The New Middle Kingdom Of Concrete And The Red Depression Ahead

No wonder the Red Ponzi consumed more cement during three years (2011-2013) than did the US during the entire twentieth century. Enabled by an endless $30 trillion flow of credit from its state controlled banking apparatus and its shadow banking affiliates, China went berserk building factories, warehouses, ports, office towers, malls, apartments, roads, airports, train stations, high speed railways, stadiums, monumental public buildings and much more.

If you want an analogy, 6.6 gigatons of cement is 14.5 trillion pounds. The Hoover dam used about 1.8 billion pounds of cement. So in 3 years China consumed enough cement to build the Hoover dam 8,000 times over—-160 of them for every state in the union!

Having spent the last ten days in China, I can well and truly say that the Middle Kingdom is back. But its leitmotif is the very opposite to the splendor of the Forbidden City.

The Middle Kingdom has been reborn in towers of preformed concrete. They rise in their tens of thousands in every direction on the horizon. They are connected with ribbons of highways which are scalloped and molded to wind through the endless forest of concrete verticals. Some of them are occupied. Alot, not.

The “before” and “after” contrast of Shanghai’s famous Pudong waterfront is illustrative of the illusion.

The first picture below is from about 1990 at a time before Mr. Deng discovered the printing press in the basement of the People’s Bank of China and proclaimed that it is glorious to be rich; and that if you were 18 and still in full possession of your digital dexterity and visual acuity it was even more glorious to work 12 hours per day 6 days per week in an export factory for 35 cents per hour.

I don’t know if the first picture is accurate as to its exact vintage. But by all accounts the glitzy skyscrapers of today’s Pudong waterfront did ascend during the last 25 years from a rundown, dimly lit area of muddy streets on the east side of Huangpu River. The pictured area was apparently shunned by all except the most destitute of Mao’s proletariat.


But the second picture I can vouch for. It’s from my window at the Peninsula Hotel on the Bund which lies directly accross on the west side of the Huangpu River and was taken as I typed this post.

Today’s Pudong district does look spectacular—–presumably a 21st century rendition of the glory of the Qing, the Ming, the Soong, the Tang and the Han.

But to conclude that would be to be deceived.The apparent prosperity is not that of a sustainable economic miracle; its the front street of the greatest Potemkin Village in world history.


The heart of the matter is that output measured by Keynesian GDP accounting—-especially China’s blatantly massaged variety— isn’t sustainable wealth if it is not rooted in real savings, efficient capital allocation and future productivity growth. Nor does construction and investment which does not earn back its cost of capital over time contribute to the accumulation of real wealth.

Needless to say, China’s construction and “investment” binge manifestly does not meet these criteria in the slightest. It was funded with credit manufactured by state controlled banks and their shadow affiliates, not real savings. It was driven by state initiated growth plans and GDP targets. These were cascaded from the top down to the province, county and local government levels—–an economic process which is the opposite of entrepreneurial at-risk assessments of future market based demand and profits.

China’s own GDP statistics are the smoking gun. During the last 15 years fixed asset investment—–in private business, state companies, households and the “public sector” combined—–has averaged 50% of GDP. That’s per se crazy.

Even in the heyday of its 1960s and 1970s boom, Japan’s fixed asset investment never reached more than 30% of GDP. Moreover, even that was not sustained year in and year out (they had three recessions), and Japan had at least a semblance of market pricing and capital allocation—unlike China’s virtual command and control economy.

The reason that Wall Street analysts and fellow-traveling Keynesian economists miss the latter point entirely is because China’s state-driven economy works through credit allocation rather than by tonnage toting commissars. The gosplan is implemented by the banking system and, increasingly, through China’s mushrooming and metastasizing shadow banking sector. The latter amounts to trillions of credit potted in entities which have sprung up to evade the belated growth controls that the regulators have imposed on the formal banking system.

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