Stratfor has published an excellent article summarizing the latest developments in China, and discussing their implications for that country’s economy. It’s sobering stuff, because China’s the manufacturing engine of the entire world’s consumer economy right now. If China suffers a serious economic downturn, it can’t help but have a ripple effect around the globe. Here’s an excerpt.
… the past few months have seen a sea change. We have gone from China the omnipotent, the belief that there was nothing the Chinese couldn’t work out, to the realization that China no longer works.
It has not been working for some time. One of things masking China’s weakening has been Chinese statistics, which Krugman referred to as “even more fictional than most” … Beijing … uses its numbers to shape perceptions inside and outside China of how it is doing. The Chinese release their annual gross domestic product numbers in the third week of January (and only revise them the following year). They can’t possibly know how they did that fast, and they don’t. But they do know what they want the world to believe about their growth, and the world has believed them — hence, the fantastic tales of economic growth.
. . .
We can say without a doubt that China’s economy has grown dramatically in the past 30 years but that it is no longer growing nearly as quickly as it once did.
China’s growth surge was built on a very unglamorous fact: Chinese wages were far below Western wages, and therefore the Chinese were able to produce a certain class of products at lower cost than possible in the West. The Chinese built businesses around this, and Western companies built factories in China to take advantage of the differential. Since Chinese workers were unable to purchase many of the products they produced given their wages, China built its growth on exports.
For this to continue, China had to maintain its wage differential indefinitely. But China had another essential policy: Beijing was terrified of unemployment and the social consequences that flow from it. This was a rational fear, but one that contradicted China’s main strength, its wage advantage. Because the Chinese feared unemployment, Chinese policy, manifested in bank lending policies, stressed preventing unemployment by keeping businesses going even when they were inefficient. China also used bank lending to build massive infrastructure and commercial and residential property. Over time, this policy created huge inefficiencies in the Chinese economy. Without recessions, inefficiencies develop. Growing the economy is possible, but not growing profitability. Eventually, the economy will be dragged down by its inefficiency.
As businesses become inefficient, production costs rise. And that leads to inflation. As money is lent to keep inefficient businesses going, inflation increases even more markedly. The increase in inefficiency is compounded by the growth of the money supply prompted by aggressive lending to keep the economy going. As this persisted over many years, the inefficiencies built into the Chinese economy have become staggering.
The second thing to bear in mind is the overwhelming poverty of China, where 900 million people have an annual per capita income around the same level as Guatemala, Georgia, Indonesia or Mongolia ($3,000-$3,500 a year), while around 500 million of those have an annual per capita income around the same level as India, Nicaragua, Ghana, Uzbekistan or Nigeria ($1,500-$1,700). China’s overall per capita GDP is around the same level as the Dominican Republic, Serbia, Thailand or Jamaica. Stimulating an economy where more than a billion people live in deep poverty is impossible. Economic stimulus makes sense when products can be sold to the public. But the vast majority of Chinese cannot afford the products produced in China, and therefore, stimulus will not increase consumption of those products. As important, stimulating demand so that inefficient factories can sell products is not only inflationary, it is suicidal. The task is to increase consumption, not to subsidize inefficiency.
The Chinese are thus in a trap. If they continue aggressive lending to failing businesses, they get inflation. That increases costs and makes the Chinese less competitive in exports, which are also falling due to the recession in Europe and weakness in the United States. Allowing businesses to fail brings unemployment, a massive social and political problem. The Chinese have zigzagged from cracking down on lending by regulating informal lending and raising interbank rates to loosening restrictions on lending by removing the floor on the benchmark lending rate and by increasing lending to small- and medium-sized businesses. Both policies are problematic.
There’s more at the link. It’s well worth reading.
(This excerpt from ‘Recognizing the End of the Chinese Economic Miracle‘ is republished with permission of Stratfor.)