China's rebalancing act

Indian Express, 30th April 2013

Its tilt to consumption-led growth is good news for India and the global economy

Unlike in India, the slowdown in Chinese growth appears to be not merely a cyclical downturn, but lower trend growth rate that Chinese policymakers see as desirable. It forms part of China's strategy to rebalance the domestic macroeconomy towards a slower growth rate of employment, lower investment and higher consumption. This is good news for global rebalancing as China's exchange rate policy should now become more flexible, Chinese current account surpluses should come down and accumulation of Chinese forex reserves should slow down or stop. For India, a relatively more consumption-oriented China could mean higher exports, both to China and the rest of the world, lower commodity prices and less of a pressure from exporters for exchange rate intervention.

After growth at double digits for many years, China grew at a much slower 7.7 per cent in the first quarter of the year. At a recent conference in Beijing, I heard Chinese policymakers sounding fairly comfortable with this lower growth. Indeed, they argued lower growth in China was desirable. It almost seemed that it was planned.

The main arguments in favour of lower growth - an average of 8 per cent in the next 10 years and 7 per cent thereafter - was mainly China's demographics. As the Chinese working-age population starts shrinking due to the replacement of the current working population by those born after the one-child policy was put in place, there is less need for high job growth. The last few decades were ones in which China was trying to meet two objectives: earn foreign exchange and create jobs. The high growth rate of job creation was necessary to absorb the large number of people joining the labour force. If the same growth rate continues, China will have labour shortages. With a slower growth of the working population and labour force, wage growth rather than employment growth will be the focus.

Second, China has undertaken significant infrastructure investment in recent decades. In coastal areas, China has met its targets for infrastructure investment. It now needs to utilise better the infrastructure that it has created. Some estimates even show that China's infrastructure investment has been excessive. The need for additional investment in infrastructure is lower, and so the investment strategy will be modified accordingly.

A shift towards domestic consumption-led growth will make the Chinese growth model less dependent on exports. In episodes of global slowdown like the recent one, the Chinese economy can then continue to grow more steadily. The decline in the Chinese trade surplus and slower exports after the crisis have made it evident that, even if desirable, the policy of export-led growth was unlikely to be sustainable.

At the recent IMF-World Bank meetings in Washington DC, China has indicated that it will allow the renminbi to move in a wider band than it has hitherto. This effectively means that it will allow the yuan to appreciate. This will make Chinese exports more expensive and imports into China cheaper. Such an exchange rate regime will be more suitable for a domestic consumption-led, rather than an export-led growth strategy.

An appreciation of the yuan will also allow other emerging economies to permit their currencies to be more flexible. Today when China sustains a policy of an undervalued exchange rate through its intervention and sterilisation, other central banks often come under pressure to do the same. The context in which China has been able to financially repress the system and pay low or negative real interest rates to households is unlikely to work in more market-oriented and democratic countries. It will be a relief for other EM (emerging market) central bankers not to have the kind of pressure they face thanks to China today.

One of the origins of the global crisis was diagnosed to be the cheap funding available in the US economy owing to Chinese purchase of US treasury bills. The high level of liquidity, asset price bubbles and, finally, the meltdown were said to be caused by the Chinese policy of keeping consumption low, savings high and then pushing those savings into the US, where households consumed too much and did not save. This arrangement was facilitated by the Chinese exchange rate policy. A change in the Chinese policy is expected to lead to a global rebalancing.

For India, which has had an economy much more based on domestic consumption, where the domestic savings to GDP ratio is closer to 30 per cent, in contrast to China's 50 per cent, a rebalancing in China is good news. Not only is a more rebalanced world a better and more sustainable business environment, with less vulnerable risks, but India could gain directly as it is often seen as a competitor to China. In areas where India can compete with Chinese products for a share of the market, its exports can benefit. In addition, if India is able to enter the market in certain products, it stands to gain. As China focuses more on growth in services, as it has seen recently, as well as high-end products, away from the low-end manufacturing that dominated its growth model, Indian exports stand a better chance.

Lower investment in China is likely to lead to a softening of global commodity prices. As a large commodity importer, India stands to benefit from softer prices. Though it may be argued that global growth may slow down if China slows down, as the Chinese policymakers argue, if the growth can be higher quality growth, protecting the environment and reducing pollution, with higher wage growth, more innovation and less distortions, the world stands to gain.

Economic stability is not the only issue at stake. Political stability in China is a challenge as inequality has grown. If China does not follow a wider consumption-based growth model, the bigger challenge may be political rather than economic stability. It seems that the Chinese government has set the forces for domestic rebalancing in place, it remains to be seen how successful the policy will be.

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