stop people from investing especially when you think prices will only go up."

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