China rethinks the super-skyscraper arms race
William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades”.
The best indicator of whether President Xi Jinping is really reducing leverage in Asia’s largest economy might not be the data. It may be the skylines of the biggest cities in China.
As China sets the pace for recovery from COVID-19, Beijing claims to be wringing asset markets, controlling shadow banking entities and bringing local government debt under control. That’s quite a feat as much of the world is producing more stimulus amid new blockages and panic over the delta variant.
China last week demonstrated its efforts to find a balance. The People’s Bank of China cut the amount of liquidity banks must hold in reserve by 0.5 percentage points, in an effort to boost lending activity – but not too much.
Elsewhere, there are indications that Xi may finally want to do business on deleveraging. Case in point: a new ban on “super-skyscrapers”, generally defined as structures over 500 meters, and fewer approvals for buildings over 250 meters.
This movement is interesting on several levels. Super-skyscrapers have kind of been a hallmark of China for the past 20 years. About half of the 100 tallest buildings in the world are located there. Across the country, cities were enthusiastic about architectural one-upmanship. Hosting the tallest towers in the world has definitely put Kuala Lumpur on the radar screen. Why not repeat this trick in Hebei, Shenyang, Tianjin and elsewhere?
However, the real point is what this says about Xi’s determination to change the incentives for the credit boom that is jeopardizing China’s future.
Don’t minimize the symbolism. History suggests a strangely close correlation between efforts to build the world’s tallest buildings and financial crises. The likely reason: giant construction projects are often just physical manifestations of financial pride and rampant credit growth.
Ignore the link, if you wish. Hey, coincidences happen – even the very big ones. But the evidence from the past 114 years is worth considering, argue economists like Mark Thornton, author of the 2018 book “The Skyscraper Curse.”
Let’s start with the 1907-1908 construction in New York of the 47-story Singer Building and the 50-story Metropolitan Life Building. This period has become synonymous with panic thanks to a drop in stocks of almost 50%. The rush on the banks became so severe that financier JP Morgan had to lead an effort to consolidate US businesses.
Years later, around 1929, celebrations for the upcoming opening of 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building were cut short when the New York Stock Exchange collapsed. The arrival in 1931 of the 102-story Empire State Building seemed to add insult to injury as the Great Depression took its worst.
Fast forward to the early 1970s, when New York’s World Trade Center and Chicago’s Sears Tower had the Guinness World Records folks busy overhauling skyscraper tables. These new structures coincided with soaring inflation, fiscal crises in America’s largest cities and the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system.
In the 1990s, it was Asia that was looking for the sky. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 came just as the Petronas Twin Towers were nearing completion in Malaysia’s economic capital.
The early 2000s saw Taiwan claim the title with the 509-meter-tall Taipei 101. Perhaps it is just a coincidence that his 2004 baptism was accompanied by a rise in tensions with China that continue to boil over today.
Four years later, the finishing touches were made to Dubai’s 829-meter-high Burj Khalifa tower, just as the calculation of Wall Street subprime mortgages in 2008-2009 shook the global economy. The resulting volatility in oil prices hit the Middle East hard and long.
China is now the epicenter of architectural wonders in search of records. In 2015, the Shanghai Tower, the tallest crooked building in the world, was completed as Chinese stocks collapsed. In the summer of 2015, a 30% drop in the Shanghai stock exchanges in just a few weeks prompted the government to halt trading for several days and suspend initial public offerings.
The opening in 2017 of the Ping An Finance Center in Shenzhen, then the fourth tallest building, coincided with the start of US President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. Fun fact: Since 1995, Trump has held the lease on 40 Wall Street, the structure opened in the midst of the Depression.
Now, of course, China is rethinking the super-skyscraper arms race. At present, five of the 10 buildings that exceed 500 meters are on the mainland.
Part of the ban is about safety. In May, authorities closed a 72-story tower in Shenzhen amid an unexplained wobble. This is a very big metaphor for China’s penchant for speed – and for prioritizing the quality of economic growth over quality.
Yet China’s architectural crackdown also appears to be aimed at accelerating Xi’s deleveraging push. Beijing’s decree appears to recognize that the drive to build higher and higher is driven by supercharged monetary excesses even more than advances in engineering technology. More often than not, tall buildings have been on the top, literally, of boom-bust cycles.
Can China beat the curse of the skyscrapers? Granted, he survived the brushes of 2015 and 2017 with a Tower-related fate. Xi’s Communist Party has bent the Internet, World Trade Organization standards, and the principles of capitalism to its own will. There is certainly a possibility that he could avoid the Minsky moment, or when a credit-fueled boom ends badly, that all other countries are facing.
Either way, Beijing’s ban on exaggerated skyscrapers, and the overlapping excesses behind them, could be a sign that Xi is truly stabilizing China’s foundations.