China: The Future That Was?

The Future That Was

China’s economic model is reminiscent of 17th century mercantilist policies. Thomas Mun, a Director of the East India Company, in England's Treasure by Foreign Trade (1664), wrote that the purpose of trade was to export more than you imported. At the same time, a country should amass foreign ‘Treasure’ that would be the basis of acquiring foreign colonies to allow control of essential natural resources. The strategy required reducing domestic consumption and imports and export of goods manufactured with imported foreign raw materials. China’s strategy coincides almost entirely with Mun’s views.

China’s mercantilist strategies have important implications for other developing countries. Chinese investment in and trade with Latin America and Africa is concentrated on securing access to resources forcing these nations to specialise in commodities. This reversion to a 19th century trend may not be compatible with Latin American and African long term development and stability.

The Chinese economic model may be unsustainable. It relies on global trade and investment (much of it export related), which together contribute a high proportion of China’s GDP. This trade entails importing foreign components that are then reassembled and then exported. Domestic consumption has been kept low. Treasure has been built up in the form of domestic savings and trade surpluses.

Recently, China announced that its $2 trillion+ treasure would be used to make foreign acquisitions to secure exclusive access to raw material. The problem is that China’s treasure is already invested in assets of dubious value and limited liquidity to finance global consumption.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned that the Chinese growth was becoming increasingly “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and ultimately unsustainable”. That was two years ago! Currently, China may be aggravating the problems by massive liquidity-driven stimulus to perpetuate a failed strategy. Speaking at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Dalian on 10 September 2009, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao repeated his message from two years ago without signalling any change in direction: “China’s economic rebound is unstable, unbalanced and not yet solid. We cannot and will not change the direction of our policies when the conditions aren’t appropriate.”

There is broad agreement that a key component of the GFC was the problem of global capital imbalances. A central feature was debt-funded consumption by the U.S. that allowed 5% of the global population to constitute 25% of its GDP, 15% of consumption and 48% of global current account deficit. Japan, China, Germany and the other savers funded the consumption.

Any lasting solution to the GFC requires this imbalance to be dealt with. The glib solution requires the U.S. to save more and consume less and the savers to save less and consume more. The problems in implementing the solution are considerable. Timothy Geithner’s recent discussion with Chinese officials, to assure his hosts of the safety of their investments in dollars and U.S. Treasury Bonds, reveals the dilemma.

On the one hand, America needs the Chinese to continue and increase their purchase of U.S. Government debt to finance its fiscal stimulus and bailouts. On the other hand, America needs China to cut the size of its current account surplus, boost government spending, encourage personal consumption and reduce savings. All this should also occur ideally without any major decline in the value of the dollar or U.S. Treasury bonds or the need for China to liberalise it currency and allow internationalisation of the Renminbi.

A cursory look at the respective economies also highlights the magnitude of the task. Consumption’s contribution to GDP in the U.S. is 71% while in China it is 37%. Given that the GDP of China is around $4-5 trillion versus $15 trillion for the U.S. and average income in China is around 10-15% of U.S. earnings, the difficulty of using Chinese consumption to drive the global economy becomes apparent.

During the last quarter of century, Chinese savings have risen and exports have been the engine for growth. Given that a significant portion of exports is driven ultimately by American and European buyers, lower global growth and declining consumption creates significant challenges for China.

Dealing with the global imbalance has not been a high priority in the various summits global leaders have shuttled to and from.

In March 2009 in advance of schedule G-20 meeting, the Chinese central bank proposed replacing the US dollar as the international reserve currency with a new global system controlled by the International Monetary Fund. In an essay posted on the Peoples’ Bank of China’s website, Zhou Xiaochuan, the central bank’s governor, argued that creating a reserve currency “that is disconnected from individual nations and is able to remain stable in the long run, thus removing the inherent deficiencies caused by using credit-based national currencies”. Mr. Zhou wrote: “The outbreak of the [current] crisis and its slipover to the entire world reflected the inherent vulnerabilities and systemic risks in the existing international monetary system.”

The US predictably dismissed the proposal. The Wall Street Journal argued that: “For all its faults, the dollar is attractive as a reserve currency because it is the common language of global finance and trade. In other words, its appeal is proportionate to how many other market players use it. For decades, the dollar has been a convenient medium of exchange for everyone from a central bank seeking to buy US Treasury bonds to a business exporting commodities from Latin America to Asia.” The unstated reason was the loss of the ability to finance itself in its own currency would significantly disadvantage the US.

