SF Fed President John Williams on China:
China, Rates, and the Outlook: May the (Economic) Force Be with You: ...China has garnered almost as much editorial ink in the past month as U.S. presidential candidates—which may or may not be a complimentary comparison. I don’t want to sound pejorative by calling some of the commentary “hand-wringing”—though to be fair, some of it has been downright apocalyptic—but I don’t see the situation as dire. I’ve said publicly over the past few months that after going to China, and after talking to academics and officials there, I came away a lot less concerned than when I arrived. And I have to say that recent events have not changed my thinking to any serious extent.
This is where I’ll reuse one of the more helpful quotes for forecasting: “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” With the dangers of prognostication acknowledged, I’ll tread into that territory anyway.
The China story is remarkable, and its growth over the past 30 years has been unprecedented.5 But now China’s at something of a crossroads, facing tradeoffs in their goals, dealing with a new normal for growth expectations, and pivoting to a new source of economic momentum.
It’s important to see the situation not through the filters of our own paradigms, but from the perspective of China’s unique position. China is not the U.S. Or the U.K. Or Japan. Its goals, structure, government, and place on its growth trajectory are very different, and looking to impose foreign expectations on China’s markets or actions can lead one astray.
Growth versus reform
In a nutshell, China is facing a tradeoff between its short-term growth goals and its longer-term reform agenda.
China’s government has made it abundantly clear that it is willing to intervene when necessary, ensuring that growth stays on its target path, even if that means extending the timeline on reform. That willingness to do “whatever it takes” to keep growth on target is what made me less worried about a hard landing for China.
Of course, that very disposition for intervention is the source of much hue and cry on this side of the globe. China has made important incremental steps on the road to liberalization, and from the perspective of a fully open, free-market, Western-oriented paradigm or advocacy, the recent stock market interventions seem anathema to that goal. But that’s a view through a narrow lens that may obscure the bigger picture.
For all its moves towards liberalization, China’s markets are not the same as ours. Yes, they have a reform agenda, but it’s a mistake to think that in the foreseeable future China will have fully open capital and financial markets in the way that we in the U.S. and other countries think about them. They are relaxing their grip on the exchange rate—allowing the renminbi to respond to economic news, letting its value be more market-determined—and as a policy approach, this is a positive; it’s something we as economists wanted to see happen. But it’s very clear that China is not going to let its exchange rate float completely freely. They’ll continue to have buffers to ensure that, should some dramatic event unfold, they can step in again and stop that interfering with their other goals. To some extent, we can see these moves as something akin to beta-testing liberalization. It is happening, which is a remarkable shift. But completely free, open markets are not in the cards, and the government has made clear that those are not their intention.
This, incidentally, is why talk about the renminbi replacing the dollar as an international reserve currency is unrealistic. The role of a reserve currency is to be a harbor during a storm; it’s where people flock when the unexpected happens. As we saw in the financial crisis, as we’ve seen in other crises, the market’s instinct is, when in doubt, go to the dollar. As long as China has controls in place to mediate the free flow of money, the dollar will be the refuge, not the renminbi.
In the context of China’s dual—oftentimes conflicting—goals, the recent stock market intervention by the government should be seen as what I believe it was: A move to keep growth on pace. It’s a pattern we’ve seen before. When the Chinese authorities see growth struggling, or other economic warning lights, they take steps, including reversing or postponing reforms, to keep growth at pace. Fiscal and economic policymakers can pull a number of levers and the Chinese government has proved again and again its willingness to do just that.
China’s growth rate
In balancing these objectives, the Chinese government has realistically moderated its expectations for growth. For decades we all marveled at China’s double-digit growth, and there was, perhaps, some expectation that it would persist in perpetuity. But growth like that is unsustainable. If you look at the progression of Japan, for instance, from the 1960s to the 1980s, or South Korea from the 1980s to the 2000s, you see the pattern China will likely follow.6 At low income levels, growth can be rapid, because low domestic wages make exports very competitive and there is so much untapped potential in moving workers to more productive pursuits.
But as income or GDP per capita rise, these advantages begin to ebb, and growth naturally slows. The pattern is clear, with a rapid decline in the growth rate and eventual leveling out as domestic income and wages rise. This is the natural progression of economies moving into maturity. The further they have to go, the faster they can grow; but once they’ve come to a place like Japan or Korea—that is, around 80 or 90 percent of U.S. per capita GDP—their growth expectations will be lower because they’re closer to the finish line. China obviously isn’t close yet, but it’s a good indicator of how much further it can go. What China’s accomplished has been amazing—but we also called Japan a growth miracle and Korea’s success was remarkable as well. There were challenges along the way for both countries, but ultimately, what slowed growth was entering the middle-income bracket and the inevitability of slower growth for wealthier countries.
The officials and economists I spoke to in China know that not only are the days of 10 percent growth behind them, but that it will move below the current 7 percent target. Seven will likely become 6, which will become 5, and so on as their economy moves into a middle-income economy and progresses to a high-income one.
Shift in focus
Of course, China faces challenges in continuing that advance. One is a refocus of its economic engine. Given the global environment, how do they successfully pivot their economy to more domestic consumption, moving the emphasis more toward services and away from manufacturing? That’s clearly a challenge, but also a central objective of the government.
For people who have concerns about China, one of the red flags they point to is that industrial production has slowed a lot, more so than the economy overall. I fall on the side of commentators who’ve pointed out that this isn’t surprising.7 China’s been talking for years about switching from industry to services. They’re moving from making steel and concrete to making consumer goods. One of the interesting things I heard this summer was the plan to build more tourism in China for China. That’s something that’s virtually nonexistent at the moment. They don’t have the abundance of recreational resources we do; in California alone, you can go skiing or surfing, to wine country or Disneyland. As high- or low-brow as you want it, we as Americans have become incredibly used to spending our leisure dollars domestically. That’s something China’s looking to do for itself.
When you look at where China’s priorities lie—in switching to services, in expanding tourism—it makes absolute sense that industrial production is slowing.
Liberalization and the impact of risks from abroad
I’ve mentioned that China is seen by some as a risk; but conversely, what effect does U.S. policy have on them? Right now, China is more susceptible to the shifts in U.S. monetary policy. But as they liberalize their exchange rate, it will automatically adjust to changes in situations around the world. This is a huge advantage and an automatic stabilizer. When China pegs to the dollar, they’re too linked to U.S. policy, so that when the U.S. tightens or loosens, they effectively follow suit. By allowing market-based influence, China will have a buffer when the U.S. economy is moving in a different direction than theirs. And that’s going to make it easier in the end for China to manage its economy.
An outside observer might ask why they haven’t done this already. I think that China was wary that unpegging would’ve interrupted the double-digit growth. When a country’s exchange rate and capital flows suddenly start shifting around dramatically, it can interfere with the ability to deliver on growth targets. As China’s growth targets have come down, and as they begin to shift away from an export-reliant economy, instead fueling itself via domestic consumption, they can start allowing their exchange rate to move—though again, it won’t be the free floating exchange rate that we have.
This is all just one economist’s take. ...