There are almost as many opinions as there are Chinese. Some say the Chinese growth miracle is at an end. Others see a temporary lull. Others still, point to demographics and see problems ahead. Yet others say we are confusing western culture with that of China; that it is unstoppable. Some go even further and say that China – via its system of central control – has been deliberately manipulating a system and it will soon reign supreme over the global economy. Or to put it another way: some say ‘this time it is different’, and although China portrays many of the hallmarks of a bubble, it is just different from the West, while others say the claim that ‘this time it is different’ is always – and without fail – a sign that things are set to come very badly unstuck.

You may have picked up on the irony. After 1989, the consensus seemed to be that capitalism had won; that any system of central control was doomed to fail. Now there seems to be a view held by many that China is unstoppable precisely because it has so much central control that its state can force through reforms and regulations that western governments can only dream of.

This view is almost certainly wrong. For one thing, to argue that China is unstoppable because of its central control appears to be ignoring the lesson of the history of the last half of the 20th century. For another thing, it is debatable how much power the Chinese government really has. China is a massively complex country, and while Beijing may issue directives on how things must be done, the extent to which they are followed across the country is open to debate. In any case, China’s government is terrified of social discontent. For the country’s government there is always the fear of how the people will react if the government mismanages the economy.

This fear of popular discontent can often stop the government from doing precisely the things it should do for longer term prosperity. Take as an example its policy regarding its currency – the yuan. The US government is screaming at China to let the yuan trade freely. Many US politicians blame a cheap yuan on just about all of the US ills. They are surely wrong, but there is no doubt that if the yuan were to rise, US exporters would benefit, but how much is open to debate? But what people often overlook is that there is very strong evidence to suggest that China too needs a more expensive currency.

A consequence of China’s currency policy has been too low interest rates, which has all kinds of undesirable consequences – among them a credit bubble, too much emphasis on investment, and there appears to be evidence that low interest rates have led to Chinese companies paying out lower dividends, which has helped to accentuate imbalances in the economy.

Part of China’s problems can be dated back to 2008, when the West hit the crisis button. China responded with a massive stimulus of its own. It kept growing during the worst days of 2008 and 2009 but at what cost? According to the IMF, in 2008 China’s money supply jumped 30 per cent – and that is ironic. While China was accusing the West of debasing its currencies via QE, and lecturing the US on living within its means, China began to apply the kind of policies that got the West into its mess in the first place.

Then there is credit. In 2008 total outstanding credit in China was 130 per cent of GDP – a level that had pretty much been unchanged for several years. Now the ratio is at 187 per cent – that was a massive hike for just half a decade.
The IMF has said that when a country sees credit increase by 3 per cent of GDP or more in a year, there is a good chance that a crisis may follow. Yet In China the rate of credit growth dwarfs what the IMF might refer to as the danger level.

For China corporate sector debt is the real danger. This has risen from just over 20 trillion yuan in 2007 to over 60 trillion in 2012.

This may all sound like western cynicism, but just remember it was the man who until last year was China’s premier – Wen Jiabao – who described China’s economy as, "unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable."

It is not all woe, however. Recent anecdotal evidence such as the latest Purchasing Managers’ Indices, and data on freight transport, electricity output and volume of cargo all point to China’s economy seeing a mild pick-up. It is not going to see growth in excess of 10 per cent again for a while – if ever – but the recent data is consistent with growth of around 7.5 per cent, which is much better than many had warned.

The pick-up may be occurring because once again China is implementing short-term policies to push up growth via the very things that it has too much of anyway – namely investment, government spending, credit. But with signs that the US economy is at last on the mend, it may be possible for China to tighten up monetary policy allowing the yuan to rise, without taking too big a hit on exports.

Looking further forward, what China really needs is higher wages. Well this is happening. McKinsey has forecast that by 2022, 75 per cent of China’s urban workers will earn between $9,000 and $34,000 – a level that sits half way between current levels in Italy and Brazil. To put this figure in context, in 2000 just 4 per cent of Chinese urban workers had earnings falling within that band. McKinsey also forecasts that by 2022 urban income will double from current levels. These are precisely the developments China needs.

Then there is education. The OECD measures pupil skills in reading, numeracy and science, in a test known as PISA. The BBC recently quoted Andreas Schleicher, a leading figure behind these PISA tests, saying there are signs that China is closing – if it has not already closed – the education gap with the West. Shanghai has excelled, but said Mr Schleicher: “What surprised me were the results from poor provinces that came out really well. The levels of resilience are just incredible.” He said that he gets the impression China is investing in the future. Unlike the US, there are indications of a high degree of education equally between rich and poor.

China’s next big challenge is how it can manage being a middle income country. Over the last half a century only a handful of countries managed that transition. Many saw rapid growth, but then stopped before income levels had reached anything like western levels. Will China be one of those rare successes?

It does have one major hurdle to climb, however, and that is demographics.
According to the UN, the population of China aged between 15 and 59 is set to fall by 7 per cent between 2010 and 2030. The policy of one child per family is about to be relaxed, but even so, many Chinese couples don’t want more than one child. In any case, even if the birth rate shot up overnight, it would take the best part of two decades before this showed up in the work force.

Associated with demographics is the question of the so-called Lewis Turning Point – a point familiar to economists – when a country runs out of workers to migrate into urban areas.

Let’s finish with what the IMF says on this subject: “Within a few years the working age population will reach a historical peak, and will then begin a precipitous decline. The core of the working age population, those aged 20–39 years, has already begun to shrink. With this, the vast supply of low-cost workers—a core engine of China’s growth model—will dissipate, with potentially far-reaching implications domestically and externally. The reserve of unemployed and underemployed workers (which is currently in the range of 150 million)—will fall to about 30 million by 2020 and the LTP [Lewis Turning Point] will be crossed between 2020 and 2025.”

For more see:

IMF: Chronicle of a Decline Foretold: Has China Reached the Lewis Turning Point? 
Trading Economics: China Labour Costs 
Ernst and Young: China’s productivity imperative 
FT: China’s debt in charts
McKinsey: Mapping China’s middle class 

© Investment & Business News 2013