Friday, April 19

Can China’s economy avoid a Japan-style stagnation?

Shanxi province’s GDP was among the fastest-growing in China in the first half of 2022, up by 5.2% year on year. Pictured here on Jan. 14, 2022, is a robot arm welding the frame of a new energy vehicle in Shanxi.

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BEIJING — Several economists expect that China will avoid a Japan-style stagnation — if the right policies take effect.

China’s gross domestic product barely grew in the second quarter while Covid lockdowns stifled growth. Those restrictions have eased. But Covid controls remain an uncertain overhang while the country awaits a quarterly gathering of policymakers expected at the end of the month.

But even if Covid restrictions ease, China still has untapped growth potential for the next few years, the economists said.

For one, the country’s income levels — and theoretically spending — has much room to grow.

China’s per capita GDP in 2021 was less than a fifth of that in the United States, and adjusted net national income per capita was about one-seventh of that in the United States, according to World Bank data.

“Given the room for catch-up is still there, China’s still going to maintain 4% to 5% growth in the next five to 10 years,” said Larry Hu, chief China economist at Macquarie. He said there are uncertainties that could affect his estimates of him, including whether China can shift from relying on investment to consumption for growth.

Another area of ​​potential is China’s plan to unify business standards and access within the country, said Dan Wang, Shanghai-based chief economist at Hang Seng Bank China. “Once those barriers can be lifted… that can increase income by a great deal.”

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She noted how current practice can favor a company from a local city over one from another province. A stark example of these regional biases played out this year when different Covid rules among provinces created inefficiency, she pointed out.

Wang said overseas demand and increased investment in manufacturing in China could support growth in the coming years.

Much of the country’s official economic narrative has emphasized the “unexpected” impact of Covid and the “Russia-Ukraine conflict,” while pointing out that inflationary pressures are far higher in countries like the United States.

When asked whether China would face Japan-style economic stagnation, Bank of China chief researcher Zong Liang dismissed the possibility. He said China has, among other things, kept control of its currency, while Japan’s yen has fluctuated too quickly.

Zong also pointed to China’s investment and self-reliance in tech innovation. As for economic growth in the near term, he expects stimulus announced in May to take effect in the third or fourth quarter, and some benefit from increased trade under new regional free trade agreements.

However, Zong said China does face similar challenges to Japan when it comes to the housing market.

Beijing has tried to clamp down on speculation in the market in the last few years. But an underlying, more difficult problem for real estate is the aging population, a problem “that deserves our attention,” Zong said in Mandarin, according to a CNBC translation.

consumption problem

covid drag

For this year, many investment banks have slashed their China GDP forecasts to below 4% in light of the country’s zero-Covid policy.

“Economists can’t resolve this issue,” said Xu Hongcai, deputy director of the Economics Policy Commission at the China Association of Policy Science. That’s according to a CNBC translation of his remarks about him in Mandarin.

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Xu struck a pessimistic tone, noting that monetary policy and fiscal policy may contribute little, and that increasing their scale would only add to longer-term problems.

Troubles in China’s massive real estate sector have also resurfaced this month, with many homebuyers refusing to pay their mortgages until developers find the resources to finish constructing apartments.

More state support?

Ultimately, however, China’s economy may have to turn to its government for help.

After warning of the risks from excessive government support in his 2016 book “China’s Guaranteed Bubble,” author Zhu Ning said last month the best solution to unemployment and housing bubble problems is increased state support.

“The situation in Japan may actually be a reason to warrant some more planning economy approach,” said Zhu, professor of finance and deputy dean at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance. “[I] cannot think of a market-based approach.”

He said that just as Japan built up its social safety net during a bubble period, China should put more resources into ensuring three basic needs: housing, health care and education.

Relieving Chinese consumers of those costs could encourage them to spend, Zhu said.

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