transfers both encouraged massive waste and created the imbalances that required this massive waste to continue.
China is still vulnerable to a debt crisis, but if President Xi can continue to restrain and frighten the vested interests that will inevitably oppose the necessary Chinese economic adjustment, he may in the next one or two years be able even to get credit growth under control, before debt levels make an orderly adjustment impossible.
It won’t be easy, and already there are many worried about the politically destabilizing impact his measures may have. The Financial Times, for example, had the following article:
Mr Xi came of age in that turbulent time and watched as his elite revolutionary family and everything he knew were torn to pieces. Now it seems it is his turn to wreak havoc on the cozy networks of power and wealth that have established themselves in the era of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. In recent weeks, the president’s signature campaign against official corruption appears to have spilled into something more significant and potentially destabilising for the increasingly autocratic regime.
Clearly there are many risks to Xi’s political campaign, and unfortunately I have no special insight into how these are likely to play out, but if Xi is able to consolidate power enough to impose the reforms proposed during the Third Plenum, Chinese growth rates will continue to decline sharply but in an orderly way. Average growth during the decade of his administration will drop to below 3-4%, but an orderly adjustment means that not only will the hidden transfers from the household sector be eliminated, they will also be reversed.
If China can reform land ownership, reform the hukou system, enforce a fairer and more predictable legal system on businesses, reduce rent-capturing by oligopolistic elites, reform the financial system (both liberalizing interest rates and improving the allocation of capital), and even privatize assets, 3-4% GDP growth can be accompanied by growth in household income of 5-7%. Remember that by definition rebalancing means that household income must grow faster than GDP (as happened in Japan during the 1990-2010 period).
This has important implications. First, the idea that slower GDP growth will cause social disturbance or even chaos because of angry, unemployed mobs is not true. If Chinese households can continue to see their income growth maintained at 5% or higher, they will be pretty indifferent to the seeming collapse in GDP growth (as indeed Japanese households were during the 1990-2010 period). Second, because consumption creates a more labor-intensive demand than investment, much lower GDP growth does not necessarily equate to much higher unemployment.
A “good” and orderly adjustment, in other words, might look a little like this:
1. GDP growth must drop every year for the next five or six years by at least 1 percentage point a year. If it drops faster, the period of low growth will be shorter. If it drops more slowly, the period of low growth will be stretched out. On average, GDP growth during President Xi’s administration will not exceed 3-4%.
2. But this does not mean that household income growth will drop by nearly that amount. Rebalancing means, remember, that household consumption growth must outpace GDP growth, and the only sustainable way for this to happen is for household income growth also to outpace GDP growth.
If consumption grows by four percentage points more than GDP, Chinese household consumption will be 50-55% of GDP in a decade – still low, but no longer exceptionally low and quite manageable for the Chinese economy. This suggests that if investment growth is zero and the trade surplus does not vary much, 3-4% GDP growth is consistent with 6-7% household income growth. It might be in principle possible to pull this off if Beijing is able to transfer 2-4% of GDP from the state or elite sector to the household sector by reforming the hukou system, land reform, privatizations, and other transfers, but of course we shouldn’t assume that this level of household income growth will be easy to maintain once investment growth, and with it GDP growth, drops sharply.
3. What about employment? If investment growth falls sharply, especially investment in the real estate sector, it should cause unemployment to surge, which of course puts downward pressure on household income growth as well as on consumption growth, potentially pushing China into a self-reinforcing downward spiral. This, I think, is one of the biggest risks to an orderly adjustment. The good news is that if large initial wealth transfers to households can kick start a rise in consumption, growth driven by household consumption, especially growth in services, tends to be much more labor intensive than the capital-intensive investment growth that too-low interest rates have forced onto China. A transfer of domestic demand from investment to consumption implies, in other words, that employment growth can be maintained at much lower levels of GDP growth.
Alternatively the state sector can mop up unemployed workers by putting them into make-work jobs, even if they are not economically productive – more infrastructure anyone? – but if we do not want this to worsen the imbalances and reverse the adjustment, they key is how these jobs are funded. If the state funds these unproductive workers by borrowing at repressed rates from households, or by otherwise raising direct or hidden household taxes, this way of managing unemployment will indeed serve simply to prevent or even reverse the adjustment process. But if these jobs are funded by the liquidation of state assets, by borrowing at real market rates, or by indirect transfers from the state, they become one of the ways in which wealth is transferred to households, and the Chinese economic can continue to adjust successfully.
