China's 'black box' economy deserves Group of Seven peer scrutiny

It's time for Italy to step aside and let China, as world's No 2 economy, take its place in the G7

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 4:27am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 5:48pm

China's thought police have a new target in their sights: economists.

The Communist Party's assault on cyberspace and the international media is well known. But now, it is turning on foreign researchers who dare challenge the official narrative that China can grow 7 per cent forever and cannot crash.

That is the gist of a new effort detailed by the South China Morning Post, one that aims to discredit and blacklist overseas researchers. Expect the world's biggest banks to start self-censoring themselves to avoid upsetting Beijing.

That could happen simply by some strategist warning about the shadow banking industry. Will those now voicing scepticism about Chinese data on everything from exports to bad loans to pollution be muzzled by top executives?

It is a huge problem that the world's second-biggest economy is becoming more and more of a black box.

What can the world do about it? To me, this is a job for the Group of Seven. It is time the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada stepped out of their nostalgic cocoon and welcomed China into the ultimate members-only club.

China is the biggest trading nation, the largest holder of currency reserves (US$3.8 trillion), the No 1 polluter and a fast-rising geopolitical power. Yet there is no regular or manageable forum in which peers can sit across from Chinese officials to glean intelligence on what is really afoot.

It is vital for peers to be able to query Finance Minister Lou Jiwei on the true state of reforms - and central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan on China's efforts to rein in a bad-loan crisis that could dwarf Japan's - and form a united front against China's opacity.

Sure, these kinds of exchanges happen on a bilateral basis now and again and at meetings of the Group of 20 nations. But the G20 is proving to be a bit too unwieldy for the task. It is also awash in countries from South Africa to Brazil to Indonesia that, frankly, might fear retribution if they demanded Chinese officials open their real books to the world.

The G7 is a better forum for fact-finding and co-ordination. There are a couple of snags, of course. One is who to toss out. Sorry, Italy, but it is you. No disrespect is meant here. But you are part of a greater whole in Europe, shackled for better or worse to a single currency and central bank.

Canada's economy may be smaller, but its success in avoiding the crises of recent years gives it more street cred in financial circles than Italy.

The other problem is China might demur. China wants the benefits of its rising clout but hopes to put off the responsibilities that accompany it.

The G7 should insist. The importance of China's economy is growing in sync with its opacity. Foreign journalists are finding Chinese travel visas hard to come by. China's internet censorship apparatus is growing apace to keep up with new microblogging and chat offerings.

The government also has been working to help mainlanders doing business in Hong Kong conceal the residential addresses and full identification numbers that journalists and analysts use to discern who owns or runs what. Why open accounts in the Cayman Islands when those looking for places to stash ill-gotten gains can do it in Hong Kong?

Going after researchers will further obscure China's outlook. When economists like Stephen Green of Standard Chartered in Hong Kong say China's credit system is "a big black box, and it's quite scary", he's not exaggerating. What happens now, as such comments might put economic truthers on Beijing's blacklist?

Won't top executives at Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service trying to sell ratings to Chinese companies and municipalities tell analysts to tread carefully when assessing debt risks?

Even before China's clampdown on economists, Patrick Chovanec of Silvercrest Asset Management was worried growth is being driven by runaway credit fuelling giant projects designed to inflate economic statistics; former Fitch Ratings analyst Charlene Chu cautioned about global risks emanating from Beijing; Pacific Investment Management Co's Bill Gross was calling China "mystery meat"; and George Soros was talking about a "debt disaster that's unfolding in plain sight".

China will be even less transparent if economists are under pressure to be nice to Beijing. That is, unless the G7 can talk China out of it.