China’s Economy, Through Private Lenses

With ’s official economic data coming under scrutiny in recent weeks, The Wall Street Journal dances around Zhongnanhai to take an unfiltered look at China’s economic health:

Private surveys and company data might be free from fears of political manipulation, but they have their own problems. sample sizes are small (420 firms for the HSBC PMI and even less for the MNI survey) while company results are not necessarily representative of the sector as a whole.

That said, the independent data paints a picture that – with a couple of notable exceptions – is broadly consistent with the official data. Industrial output growth is decelerating , and perhaps more quickly than the government data suggests. But investment and demand for industrial commodities continue to grow, consumers are hitting the shops, and exports are flowing through the ports.

Despite second quarter GDP growth dipping to its lowest level in three years, a weekend piece in The China Daily cautioned against panic:

On July 16, The Wall Street Journal said China would drag the world economy into “another ”. On the same day, a commentary in Germany’s Die Frankfurter Zeitung titled “The fear of China crash” even warned that China is facing a catastrophic economic crash.

Some people in China, too, are worried about the continuous slowdown and a possible hard landing, and have appealed to the government to take necessary actions to sustain the 8-percent growth rate for the whole of 2012. However, these reports do not reflect the current state of the Chinese economy.

China has set this year’s growth target at 7.5 percent. So, even if the economy continues to grow at 7.6 percent in the second half, the entire year’s average will be 7.7 percent. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) envisages an annual growth rate of 7 percent. Hence, if 2012 has a growth rate of 7.7 percent, the economy needs to grow only by 6.4 percent a year from 2013 to 2015.

An 8-percent growth rate was the “red line” for China during the 1997-99 Asian financial crisis and the 2009 . But that’s no longer the case because China is shifting its focus from rapid economic growth to a more sustainable model.

In The Diplomat, however, Barry Eichengreen questions how committed China’s leadership really is to sacrificing high growth and restructuring its economy:

At one level, is a good thing that Chinese officials have these 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 , 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 . 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 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.

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