China: Recognizing the End of the Growth Miracle

China: Recognizing the End of the Growth Miracle
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the floor on the benchmark lending rate and by increasing lending to small- and medium-sized businesses. Both policies are problematic.

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The Chinese have maintained a strategy of depending on exports without taking into account the operation of the business cycle in the West, which means that periodic and substantial contractions of demand will occur. China’s industrial plant is geared to Western demand. When Western demand contracted, the result was the mess you see now.

The Chinese economy could perhaps be growing at 7.4 percent, but I doubt the number is anywhere near that. Some estimates place growth at closer to 5 percent. Regardless of growth, the ability to maintain profit margins is rarely considered. Producing and selling at or even below cost will boost GDP numbers but undermines the financial system. This happened to Japan in the early 1990s. And it is happening in China now.

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The Chinese can prevent the kind of crash that struck East Asia in 1997. Their currency isn’t convertible, so there can’t be a run on it. They continue to have a command economy; they are still communist, after all. But they cannot avoid the consequences of their economic reality, and the longer they put off the day of reckoning, the harder it will become to recover from it. They have already postponed the reckoning far longer than they should have. They would postpone it further if they could by continuing to support failing businesses with loans. They can do that for a very long time — provided they are prepared to emulate the Soviet model’s demise. The Chinese don’t want that, but what they do want is a miraculous resolution to their problem. There are no solutions that don’t involve agony, so they put off the day of reckoning and slowly decline.

China’s Transformation

The Chinese are not going to completely collapse economically any more than the Japanese or South Koreans did. What will happen is that China will behave differently than before. With no choices that don’t frighten them, the Chinese will focus on containing the social and political fallout, both by trying to target benefits to politically sensitive groups and by using their excellent security apparatus to suppress and deter unrest. The Chinese economic performance will degrade, but crisis will be avoided and political interests protected. Since much of China never benefited from the boom, there is a massive force that has felt marginalized and victimized by coastal elites. That is not a bad foundation for the Communist Party to rely on.

The key is understanding that if China cannot solve its problems without unacceptable political consequences, it will try to stretch out the decline. Japan had a lost decade only in the minds of Western investors, who implicitly value aggregate GDP growth over other measures of success such as per capita GDP growth or full employment. China could very well face an extended period of intense inwardness and low economic performance. The past 30 years is a tough act to follow.

The obvious economic impact on the rest of the world will fall on the producers of industrial commodities such as iron ore. The extravagant expectations for Chinese growth will not be met, and therefore expectations for commodity prices won’t be met. Since the Chinese economic failure has been underway for quite awhile, the degradation in prices has already happened. Australia in particular has been badly hit by the Chinese situation, just as it was by the Japanese situation a generation ago.

The Chinese are, of course, keeping a great deal of money in U.S. government instruments and other markets. Contrary to fears, that money will not be withdrawn. The Chinese problem isn’t a lack of capital, and repatriating that money would simply increase inflation. Had the Chinese been able to put that money to good use, it would have never been invested in the United States in the first place. The outflow of money from China was a symptom of the disease: Lacking the structure to invest in China, the government and private funds went overseas. In so doing, Beijing sought to limit destabilization in China, while private Chinese funds looked for a haven against the storm that was already blowing.

Rather than the feared repatriation of funds, the United States will continue to be the target of major Chinese cash inflows. In a world where Europe is still reeling, only the United States is both secure and large enough to contain Chinese appetites for safety. Just as Japanese investment in the 1990s represented capital flight rather than a healthy investment appetite, so the behavior we have seen from Chinese investors in recent years is capital flight: money searching for secure havens regardless of return. This money has underpinned American markets; it is not going away, and in fact more is on the way.

The major shift in the international order will be the decline of China’s role in the region. China’s ability to project military power in Asia has been substantially overestimated. Its geography limits its ability to project power in Eurasia, an endeavor that would require logistics far beyond China’s capacity. Its naval capacity is still limited compared with the United States. The idea that it will compensate for internal economic problems by genuine (as opposed to rhetorical) military action is therefore unlikely. China has a genuine internal security problem that will suck the military, which remains a domestic security force, into actions of little value. In our view, the most important shift will be the re-emergence of Japan as the dominant economic and political power in East Asia in a slow process neither will really want.

China will continue to be a major power, and it will continue to matter a great deal economically. Being troubled is not the same as ceasing to exist. China will always exist. It will, however, no longer be the low-wage, high-growth center of the world. Like Japan before it, it will play a different role.

In the global system, there are always low-wage, high-growth countries because the advanced industrial powers’ consumers want to absorb goods at low wages. Becoming a supplier of those goods is a major opportunity for, and disruptor to, those countries. No one country can replace China, but China will be replaced. The next step in this process is identifying China’s successors.
Recognizing the End of the Chinese Economic Miracle is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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