4. What about the debt, which is the other great risk to an orderly and successful Chinese adjustment? There are two things China can do to address its substantial debt problem. First, it can simply transfer debt directly onto the government balance sheet so as to clean up banks, SOEs and local governments, thus preventing financial distress costs from causing Chinese growth to collapse. As long as this government debt is rolled over continuously at non-repressed interest rates, which will be low as nominal GDP growth drops, China can rebalance the economy without a collapse in growth. This, essentially, is what Japan did in the 1990s.
The problem with this solution is that it is politically attractive (no wealth transfers from the elite to ordinary households) but it does not fundamentally address China’s debt problem, but rather simply rolls it forward. In that case the burgeoning government debt will itself prevent China, once the economy is rebalanced, from ever regaining rapid growth. I have previously explained why the debt burden can prevent growth in my discussions of why I do not think Abenomics can succeed, if by success we mean raising inflation and real GDP growth. What’s more, if a relatively poor, volatile economy like that of China cannot bear the debt levels that a country lie Japan can bear, it is not clear that this solution will work even during the rebalancing period.
A real solution to the debt problem, in other words, may involve initially a transfer of debt onto the government balance sheet, but ultimately Beijing must then take real steps to lower debt relative to debt capacity. This may involve using privatization proceeds to pay down debt, higher corporate taxes, and even higher income taxes if other forms of wealth transfer are robust enough to support them, but one way or another total government debt must be reduced, or at least its growth must be contained to less than real GDP growth.
5. Although it may be hard to see it in the economic ratios, or in any real restraint in credit expansion, in fact Beijing has already taken serious steps towards rebalancing, although it may take a few more years to see this in the consumption share of GDP. The three most important of the transfers that created the imbalance have all reversed. The currency may still be undervalued, but not by nearly the extent it has been in the past, wages have risen quickly in recent years, and, most importantly by far, the financial repression tax has collapsed, and even nearly disappeared, which it will do fully in the next two years as nominal GDP growth continues to fall (as long as the PBoC does not reduce rates by much more than one or two percentage points over the next two years). Even the much-ballyhooed decision to improve the environment represents a partial reversal of one of the sources of the household share imbalance.
All of these mean that the hidden transfers that both generated spectacular growth in economic activity (if not always in economic value creation) and the unprecedented drop in the household income share of GDP no longer exist, or do so to a significantly reduced extent. It will take time for the elimination of these transfers to work themselves fully though the economy, but we are already seeing their very obvious initial impacts in the much lower GDP growth numbers, even as credit creation remains high.
Credit creation remains the great risk to the economy. It is still growing much too quickly. I think there are few people in Beijing who do not understand the risk, so my guess is that political constraints are the main reason that credit has not been more sharply reduced. I believe that the president cannot allow too sharp a contraction in credit growth until he feels fully secure politically, and for me the pace at which credit is brought under control is, to a large extent, an indication of the pace of the process of power consolidation.
The best-case scenario
Although I am still cautiously optimistic that Beijing will pull off an orderly rebalancing, I want to stress that the scenario described above is not my predicted scenario. It is, instead, an examination of the best case of an orderly transition towards a more balanced economy.
As regular readers know I am not very comfortable making predictions, preferring instead to try to understand the structure of an economic system and work out logically the various ways in which that system can evolve. The description above is one of the ways in which it can evolve, and because I think this is probably the best-case scenario, I thought it might prove useful as a way of framing thinking about the adjustment process for China.
One caveat: This is not necessarily the best-case assumption. I can make certain assumptions, which I haven’t made because I believe them to be implausible, although not impossible, that lead to a better outcome. If the global economy were to recover much more quickly than most of us expect, and, much more importantly, if Beijing were to initiate a far more aggressive program of privatization and wealth transfer than I think politically possible, perhaps transferring in the first few years the equivalent of as much as 2-5% of GDP, the surge in household income could unleash much stronger consumption growth than we have seen in the past. This could cause GDP growth over the Xi administration period to be higher than my 3-4% best-case scenario.
The amount of the direct or indirect wealth transfer from the state sector to ordinary households is, I think, the most important variable in understanding China’s adjustment. The pace of growth will be driven largely by the pace of household income growth, which will itself be driven largely by the pace of direct or indirect wealth transfers to ordinary Chinese households. If we could guess this right, much else would almost automatically follow.