Crisis seen from the Sinosphere (II)

Written by Julen Madariaga on May 13th, 2009

From the post left unfinished last week. Some of the main arguments read (or heard) in China Crisis discussions:

The Time

Economies don’t grow indefinitely.  Low cycles follow high cycles and after 30 years it is about time. China cannot break the laws of economics, so the recession must necessarily come in the next X years. The country hasn’t prepared itself politically and psicologically to face this period. In the end, we are sure to have trouble.

Of course, this argument is of little value without the X, and many proponents of a time limit have failed in the past. This is the field of technical analysts and other mystical thinkers. Mythology also plays a role:  In Chinese history, cataclysms mark the end of a cycle. An earthquake preceded this crisis, and a solar eclipse is coming in July, the dynasty has lost its virtue. These arguments tend to work better with a bit of hindsight.

The Markets

The World’s economies are interdependent today. China’s economy is largely dependent on exports and FDI. The weight of these external factors in China’s growth has been much discussed, but regardless of the exact numbers, few doubt that it is a significant motor of the economy. External motors failing, China turns to internal ones: investment and consumption. Today, strong public investment, mostly in infrastructure and energy, is making up for the loss.

But infrastructure on its own does not move an economy, an empty highway is dead weight. Its value lies in the economic activities that are created or improved by using it, and those activities need markets to get them going in the long term. Optimists have pointed out that the crisis might turn developed economies to cheaper products, but international markets are saturated with cheap Chinese wares, and the latest news are discouraging. This leaves the Chinese consumer.

The People

Since the urban consumer was already developing at full speed, it is to the masses of Chinese peasants that all the eyes turned when a new market was needed to replace the failing exports. The peasants had been left out of the economic miracle, and measures were announced to get them back in.  But few of those social measures have materialized in any significant way, and the government seems to realize that this is a long term effort, not to be mistaken with an emergency financial package.

 Chinese peasants don’t like to spend money. They like to save it.  Some argue this is an immutable principle of a post-confucian society, others attribute it to the lack of “safety nets”, such as  health care plans, and the fact that poverty is still seen as a very real option.  Perhaps Chinese have too much common sense, and in the face of all evidence, they continue to act as if working hard and being thrifty will make you richer.

Meanwhile, the optimists of internal consumption see hope in the low-tier cities, the segments of the population that have already abandoned the peasant lifestyle, but still have a long way to reach East Coast level. 

The Government

China’s authoritarian system has some advantages over Western systems. The executive can take strong, quick measures unhindered by parliament debate and popularity surveys. A good example is the stimulus package. China was the first major country to announce it, and it is has been the biggest  relative to the size of the economy. Government technocrats tend to know more of economics than voters.

But some see in the system the seeds of disaster. The Son of Heaven is human, and bound to the wheel of favours, factions, patrons and clients. The lack of checks and balances makes it easy  for personal interests to take precedence over the common good. Some have a stake in the stock market, others in real estate, there are ways to pump up these markets with the connivance of Beijing. One day they might all decide it is time to cash in, and the rest of the population will be caught by surprise, watcing the CCTV report with the 8% growth spreadsheet. Lack of transparency usually works well to bubble up crises. 

The Package

China has a good package, timely and sizable. Few doubt now that it has delivered the desired stimuli. The thrust in infrastructure and energy investment is spilling its effects over the rest of the economy, and the feared legions of the unemployed are still nowhere to be seen today. 

But the package can only be a temporary patch, as we have seen above, and its function is just to cover the gap until the economy gets back to normal. In the meantime, the investments should be preparing the path for the return of sustainable growth.

Optimists point at the positive parts of the package, such as social measures, education, or development of new sectors of the economy in biotech or renewable energies. Pessimists note that the bulk of the package is actually flowing into very few sectors related to heavy construction, and this will cause unbalances and excess capacities the minute the financial tap is turned off.  In their view, the package is just postponing/aggravating the consequences. Some mention the devastating and unpredictable specter of deflation.

The Chest

China has also a nice chest. It is a war chest, and it is full of foreign-exchange reserves denominated in dollars. Optimists and lovers of logic alike see salvation in these reserves. They like to point out that China has room to go on with its package for a long time, thanks to all the years that the country has spent saving saving money and acting as “Americas banker”.

From a plain logical point of view, this makes sense, but unfortunately financial logic is anything but plain. The specialists in the area are quick to remind us that these reserves are not unencumbered wealth, and not free for the government to use. The central and provincial governments finances are already under stress, and the banking system is channeling all financial resources to the package SOEs, with the consequence of drying up available finance for other sectors of the economy.

The Riots

One of the main subjects in the Crisis discussions has been the possibility of large scale riots caused by unemployment. These riots could have the effect of destabilizing the system, with consequences in politics as well as in the economy. Perhaps because of the political derivations, unemployment has attracted a lot of attention from Western observers. Around the turn of the year, when the Western Christmas season was over and many semi-seasonal workshops were closing, the discussion reached the peak of popularity.

But the package has kicked in, and for the moment unemployment doesn’t show signs of getting out of control. The riots have increased in number, but they remain essentially local in nature, directed to claim arrears from a particular company, or against local authorities. There is a climate of relative optimism among the Chinese, and it looks like the the propaganda package that came with the financial one is having the desired soothing effects.

Inflation/Deflation

Predictably, another high point will come when the investment package is left behind, or when the financial situation makes it unsustainable to continue pushing it. At this point, we might see more passionating discussions, with the added appeal of possible deflation risks. 

Inflation has historically been a major cause of riots and wars, so a logical mind would assume that its opposite -deflation- has opposite effects, forcing everyone to stay in at home reading self-improvement books and drinking green tea. I doubt very much the economists will let us get away with this theory. In the meantime, I will stay tuned to the blogosphere for any interesting development to add to this list.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. May
    15
    10:48
    AM
    Richard

    A nice thoughtful overview. I was just chatting with a friend yesterday about how of course it does seem reasonably obvious that economies do not grow forever (though not maybe what we are supposed to believe). When you throw into the mix a couple of so-called developing nations with large populations, who are maybe still in the foothills in terms of growth, those so-called developed economies will maybe feel the downside a little difficult to bear. As someone who has enjoyed settling in China and who has done so with half an eye on the future, I am interested to see what happens in China at point X, sometime in the future, when they face that scenario laden with the historical, cultural, idealistic, socio-political, philosophical and realistic baggage that will go along with it.

  2. May
    16
    3:18
    AM
    uln

    Sure, China is still a developing country and the system is in many ways more fragile than in more stable, well-established economies. Some feel that a strong CPC government controlling the population is the best guarantee to avoid problems.

    Others think exactly the opposite: that a responsible, mature and empowered civil society is the best foundation for a sustainable economy to survive the hard times. The crisis has not really hit China yet, but when/if it does, we will see who was right.

    Sorry to other commentators on this blog, I have been a bit absent from comments these days because I was into an interesting debate here:

    http://blog.foolsmountain.com/2009/05/08/sorting-fact-from-fiction-–-tiananmen-revisited-part-1/#comment-36623

  3. May
    16
    4:06
    AM
    Carey Rowland

    China seems to be a fairly accurate manifestation of the dialectic as set forth by Hegel, Marx, and Engels. Is it not a synthesis of an old thesis (communism), being impacted by an antithesis (capitalism), and yielding a new system-what to call it? Perhaps we can only describe it as…China.
    Chinism? Ferguson calls it “Chimerica.”
    We shall see, as you point out, what emerges from the Middle Kingdom when “the crisis” hits China.
    Carey Rowland, author of Glass half-Full