In July 2009, at the G8 Summit in the earthquake damaged town of L'Aquila in Italy, Dai Bingguo, Chinese state councillor, was again openly critical of the dominant role of the U.S. dollar as a global reserve currency: “We should have a better system for reserve currency issuance and regulation, so that we can maintain relative stability of major reserve currencies exchange rates and promote a diversified and rational international reserve currency system,”

Western leaders expressed concerns about even raising the issue fearing that discussion of long-term currency issues could undermine the nascent recovery in markets and economies. Gordon Brown, Britain's prime minister, spoke on behalf of the West: “We don't want to give the impression that big change is around the corner and the present arrangements will be destabilised.” The West it seems was heeding Deng Xiaoping’s advice to: “Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile.”

In September 2009, the Americans and Europeans proposed an effort to tackle global economic imbalances at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. Against a background of rising trade tensions, China’s ambassador to the U.S. Zhou Wenzhong expressed scepticism about the proposals, seeking focus instead on avoiding protectionism.

Still heavily reliant on exports, China was wary of a global push on imbalances that would focus of its large trade surplus (which reached nearly 10 per cent of GDP in 2008). Zhou pointedly blamed the crisis on “the lack of supervision and abuse of the openness of the market, very risky levels of leverage and too much speculation.” He proposed improving global financial supervision, strengthen bank capital and create global early warning systems to identify threats but resisted action to address the imbalance.

Ironically, recent modest improvements in the global economy potentially risked increasing the same imbalances that were one of the factors that caused the current financial crisis. China’s and the world’s economic future requires resolving fundamental global imbalances that lie at the heart of the GFC.

Turning Japanese

China’s problems, to a degree, mirror earlier problems of Japan, its neighbour and competitor for global influence.

Japan’s export driven model successfully generated strong growth of 10% average in the 1960s, 5% in the 1970s and 4% in the 1980s. This growth was driven by a number of factors, including an artificially low exchange Yen rate.

On 22 September 1985, Japan, the U.S., the U. K., Germany and France signed the Plaza Accord agreeing to depreciate the dollar in relation to the Japanese Yen and German Deutsche Mark by intervention in currency markets. The Accord had limited success in reducing the U.S. trade deficit or helping the American economy out of recession.

The Plaza Accord signalled Japan’s emergence as an important participant in the international monetary system and global economy. The effects on the Japanese economy were disastrous.

The stronger Yen triggered a recession in Japan’s export-dependent economy. In an effort to restart the economy, Japan pursued expansionary monetary policies that led to the Japanese asset price bubble that collapsed in 1989. Economic growth fell sharply and Japan entered an extended period of lower growth and recession, generally referred to as ‘The Lost Decade’.

In the 1990s, Japan ran massive budget deficits to finance large public works programs in a largely unsuccessful attempt to stimulate growth to end the economy’s stagnation. Only structural reforms in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s restored modest rates of growth. Japan’s public debt is now approaching 200% of Japan’s GDP.

Significant shifts in economic strategy are now necessary. Chinese President Hu Jintao recently noted: “From a long-term perspective, it is necessary to change those models of economic growth that are not sustainable and to address the underlying problems in member economies.”

China can try to continue its existing economic strategy, which looks increasingly difficult. Changing its economic model is also difficult if it means a slower rate of growth. China’s challenge will be to learn from and avoid the problems and fate of Japan.

History and cultural issues compound China’s dilemma. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking entered into at the end of the first Opium War awarded Britain war reparations, eliminated the Chinese Hong monopoly, set Chinese exports and imports at a low rate, provided British access to several Chinese ports and transferred Hong Kong to the English. The humiliation of the Treaty is deeply etched into China’s dealing with the West.

China should have heeded the warning of Kang His, emperor of China, on the British presence at Canton in 1717: “There is cause for apprehension lest in centuries or millenia to come China may be endangered by collision with the nations of the West.”

The tradeoff between economic and political liberalisation may also be problematic. As Fang Li, a renowned astro-physicist often called China’s Andrei Sakharov, remarks in dissident author Ma Jian’s novel about China “Beijing Coma”: “Without a democratic political system in place, [China’s] economy will eventually flounder. The people’s wealth will be eaten up by the corrupt institutions of this one party state.”

There is an apocryphal story about a visiting world leader drawing back the current of his hotel room to be stunned by the futuristic skyline of Shanghai’s Pudong Financial District. “How long has this being going on?” He asked. Today, the question might be: “How long can this go on?”

© 2010 Satyajit Das

Satyajit Das is a risk consultant and author of Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives - Revised Edition (2010, FT-Prentice Hall).