December 14, 2022
This op-ed of mine was published in the Wall Street Journal on September 12, 2012. You can read below or view the original here. At the very last moment, one paragraph was cut from the final version, presumably due to space limitations. I have restored it here in italics, because the crisis facing Suntech (the world’s largest solar panel maker) make it clearer that what we’re seeing here is an industry-wide problem and not something restricted to a single troubled competitor.
China’s Solyndra Economy
Government subsidies to green energy and high-speed rail have led to mounting losses and costly bailouts. This is not a road the U.S. should travel.
By PATRICK CHOVANEC
On Aug. 3, the owner of Chengxing Solar Company leapt from the sixth floor of his office building in Jinhua, China. Li Fei killed himself after his company was unable to repay a $3 million bank loan it had guaranteed for another Chinese solar company that defaulted. One local financial newspaper called Li’s suicide “a sign of the imminent collapse facing the Chinese photovoltaic industry” due to overcapacity and mounting debts.
President Barack Obama has held up China’s investments in green energy and high-speed rail as examples of the kind of state-led industrial policy that America should be emulating. The real lesson is precisely the opposite. State subsidies have spawned dozens of Chinese Solyndras that are now on the verge of collapse.
Unveiled in 2010, Beijing’s 12th Five-Year Plan identified solar and wind power and electric automobiles as “strategic emerging industries” that would receive substantial state support. Investors piled into the favored sectors, confident the government’s backing would guarantee success. Barely two years later, all three industries are in dire straits.
This summer, the NYSE-listed LDK Solar, the world’s second largest polysilicon solar wafer producer, defaulted on $95 million owed to over 20 suppliers. The company lost $589 million in the fourth quarter of 2011 and another $185 million in the first quarter of 2012, and has shed nearly 10,000 jobs. The government in LDK’s home province of Jiangxi scrambled to pledge $315 million in public bailout funds, terrified that any further defaults could pull down hundreds of local companies.
Meanwhile another NYSE-listed Chinese solar company, Suntech, revealed on July 30 that the German government bonds an affiliate pledged as security for a $689 million bank loan it guaranteed never existed. Suntech, the world’s largest producer of solar panels, claims it was the victim of fraud. Considering Suntech already owed $3.6 billion (for a debt-asset ratio of 82%), and lost $149 million in the fourth quarter of 2011 and $133 million in the first quarter of 2012, many analysts believe the company could go bankrupt without a sizable government bailout.
Chinese solar companies blame many of their woes on the antidumping tariffs recently imposed by the U.S. and Europe. The real problem, however, is rampant overinvestment driven largely by subsidies. Since 2010, the price of polysilicon wafers used to make solar cells has dropped 73%, according to Maxim Group, while the price of solar cells has fallen 68% and the price of solar modules 57%. At these prices, even low-cost Chinese producers are finding it impossible to break even.
Wind power is seeing similar overcapacity. China’s top wind turbine manufacturers, Goldwind and Sinovel, saw their earnings plummet by 83% and 96% respectively in the first half of 2012, year-on-year. Domestic wind farm operators Huaneng and Datang saw profits plunge 63% and 76%, respectively, due to low capacity utilization. China’s national electricity regulator, SERC, reported that 53% of the wind power generated in Inner Mongolia province in the first half of this year was wasted. One analyst told China Securities Journal that “40-50% of wind power projects are left idle,” with many not even connected to the grid.
A few years ago, Shenzhen-based BYD (short for “Build Your Dreams”) was a media darling that brought in Warren Buffett as an investor. It was going to make China the dominant player in electric automobiles. Despite gorging on green energy subsidies, BYD sold barely 8,000 hybrids and 400 fully electric cars last year, while hemorrhaging cash on an ill-fated solar venture. Company profits for the first half of 2012 plunged 94% year-on-year.
China’s high-speed rail ambitions put the Ministry of Railways so deeply in debt that by the end of last year it was forced to halt all construction and ask Beijing for a $126 billion bailout. Central authorities agreed to give it $31.5 billion to pay its state-owned suppliers and avoid an outright default, and had to issue a blanket guarantee on its bonds to help it raise more. While a handful of high-traffic lines, such as the Shanghai-Beijing route, have some prospect of breaking even, Prof. Zhao Jian of Beijing Jiaotong University compared the rest of the network to “a 160-story luxury hotel where only 11 stories are used and the occupancy rate of those floors is below 50%.”
China’s Railway Ministry racked up $1.4 billion in losses for the first six months of this year, and an internal audit has uncovered dangerous defects due to lax construction on 12 new lines, which will have to be repaired at the cost of billions more. Minister Liu Zhijun, the architect of China’s high-speed rail system, was fired in February 2011 and will soon be prosecuted on corruption charges that reportedly include embezzling some $120 million. One of his lieutenants, the deputy chief engineer, is alleged to have funneled $2.8 billion into an offshore bank account.
Many in Washington have developed a serious case of China-envy, seeing it as an exemplar of how to run an economy. In fact, Beijing’s mandarins are no better at picking winners, and just as prone to blow money on boondoggles, as their Beltway counterparts.
In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama declared, “I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China . . . because we refuse to make the same commitment here.” Given what’s really happening in China, he may want to think again.