Friday, April 13, 2012

More on China's macroeconomic imbalances

Much has been written about China's economic policies that sought to boost exports at the cost of everything else. It is now very clear that it has come with significant costs and serious external and internal macroeconomic imbalances. Externally, Beijing has aggressively intervened in the market to keep the renminbi undervalued. Internally, it has kept interest rates artificially low which in turn has resulted in severe financial repression and suppressed domestic private consumption.

Economix has an interview with Nicholas Lardy who outlines why these two imbalances, external and internal, are closely linked,
The government adopted a low-interest-rate policy at that time. Deposit rates were held down so that the after-inflation return on bank deposits for savers turned negative. That reduced household income below the path it otherwise would have achieved, leading to a slowdown in the rate of growth of household consumption expenditure. Since most households lack adequate health insurance and retirement programs, they also responded to lower deposit rates by saving even more, so as not to be delayed in reaching their savings goals. That put further downward pressure on private consumption expenditure.

China has adopted a low-interest-rate policy as a mechanism to reduce the costs of simultaneously maintaining price stability and an undervalued exchange rate. The central bank intervened massively in the foreign exchange market to moderate the pace of appreciation of the renminbi, China’s currency. And that intervention led to a large, ongoing increase in the domestic money supply, which the central bank had to offset by the sale of central bank bills and requiring banks to increase their reserves deposited at the central bank. The central bank had to pay interest on these bills and reserves, and the low-interest-rate policy made the cost of these operations less than it would have been had interest rates been market determined.
One could add several other consequences of the low interest rate policy. While it has been a major contributor to the promotion of China's investment driven economic growth strategy, it has also generated distortions in resource allocation, the most prominent and of greatest concern being the real estate bubble.

Stripped off all its macroeconomics, China's investment and export based economic growth strategy has been underpinned by massive government inflated bubbles, in multiple sectors. And for much more than a decade now, the country has managed to successfully carry on the strategy. The government kept interest rate and exchange rate suppressed so as to boost investment and exports. Coupled with capital controls, low interest rates, boosted the coffers of the country's public sector banks with cheap capital, which they on-lend to businesses at low rates. Real estate market boomed, which amplified the finances of state entities and local governments which owned all the land. These agencies leveraged the high real estate values to raise resources to finance their massive infrastructure investments. On the external side, the low exchange rate raised export competitiveness, which in turn encouraged massive inflows of foreign direct investment. A sustained period of widespread global economic growth provided all the favorable conditions for China to pursue this export strategy uninterrupted.

There are several dangers associated with this strategy. Lardy himself points to one such transmission channel,
Urban households have piled into property investment in part because of negative real interest rates on bank deposits, and capital controls that prevent most households from investing abroad. The property boom is based on the widespread assumption that property prices will continue to move upward with only brief and shallow price corrections. If this expectation changes, investment demand in residential property could evaporate. Demand for output of steel, cement, copper, aluminum and many other products is driven largely by residential real estate, so if that sector slumps it could usher in a long period of much slower economic growth.
While the rulers in Beijing certainly deserve their share of compliments for the country's spectacular economic growth, it cannot be denied that China has enjoyed more than its fair share of luck and benefited from favorable external circumstances. Now that the consequences of the imbalances, especially the internal ones, are becoming ever more apparent, Beijing ins being forced to re-evaluate its options. Low interest rates are becoming unsustainable for a variety of reasons, making over-reliance on the investment-driven growth strategy unsustainable. Propsects of anemic economic conditions in much of developed world for the foreseeable future puts question marks on the export-led growth approach.

In the circumstances, re-balancing will have to involve nudging the Chinese consumers to play a more central role. This will require rewarding and incentivizing them with higher interest rates and more diversified and remunerative investment alternatives for their savings (read greater financial liberalization). Further, manufacturing wages will have to become more market determined, so that people's purchasing power increases proportionately with the economy's growth. Both these will have to be accompanied by domestic policies that establish a comprehensive social safety net and enabling greater access to affordable urban housing, tertiary education, and so on.

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