Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Oct 26, 2023

China’s Risk of a Debt Deflation Loop

With Daniel Blake and Laura Wang


Daniel Blake: Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Daniel Blake from the Morgan Stanley Asia and Emerging Market Equity Strategy Team.

Laura Wang: And I'm Laura Wang, Chief China Equity Strategist.

Daniel Blake: And on this special episode of the podcast, we'll discuss what lessons Japan's deflation journey can offer for China. It's Thursday, October 26th at 10 a.m. in Singapore and Hong Kong. 

Daniel Blake: So in the period from 1991 to 2001, known as Japan's lost decade, Japan suffered through a prolonged economic stagnation and price deflation. While the corporate sector stopped deleveraging in the early 2000’s. It wasn't until the Abenomics program, introduced under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013, that Japan emerged from deflation and started the process of a gradual recovery in corporate profitability. China's economic trajectory has been very different from Japan's over the last 30 years, but we now see some parallels emerging. Indeed, the risk of falling into a Japanese style stagnation is becoming more acute over the past year as a deep cyclical downturn in the property sector combines with the structural challenge that our economists call the 3D journey of debt, demographics and deflation. So, Laura, before we dig into the comparison between China and Japan's respective journeys to set the stage, can you give us a quick snapshot of where China's equity market is right now and what you expect for the rest of the year?

Laura Wang: Sure, Daniel. China market has been through a quite volatile ten months so far this year with a very exciting start given the post COVID reopening. However, the strong macro momentum didn't sustain. Property sales is still falling somewhere between 30 to 50% each month on a year over year basis. And challenges from local government debt issue and early signs of deflationary pressure suggest that turn around for corporate earnings growth could still take longer to happen. We had downgraded China within the global emerging market context at the beginning of August, mainly out of these concerns, and we think more patience is needed at this point. We would like to see more meaningful easing measures to stimulate the demand and help reflate the economy, as well as clear a road map to address some of the structural issues, particularly around the local government debt problem. In contrast to China, Japan's equity market is very strong right now, and Morgan Stanley's outlook continues to be bullish from here. So, Daniel, why is it valuable to compare Japan's deflationary journey since the 1990s and China's recent challenges? What are some of the bigger similarities?

Daniel Blake: I think we'll come back to the 3D's. So on the first to them, on debt we do have China's aggregate total debt around 290% of GDP. So that compares with Japan, which was about 265% of GDP back in 1990. So this is similar in the sense that we do have this aggregate debt burden sitting and needs to be managed. Secondly, on demographics, we've got a long expected but now very evident downturn in the share of the labor force that is in working age and an outright decline in working age population in China. And this is going to be a factor for many years ahead. China's birth rate or total number of births is looking to come down to around 8 million this year, compared with 28 million in 1990. And then a third would be deflation. And so we are seeing this broaden out in China, particularly the aggregate GDP level. So in Japan's case, that deflation was mainly around asset price bubbles. In China's case, we're seeing this more broadly with excess capacity in a number of industrial sectors, including new economy sectors. And then this one 4th D which is similar in both Japan's case and China now, and that's the globalization or de-risking of supply chains, as you prefer. When we're looking at this in Japan's case, Japan did face a more hostile trade environment in the late 1980s, particularly with protectionism coming through from the US. And we've seen that play out in the multipolar world for China. So a number of similarities which we can group under 4D's here.

Laura Wang: And what are some of the key differences between Japan/China?

Daniel Blake: So the first key difference is we think the asset price bubble was more extreme in Japan. Secondly, in China, most of the debt is held by local governments and state owned enterprises rather than the private corporate sector. And thirdly, China is at a lower stage of development than Japan in terms of per capita incomes and the potential for underlying growth. So, Laura, when you're looking ahead, what would you like to see from Chinese policymakers here, both in the near term as well as the longer term?

Laura Wang: As far as what we can observe, Chinese policymakers has already started to roll out a suite of measures on the fronts of capital markets, monetary and fiscal policy side over the past 12 months. And we do expect more to come. Particularly on the capital market reform side, there are additional efforts that we think policymakers can help enforce. In our view, those actions could include capital market restructuring, funds flow and liquidity support, as well as further efforts encouraging enhancement of shareholder returns. To be more specific, for example, introducing more benchmark indices with a focus on corporate governance and shareholder returns, further tightening and enforcing the listing rules for public companies, m ore incentives for long term institutional participation, improving capital flow management for foreign investors, and implementing incentives to encourage dividend payouts and share buybacks. Those could all work quite well. Regulatory and even legislative support to help implement these measures would be extremely crucial.

Daniel Blake: And what is your outlook for China's medium to long term return on equity path from here? And what are the key catalysts you're watching for that?

Laura Wang: Given some of the structure challenges we discussed earlier, we do see a much wider forked path for China's long term growth ROE trajectory. We see MSCI China's long term ROE stabilizing at around 11% in the next 5 to 7 years in our base case. This means there should still be up to around two percentage point of recovery upside from the current levels, thanks to a combination of corporate self-help, the product cycle, policy support from the top and the low base effect. However, further upside above 11% will require a significant reflationary effort from the policymakers, both short term cyclical and long term structural, in combination with a more favorable geopolitical environment. Therefore, we believe prompt and forceful actions from policymakers to stabilize the economy to avoid more permanent negative impact on corporate and consumer behaviors are absolutely needed at this point. Now, let me turn this back to you, Daniel. What is your outlook for Japan's return on equity journey from here, and are there any risks to your bullish view?

Daniel Blake: So we have seen Japan looking back from 2013 to now move from below book value in terms of aggregate valuations and a return on equity of just 4%, so much lower than even your bear case. So it's moved up from that level to 9% currently and we're seeing valuations moving up accordingly. We think that's further to go and we think Japan can actually reach 12% sustainable return on equity by 2025 and that's helped by return of nominal GDP growth in Japan and further implementation of governance improvements at the corporate level. So in terms of the risks, I think they are primarily external. We do see Japan's domestic economy in a pretty good place. We think BOJ can exit yield curve control and negative rates without a major shock. So externally we are watching China's risks of moving into a debt deflation loop, as we're discussing here, but also the potential impacts if the US or a global recession were to play out. So clearly we're watching very closely the Fed's efforts and global central bank efforts to achieve a soft landing here.

Daniel Blake: So, Laura, thanks for taking the time to talk.

Laura Wang: Sure. It's been great speaking with you, Daniel.

Daniel Blake: And thanks for listening. If you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and share the podcast with a friend or colleague today.

With China at risk of falling into a debt deflation loop, lessons from Japan's deflation journey could provide some insight.