China's Economic Slowdown: How Worried Should We Be

More than a year ago I, along with several colleagues, published a paper entitled “When Fast Growing Economies Slow Down.” In it we predicted that a significant slowdown in Chinese growth was coming. While it was not possible to be precise about the timing, we warned that the number of years for which China’s GDP would continue to grow at high single-digit rates could likely be counted on the fingers of one hand.

We got considerable pushback from critics in China and elsewhere. We had underestimated China’s enormous growth potential, these commentators warned. We failed to appreciate that the country’s growth model was unique and that it was not possible to extrapolate China’s future from the experience of other fast-growing economies.

Well, the slowdown is here.

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Chinese growth in the second quarter slowed to 7.6 percent, down significantly from the double-digit norms of the past. Indeed the official figures may understate the magnitude of the change. The growth of electricity consumption has been falling even faster; at its most recent reading it has fallen to virtually zero. Unless the Chinese steel and aluminum industries have discovered how to make do without electricity, it would appear that their growth has virtually ground to a halt. That producer prices are falling is more evidence of weak demand.

The question is how much of this deceleration is structural, reflecting the fact that no economy can grow by ten percent per annum forever, and how much is cyclical, reflecting the weakness of the global economy. Clearly part of what we are seeing is structural. The Chinese population is aging. Labor force growth is slowing. Workers, especially in the urban centers, are demanding higher wages, which are being granted to ensure social stability and in response to pressure from foreign companies concerned with matters of image, all of which raises production costs. Other lower-cost national producers, in East Asia and elsewhere, are nipping at China’s heels. At the same time, part of the deceleration is cyclical. The tepid recovery in the United States and crisis in Europe augur poorly for Chinese exports, which were up by only 9 percent in the first half of 2012.  When – it is tempting to say “if” – Europe and the U.S. begin to do better, exports and the growth of the Chinese economy should pick up again.

Chinese authorities also have considerable capacity to offset the impact of these weak external conditions on their economy. As in 2009, in the wake of the Lehman Brothers shock, they are encouraging the banks to lend. They have reduced reserve requirements for the banks and cut policy rates for the first time in three years to make credit more freely available to the economy. They are encouraging state-owned enterprises to invest. Again as they did starting in 2009, they are beginning to roll out additional infrastructure projects.

At one level, it is a good thing that Chinese officials have these policy levers to pull, unlike their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe, whose policy room for maneuver is all but exhausted. The policy response prevents China from suffering unnecessary economic damage from events in Europe and the United States. Insofar as growth faster than seven percent is important for social stability, even graver risks are averted.

But at another level, the policy response is only storing up problems for the future. Prior to the current slowdown, the Chinese authorities had committed to restructuring their economy.  Restructuring meant redirecting Chinese output from foreign to domestic markets, which implied a change in the product mix, given differences in Chinese and foreign spending patterns.  Restructuring meant rebalancing domestic spending from investment to consumption. The investment rate would be lowered from a stratospheric 50 percent, given that no economy can productively invest such a large share of its national income for any length of time. There would be no more construction of ghost towns and no more bullet trains running off the rails, in other words. As wages rose, the share of consumption would be allowed to rise from 1/3 of GDP toward the 2/3 that is the international norm. Bank balance sheets would be strengthened by holding financial institutions to stricter reserve requirements and higher lending standards. The result was to be a better balanced, more stable, and less financially vulnerable Chinese economy.

Given the global slowdown and the Chinese policy response, this restructuring agenda is now on hold. The new measures will succeed in keeping high single-digit growth going for a time, as they did in 2009-10. But they will do so by aggravating the economy’s imbalances and storing up problems for the future. This is not good news for those of us concerned with China’s longer run prospects.

Barry Eichengreen is George C. Pardee and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.   

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