Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nouriel Roubini On China

Nouriel Roubini is famous for constantly saying everything (economically) is bad, and getting worse. Sometimes he’s right.

I don’t tend to find his pronouncements interesting — I think he’s selling something … mostly himself.

But, he’s a bright guy, who’s famous for a reason. This past week he’s been ranting about China, and since I’ve used China as an example of the perils of unbalanced growth, I thought I’d link to his recent piece from Project Syndicate.

China has grown for the last few decades on the back of export-led industrialization and a weak currency, which have resulted in high corporate and household savings rates and reliance on net exports and fixed investment (infrastructure, real estate, and industrial capacity for import-competing and export sectors). When net exports collapsed in 2008-2009 from 11% of GDP to 5%, China’s leader reacted by further increasing the fixed-investment share of GDP from 42% to 47%.

The problem, of course, is that no country can be productive enough to reinvest 50% of GDP in new capital stock without eventually facing immense overcapacity and a staggering non-performing loan problem. China is rife with overinvestment in physical capital, infrastructure, and property. To a visitor, this is evident in sleek but empty airports and bullet trains (which will reduce the need for the 45 planned airports), highways to nowhere, thousands of colossal new central and provincial government buildings, ghost towns, and brand-new aluminum smelters kept closed to prevent global prices from plunging.

…All historical episodes of excessive investment – including East Asia in the 1990’s – have ended with a financial crisis and/or a long period of slow growth. To avoid this fate, China needs to save less, reduce fixed investment, cut net exports as a share of GDP, and boost the share of consumption.

The trouble is that the reasons the Chinese save so much and consume so little are structural. It will take two decades of reforms to change the incentive to overinvest.

Traditional explanations for the high savings rate (lack of a social safety net, limited public services, aging of the population, underdevelopment of consumer finance, etc.) are only part of the puzzle. Chinese consumers do not have a greater propensity to save than Chinese in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan; they all save about 30% of disposable income. The big difference is that the share of China’s GDP going to the household sector is below 50%, leaving little for consumption.

Several Chinese policies have led to a massive transfer of income from politically weak households to politically powerful companies. A weak currency reduces household purchasing power by making imports expensive, thereby protecting import-competing SOEs and boosting exporters’ profits.

Low interest rates on deposits and low lending rates for firms and developers mean that the household sector’s massive savings receive negative rates of return, while the real cost of borrowing for SOEs is also negative. This creates a powerful incentive to overinvest and implies enormous redistribution from households to SOEs, most of which would be losing money if they had to borrow at market-equilibrium interest rates.

The article refers to SOE’s: State Owned Enterprises. We’ve talked about this a bit in class, but not in several weeks. The form of capitalism practiced in China is similar to fascism: politically connected people get access to equity stakes in “private” enterprises in return for political support. This is a system that can perform well for years (if trade is discouraged, as in Latin America for most of the 20th century) or decades (if trade is encouraged, as in Japan in the postwar period). But it doesn’t end well.

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