NZ Herald business editor at large

World's coolest economist hot on his numbers

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Wall St veteran lays down his ideas about China’s rebalancing like a beat poet.
Finance professor, influential China economy blogger and nightclub owner Michael Pettis. Photo / Bloomberg
Finance professor, influential China economy blogger and nightclub owner Michael Pettis. Photo / Bloomberg

Michael Pettis must be the world's coolest economist.

That's a very uncool thing to say of course. He'd probably dispute it too. But it is hard to imagine a much cooler character than the casually dishevelled American who greets me at his hole-in-the-wall underground rock club, buried on an otherwise nondescript street in Beijing's university district.

There's black paint falling off the walls, there are skateboards parked in the corner and the ashtrays are still full from the night before.

If it wasn't for the hip Chinese indie kids busily working around the place it might have been lifted up in its entirety from the New York post-punk scene and rebuilt in China like some crazy art installation.

In his day job Pettis is a finance professor at the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University. He's also a highly influential blogger and author when it comes to the Chinese economy.

The club is a base for Maybe Mars, his independent record label, and the local avant garde music scene he is fostering.

Broadly it's art rock, he says. Think New York rockers Sonic Youth, a band which the 50-something Pettis - dressed today in black jeans, skater sneakers and unbuttoned business shirt - could easily pass for a member of.

He grabs some Tsing Tao beers from behind the bar, we head up a claustrophobic stairway and grab a seat in his loft office where we talk some more about the peculiar administrative difficulties of trying to foster a music scene in Beijing.

"Do you like The Clean," he asks, making the New Zealand connection via one of Dunedin's legendary alternative rock acts.

It turns out The Clean's Hamish Kilgour has been producing for Carsick Cars, one of the hottest Beijing bands on Pettis' label.

You get the feeling he could talk all day about the music but of course that's not what we are here for.

We're here because Pettis is considered one of the smartest and broadest thinkers in the world on the Chinese economic rebalancing act.

Pettis is a rare breed in the world of academic finance and economics, he's a Wall St veteran.

Before moving to China in 2001, he was managing director and head of the liability management and Latin American capital markets groups at Bear Stearns. He has also run fixed income trading and capital market teams at CSFB and JPMorgan.

He writes an influential blog, Michael Pettis' China Financial Markets, and has authored several books on the topic.

His passion for music is just an entree. When we switch topics he switches up another gear.

Our economic discussion is a free-ranging, off-the-record chat.

That's probably just as well. Pettis lays down his ideas about China's rebalancing like a beat poet, sweeping in and out of tangents and spanning a wide scope of historical, political and economic theory.

Among all that are some very specific positions on key issues about which he needs to retain control. It's pretty heady and there is a risk of misinterpreting him.

But for the on-record stuff his theories are well documented via his books and blogs.

Pettis' vision spans the globe, encompassing economic booms in postwar Japan , 19th century Argentina and the US. He positions modern China within a context broad enough that you start to see it isn't all as impossibly unprecedented as we might think.

He's certainly not afraid of being an outlier among commentators, having been one of the first to pick the scale of the slowdown China is now experiencing.

He has written that China's GDP growth rate will need to fall to between 3 and 4 per cent in the next few years if it is to successfully achieve the transition to a developed balanced economy.

As Bloomberg News noted recently, Pettis' research shows that "every investment-led growth miracle in the last 100 years has broken down". And it is very hard to escape the kind of enormous credit boom that China has just been through without a banking crisis.

The challenge for Beijing is to move fast enough with reforms to rebalance the economy before it hits what Pettis calls "debt capacity restraints".

But these days Pettis is not picking a GFC-style crash. He wrote in December that while a "banking crisis in China is always possible ... as long as Beijing implicitly or explicitly guarantees deposits, and as long as Beijing's credibility with Chinese households is solid, and I believe it is, I think we are more likely to see many years of Japanese-style 'zombie banks' than a banking crisis".

Pettis' formerly bearish views on the Chinese economy now seem relatively moderate in a sea of negative Western news stories.

Others tell me later that it is a very real symptom of how bearish the consensus view on China has become as economic data has worsened.

That doesn't mean he expects the next few years to be smooth sailing, just that he is increasingly convinced that President Xi Jinping's regime has the determination to see this process through.

For anyone looking for complex, nuanced and independent views on China's economic outlook Pettis' blog is a must read - check it out at blog.mpettis.com.

Meanwhile, if you're curious about the Chinese alternative rock scene check out his label - maybemars.org.

• Liam Dann travelled to China as a recipient of the New Zealand China Council Media Award

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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