China’s economy

Slower boat from China

Growth slows in China, as the global economic slump takes its toll

PERHAPS it should not be considered surprising. On Monday October 20th China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that economic growth in the third quarter was 9% year-on-year, heady by American or European standards, but down from 10.1% in the previous three months (which itself was lower than the quarter before that), and the worst overall since early 2003. Consensus predictions had been for a more modest decline amid fading hope that China’s economy was fundamentally “decoupled” from the West. It is now becoming necessary, on a near daily basis, to re-evaluate just how much independence its economy enjoys.

It is growing harder to say that China is relatively immune from global financial and economic problems. This month alone, two big companies, Smart Union Group, a toymaker, and FerroChina, a steel producer, have gone into liquidation. For the rare company whose closing receives publicity, thousands, if not tens of thousands, shut without a sound. Early this year, southern China suffered from shortages of workers and shoe factories were discouraging orders of boots or any other product that required lots of work and materials. All of that has now reversed. There is a surplus of workers and an absence of orders, with no sign of any recovery.

One of the most important events in the sales calendar for China is the historic Canton Trade Fair, which brings together a vast number of the country’s manufacturers with swarms of buyers from around the world. The first part of the autumn session ended on October 19th and there was little happy news to report. In a good year hotels will double rates and turn away guests. This time around, rates were high but rooms were abundant. The fair itself was far from empty but the crowds, by usual standards, were thin, with a notable absence of Americans and Europeans, and many complaints about a lack of orders. A year ago sellers demanded escalation clauses in their contracts because of rising commodity prices. This time a buyer from an Oman construction-materials company said that he was receiving a similar benefit from any price decline, and prices, he added, were falling much faster now than they had been rising then.

China’s slowing cannot, however, be blamed on exports alone. There were warning signs all over the place, says Stephen Green, an economist at Standard Chartered, pointing to investment, consumption (despite a nominal, year-on-year rise in retail sales in September of 23%) and government spending. Sales of cars, clothing, air tickets and property have all fallen; production of steel has declined too. A bit, but only a bit, of this could be attributed to planned shut-downs at the time of the Olympics.

If there is any cause for optimism it is that some of the drag was the result of the government’s own efforts in the past year—a different era, in hindsight—to prevent overheating. In this, there is some hope. China’s financial position is not perfect, as non-performing loans are rising and some city banks are suspected of having problems, but there appears to be substantial room to relax fiscal and monetary policies. Inflation is declining. The big national banks appear to be in good condition, with abundant liquidity because of lending caps that have become increasingly stringent over the past two years. China’s government is in a strong financial position. Savings rates for the Chinese are high.

As a result, there is abundant room for more aggressive fiscal policies, continuance—if not expansion—of credit, and domestic growth in consumption. Rumours of the potential government response are widespread. Export-targeted tax rebates that were repealed last year will be resumed. Also in the pipeline is the removal of transaction fees on sales of property. Bigger government spending on water and transport projects is also expected. All this should stimulate demand, if not immediately. Collectively, these actions should mitigate some of the impact of the global downturn, but mitigate is not the same as offset. If the global panic has done nothing else, it has been brilliant at revealing the collective dependency of even the fastest developing economy on the developed world’s prosperity.

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