After Dubai, is China the Next Bubble to Burst?

That loud hissing noise you hear is coming from Dubai, where reality is catching up with an economy built on sand — literally and figuratively.

Just don't let it drown out another one that's slowly, but steadily increasing in volume: China.

The reference is to an imbalance of global significance: not the bubble in Chinese asset prices, which the world obsessed about in 2009, but the belief that the world's third-largest economy can grow close to 10 percent indefinitely, no matter what. That's feeding a dangerous sense of complacency in Asia.

The focus has been on China's stimulus efforts and low interest rates adding froth to stock and real-estate markets. The real bubble is the expectations China is creating — ones that will be devilishly hard to meet in 2010.

China's plan was to tide the economy over until U.S. consumers begin spending again. Yet a stark reality awaits central planners in Beijing: the global demand its all-important export markets need to thrive won't turn up as planned.

Here, think more Bill Gross than Nouriel Roubini. Gross, who runs the world's biggest bond fund at Pacific Investment Management Co., has been doing the media rounds warning about the absence of demand from China's trading partners.

"It's gearing up for export that doesn't find an end consumer — that's the real problem in China," Gross told Bloomberg Television recently.

China Bubble

The China bubble of which New York University Professor Roubini speaks has more to do with easy money in Beijing, Tokyo and Washington. His worry is about "money chasing commodities" like gold, which is trading above $1,200 per ounce, and, of course, Chinese assets.

Gross isn't ignoring this market exuberance. He says China "may abandon its dollar peg within six months' time and with it, its own easy monetary policy that has fostered more significant mini-bubbles of lending and asset appreciation on the Chinese mainland."

The bust in Dubai is another sign the global credit crisis is far from over. Anyone who said even one year ago that Dubai's designs on regional economic supremacy were too grand or that it was overleveraged was shouted down as a village idiot. The place was said to be unstoppable. Well, Dubai World's debt troubles put an end to that silliness.

Wake-Up Call

Let that be a wake-up call for China. It too must clamp down on speculation-driven property markets. All too often, officials in Beijing see rising real-estate values as a prerequisite for rapid growth. It's a worrisome mindset.

Yet it's the expectations bubble that may prove more damaging. In Hanoi last week, officials I met seemed convinced Chinese growth would save the day. For all the worries about the unvalued yuan hurting Vietnam's exports, there's confidence that strong growth in a $4.3 trillion economy will buoy Asia.

Asia's growth is feeding complacency. Take South Korea's Min Euoo Sung, who laments KDB Financial Group Inc.'s failed effort to buy Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September 2008.

"We missed a very good opportunity," Chairman Min told Bomi Lim of Bloomberg News on Nov. 16. "I think we could have avoided a situation where Lehman collapsed so rapidly."

Yeah, sure — and taken Korea down with you. Min's comments smack of a hubris Asia can't afford. Korea is doing well today, and can take pride in proving wrong those who said it might become the next Iceland. Some perspective is in order, though.

Much to Do

Asia has indeed fared better than the U.S. and Europe. That's no reason to declare victory and move on. The region still needs to rebalance its growth model, deepen financial markets, improve the quality of government and cooperate more.

Min's if-only-we'd-grabbed-Lehman musings are highly unwelcome. KDB is state-owned and Min was publicly scolded by lawmakers for even attempting the deal. Lehman's radioactive portfolio would've dented confidence in South Korea at the worst possible time. Free-market folks abhor governments interfering in business. In this case, Korea's leaders served their people well.

Asia's confidence reflects its status as the only region still growing solidly. It also avoided the excesses that did in the U.S. financial system — not to mention the global one.

Sandy Ground

On Friday, a senior Chinese official, Li Wei, condemned Western investment banks for "fraudulent practices" that partly caused more than 11.4 billion yuan ($1.67 billion) of derivatives losses at state-owned companies last year. Expect more such charges from Asia.

Just because Asia deserves a pat on the back doesn't mean 2010 will be an easy year. And that speaks to Gross's point. The stimulus efforts rolled out in China and the rest of Asia are keeping growth aloft. The sustainability of that growth is becoming less certain with the other major economies limping along.

Friday's news that U.S. employers in November cut the fewest jobs since the recession began, and the unemployment rate fell, offered a ray of hope. It hardly means the kind of robust U.S. recovery Asia needs is afoot.

Just as Dubai suddenly finds the ground below its economy shifting, Asia's export-driven economies may lose their footing amid shaky global demand.

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