June 28 (Bloomberg) -- China has become an economic giant because it has so many people who are producing moderate amounts. In most ways, however, China remains an underdeveloped country with political and economic policy tools that are crude by Western standards. Those tools can spur impressive growth --but they also mask some deep structural weaknesses in China’s economy.
It’s relatively easy for developing countries to grow by emulating the technology of advanced nations or, in China’s case, by forcing them to share it as the price of doing business or by simply stealing it.
And a tightly controlled economy can get results quickly. That’s what happened with China’s $586 billion stimulus program introduced in 2009. Growth in gross domestic product leaped from a 6 percent rate in early 2009 back to double digits. Most of the money was channeled through government-controlled banks, whose lending increased by $1.4 trillion, or 32 percent, over the course of 2009 after being flat since early 2006. The money supply increased by 29 percent.
Those loans financed public and industrial infrastructure and real estate. Property prices in January 2010 were up 9.5 percent from a year earlier, according to government numbers, and much more by private realistic estimates. Employment gained along with economic activity, and in the third quarter of 2009, there were 94 job openings for every 100 applicants, up from 85 in depressed 2008, and close to the pre-crisis average of 97.
Here’s what we should remember: This kind of growth is unsustainable, and it won’t be able to cover up China’s underlying vulnerabilities forever.
China’s reliance on exports and a controlled currency for growth, for instance, will no longer work if U.S. consumers are engaged in a chronic saving spree, as I believe they will be. Chinese export growth, which averaged 21 percent per year in the last decade, is bound to suffer.
The country’s seemingly inexhaustible pool of cheap labor is expected to peak in 2014, in part due to its rigid one-child policy. By some estimates, ample labor has boosted GDP growth by 1.8 percentage points annually since the late 1970s, but the contraction of the working-age population will reduce growth by 0.7 percentage points by 2030.
Wages and Ages
Wages are already rising, and even Chinese manufacturers are moving production to Vietnam and Pakistan, where pay levels are a third of China’s. Some factory workers have seen wage increases of 20 percent to 30 percent in the last year or so, with those producing goods for foreign companies seeing especially large boosts. At the same time, better conditions in rural areas have reduced the flow of cheap labor into coastal cities.
As the Chinese population ages, the ratio of retirees to working-age people is forecast to rise from 39 percent last year to 46 percent in 2025.
This does not bode well for China’s future growth. When Communist Party leaders transitioned China’s economy from a cradle-to-grave nanny state to a progressively free-market one starting in 1978, no meaningful unemployment, retirement or state health systems were instituted. (Although President Hu Jintao said in October that China will “institute a social safety net that covers all,” and the government has set a goal of providing basic medical care for all Chinese by 2020.)
So the Chinese must save prodigiously to provide for their welfare and retirement. This has contributed mightily to China’s high rate of saving and low rate of spending, and its consequent reliance on exports. Chinese households save close to 30 percent of income on average, in large part to cover old age and medical costs.
Yes, the Chinese saving rate will be pushed down in time by aging Chinese who still consume but no longer work, much as it has in Japan. Nevertheless, less saving and more Chinese consumption won’t substitute for weakening exports any time soon. Chinese consumers buy only about one-tenth of those in Europe and the U.S. combined. As the euro zone remains troubled, and the U.K. slashes government stimulus and U.S. consumers continue to retrench, it’s unlikely that a drop in Chinese saving could offset the negative effects of reduced exports.
Finally, China’s state-controlled economic boom may soon lead to crippling inflation. In February 2010, the director of the National Bureau of Statistics said that “asset-price increases pose a challenge for macroeconomic policy.”
The housing boom has pushed up prices to the point that apartments in Beijing are affordable to only the top 20 percent of earners -- they’re selling at about 22 times average income (average U.S. house prices peaked at six times average income). A square meter of property in China costs an estimated 164 times per-capita income, compared with 33 times in high-priced Japan.
The 2009 stimulus package also spurred consumer price inflation to a year-over-year acceleration of 5.5 percent in May. Food prices are very sensitive politically because so many Chinese are at subsistence incomes, and they rose 11.7 percent in May from a year earlier.
Chinese leaders are not amused, and are taking stringent restraining actions. But with only blunt-force economic tools available, it’s not clear that they’ll be capable of managing a controlled slowdown without significant pain.
(A. Gary Shilling is president of A. Gary Shilling & Co. and author of “The Age of Deleveraging: Investment Strategies for a Decade of Slow Growth and Deflation.” The opinions expressed are his own. This is the second in a five-part series.)
Read Part 1. Read more Bloomberg View op-eds.
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