Home / Opinion / Beware the Xi Jinping reform trade, it may end up getting ‘trumped’

In the space of 15 months, the “Donald Trump trade" went from bullish euphoria to complete puzzlement. Might market excitement over Xi Jinping follow a similar arc?

The buzz in investment circles is how a newly supersized Chinese president—perhaps even holding power for life—will get a handle on Beijing’s excesses.

Xi, the bulls say, just built a new economic dream team to rein in duelling bubbles in credit, debt, property, pollution and corruption.

Don’t worry, Xi is now China’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong, and he’s on the case. Long live the Xi trade in global markets.

Yet this may be a buyer-beware moment that even exceeds disappointment over Trump’s White House.

The Trump trade has always been cloaked in Faustian cynicism. Cheerleaders knew chaos and deceit would accompany a surging Dow Jones Industrial Average.

To the herd, it hardly matters that Trump is attacking US institutions, deepening a Washington swamp he pledged to dredge, bringing dirty air back into fashion and enriching his family, Ferdinand Marcos-style. So long as taxes drop and assets rise, it’s all good.

The bet on Xi is far more earnest. Since 2012, he’s projected competence and a strong vision. His attack on graft created many true believers.

Yet, where’s the progress on curbing shadow-banking intemperance or reducing public debt accumulation? How far has Xi really gotten curtailing inefficient state-owned enterprises, increasing transparency or creating clearer lines between public and private sectors?

It’s fair to wonder, too, how far Xi can get in the next five years, protecting the root of all financial evil: a 6.5% growth target. This arbitrary goal, one that warps all incentives and loyalties, was supposed to be gone by now. At the ends of both 2016 and 2017, the international media spun a tale of a newly confident Xi scrapping growth targets and tolerating less gross domestic product (GDP). Hardly.

An argument can be made, in fact, that Xi’s new exalted status could slow financial reform, not hasten it.

Since the 2008 Lehman Brothers crisis, China has undergone an explosion of debt. In that time, International Monetary Fund (IMF) head Christine Lagarde highlighted last week, global public and private debt jumped 40%. China produced 40% of that surge. Much of it can be traced to local governments vying not just to make their growth numbers—but exceed them.

The way ambitious municipal leaders impress Beijing and win national attention is above-average GDP (gross domestic product). That’s why across the second biggest economy there are dozens of local Communist Party bigwigs racing to complete international airports, six-lane freeways, cutting-edge stadiums, opera houses and museums.

The force with the “Guggenheim effect" is very strong in China. While great for architects like Frank Gehry, the drive to become the next Bilbao is burying the hinterlands under mountains of debt. In the 10 years since Lehman crashed, local government debt has far exceeded Germany’s $4 trillion economy.

Xi’s longevity will warp motivations even further. He’s 64 and seems in decent health. If you think Xi, your ticket to national power, will be around for another 15 or 20 years, the odds are you’ll go the extra mile. That almost certainly means more debt-financed white-elephant projects, less accountability and greater environmental degradation. When China’s reckoning arrives, it may be bigger and more spectacular because of Xi’s absolute power.

Sure, Xi’s new economic team could prove the bulls right. Along with extending his reign, Xi named reformists Yi Gang and Guo Shuqing to oversee central-bank and financial upgrades. He promoted respected economist Liu He to vice premier status. Yet there are two big caveats. One, these three wise men can only pull the levers Emperor Xi lets them. Two, how far Trump goes to disrupt global trade dynamics.

Last week, for example, Trump one day seemed ready to invite Xi to new trade talks. The next, he floated a US return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Where all this leads is anyone’s guess.

There’s a supreme irony in Trump’s aggressive stance. The uncertainty surrounding it might prompt Beijing to double down on debt-and-investment-led growth. As Lagarde said in Beijing last week: “There’s a saying in French that we should fix the roof while the sun is shining." The trouble with the Trump effect is that a series of major storms may be on the horizon.

There are 1,006 days left in Trump’s presidency. If Xi didn’t use the last 1,006 days, well before the erratic Trump arrived in the White House, to fix Beijing’s roof, what makes us think he will now? The odds of Xi lowering China’s guard to markets, recalibrating growth engines and trusting Trump not to crash global growth are low—and falling. More likely, Xi will throttle back on reform ambitions until Americans elect a more stable government.

China isn’t necessarily in immediate trouble. Yet the Xi trade, just like the one surrounding this White House, may end up getting trumped.

William Pesek, based in Tokyo, is a former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.

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