So what evidence do we have that a construction slowdown may be occurring? Official data on housing starts does exist, but it’s not a reliable metric....A better approach is to look at the market for construction inputs. The clearest picture we have is for steel. According to a friend of mine who is an analyst in the steel and commodities sector, and recently completed a countrywide tour of talking to producers, sentiment in China’s steel industry is as gloomy as he has ever seen it. In November, Chinese steel output was down -8.8% month-on-month, down for the sixth month in row. More importantly, it was down -0.6% year-on-year, indicating this was more than just a seasonal or partial fall-off from the all-time highs it hit in the first half of 2011, which were driven in large part by demand for cheap rebar for construction. Apparently, the demand that drove that boom has almost entirely disappeared. Interestingly, according to one report by Shanghai Security News, steelmakers say that actual sales in 2011 failed to match official “social housing” construction data. Figures released by the China Iron and Steel Association last week indicate that steel output continued falling in December, by 3.87% month-on-month.And so on . . . . A fascinating look at some of the generally unspoken numbers behind the numbers from Patrick Chovanec, Professor at Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, in Beijing.
Not surprisingly, two things have happened. First, domestic iron ore prices have plummeted as unused stockpiles have accumulated. The China Iron and Steel Association recently announced that its iron ore price index has fallen 22% in the past four months, since the beginning of September, while iron ore inventories at Chinese ports rose to 96.8 million tons by the end of 2011, up 32% from the year before (Chinese iron ore imports were still up 10% y-on-y in December, but analysts expect buying to slow in coming months, due to flagging demand). Second, Chinese steelmakers are suffering. According to Caijing, more than 1/3 of them experienced losses in October and November, and the industry as a whole saw a net loss of RMB 920 million (US$ 146 million) excluding investment gains. The magazine said industry executives foresee an even tougher year in 2012.
Cement and glass also show a marked deceleration in growth. Cement output in November grew 11.2% y-on-y, but that represented a significant fall-off from 17.2% y-on-y expansion for the first 11 months as a whole, and the 17.3% y-on-y growth the industry saw in November 2010. Glass also saw a similar deceleration, growing 7.1% y-on-y in November, compared to 17.0% y-on-y from the first 11 months. Cement prices have been declining steadily over the past few months, a trend that Fitch projects will continue into 2012, due to overcapacity. It notes that, because of their high level of investment in building even more capacity, major Chinese cement producers are cash flow negative.
Copper presents a more unusual picture. China’s copper imports in December hit an all-time record high of 508,942 tons, up 47.7% y-on-y. However, there is little reason to believe this was driven by end user demand. Most analysts I’ve talked to believe it was primarily due to a resurgence in speculative arbitrage based on the gap between copper prices in Shanghai and London, and possibly renewed interest in using stockpiled copper as collateral for obtaining loans — both practices spurred by expectations of monetary easing. In short, the Chinese are buying copper, like homes, to trade not to use.
Of course, land is also a key construction input. I’ve already written about the dramatic fall-off in local government land sales to developers, here as well as here. Newly released year-end figures show that Beijing’s overall revenues from land sales in 2011 dropped 35.7% compared to 2010, despite robust sales in the first half of the year. Land sales revenues for residential projects plunged even more steeply, by 55.4%, while the average auction price for residential land dropped 30.5% (from RMB 7,317 per sq. meter to RMB 5,088). In Shanghai, total land sales revenues dropped 20.0% y-on-y, and average the average price of residential land plummeted 41.0%. _Patrick Chovanec
It is remarkable how many people continue to take official statistics seriously, without the slightest degree of scepticism. In the short term, it is probably easier to take everything on trust. In the long term, such an approach is disastrous.