Planet Money | Podcast Review | September 12, 2015 | By

Planet Money #649: “China, China, China”

Like Jon Snow, I know nothing—particularly about China’s stock market. Planet Money is here to help.


Sometimes you just have to show up and do your job. You were brought into the company because there is that one thing that you are really, really good at, that thing that you just have a knack for. And when it comes down to the wire, you’re the one who is expected to step up. For Planet Money, Wednesday was the time to get to work.

China, China, China” was in some ways a callback to the early days of the show. Planet Money launched on September 9th, 2008, shortly after the US government nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Its first episode, “The Economist’s Nightmate: No Bailout,” consists of Adam Davidson on location at the University of Virginia, where he interviews former financial ministers from around the globe. Listening back to the premiere, its clear that people are scared. Really scared. And nothing is more concerting, even in hindsight, than listening to petrified experts.

And the production reflects it: there is no music, there is no mincing of words, no cute banter. The editing is curt, even harsh. The ministers want to say, emphatically, “this financial crisis, it’s serious to a degree that is impossible to overstate.” They, without irony, throw around words like catastrophic and apocalyptic. It’s worth a listen; it helps me to remember how close we came to real disaster, and how far we have come.

And as I am sure you’ve read, China’s going through some stuff. It’s stock market has been going through a months-long slide, after experiencing what must be described as preposterous growth—it grew 250% between January 2014 and June 2015. It has been the case, for decades, that experts have predicted a slowdown of China’s economic growth, as its economy matures and its industries shift to support a new middle class. But it is relatively unclear that that’s what’s happening here. Economic analysis of China is complicated by the fact that the ability to buy and sell stock is a relatively new option there, and their financial data are notoriously unreliable. Still, more than 30 million new trading accounts were opened in the first five months of 2015 (more than five times the total number opened in all of 2014), more than two-thirds of which were opened by investors who never graduated from high school. More concerting still, many seem to be investing with borrowed capital.

And now, the bubble seems to have burst. Or, the market is correcting for unsustainable growth, and will shortly resume its growth. Or, something else is happening entirely. As the episode explains, it is hard to know what exactly this drop means. Apparently, China’s markets are a bit like a casino—stock performance often seems random, divorced from the reality of a company’s financial lot. And so, the fall is hard to study as an indicator of their economy as a whole.

But Planet Money, separated from much of its now-characteristic whimsy and narrative signature, gets to work in explaining what all of this could mean for China and for the rest of the global economy. If you usually listen for the anatomy of the Song of the Summer, or to find out how accurate a crowd’s guess about a cow’s weight is, this episode isn’t for you.

But, in truth, I guess it really is.

I don’t seek out financial news. Despite my financially-minded friends’ best efforts, I don’t really understand what a P/E ratio is, or what it tells you about when to buy stock. Like Jon Snow, I know nothing. Or at least I didn’t. But I followed the episode well, and by the end, I felt like I really understood the economic situation in China. Which, even writing it now, never felt like a sentence I would be able to say. And, what’s more, to the show’s immense credit, I really enjoyed learning about it.

So, check it out. I give it a rating of five out of five Stock Chart emojis.

About the Author

Eric McDaniel is the founder of Audiologue, where he covers 99% Invisible. Right now, his favorite shows are Mystery Show and Cortex. Find him on Twitter @ericmmcd, or by email at eric@audiologue.xyz.

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