Resilient China: How strong is China’s economy?

Tags: china economy

CHINA’S weight in the global economy means that it commands the world’s attention. When its industrial production, house building and electricity output slow sharply, as they did in the year to April, the news weighs on global stockmarkets and commodity prices. When its central bank eases monetary policy, as it did this month, it creates almost as big a stir as a decision by America’s Federal Reserve. And when China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, stresses the need to maintain growth, as he did last weekend, his words carry more weight with the markets than similar homages to growth from Europe’s leaders. No previous industrial revolution has been so widely watched.

Outsiders tend to regard China as a paragon of export-led efficiency. But that is not the whole story. Investment spending on machinery, buildings and infrastructure accounted for over half of China’s growth last year; net exports contributed none of it. Too much of this investment is undertaken by state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which benefit from implicit subsidies, sheltered markets and politically encouraged loans. Examples of waste abound, from a ghost city on China’s northern steppe to decadent resorts on its southern shores.

China’s economic model is also unfair on its people. Regulated interest rates enable banks to rip off savers, by underpaying them for their deposits. Barriers to competition allow the SOEs to overcharge consumers for their products. China’s household-registration system denies equal access to public services for rural migrants, who work in the cities but are registered in the villages. Arbitrary land laws allow local governments to cheat farmers, by underpaying them for the agricultural plots they buy off them for development. And many of the proceeds end up in the pockets of officials.

Yet the very unfairness of China’s system gives it an unusual resilience.  China relies very little on foreign borrowing. Its growth is financed from resources extracted from its own population, not from fickle foreigners free to flee, as happened in South-East Asia (and is happening again in parts of the euro zone). China’s saving rate, at 51% of GDP, is even higher than its investment rate. And the repressive state-dominated financial system those savings are kept in is actually well placed to deal with repayment delays and defaults.

Most obviously, China’s banks are highly liquid. Their deposit-taking more than matches their loan-making, and they keep a fifth of their deposits in reserve at the central bank. That gives the banks some scope to roll over troublesome loans that may be repaid at a later date, or written off at a more convenient time. But there is also the backstop of the central government, which has formal debts amounting to only about 25% of GDP. Local-government debts might double that proportion, but China plainly has enough fiscal space to recapitalise any bank threatened with insolvency.

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