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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

China’s Huge Corporate Savings

Martin Wolf identifies the source of China's high savings rate - "huge corporate savings" - and he explains how both saving and the current account surplus can be reduced through government action:

Beijing should dip into China’s corporate bank, by Martin Wolf, Commentary, Financial Times: China represents something new in the history of the modern world: a developing country that has a vast global impact. This is why Hank Paulson, the US treasury secretary, has ... call[ed] for it to be a “responsible stakeholder”. But China will behave as the US wants only if it perceives that this is in its own interests. ...

At present, the most vexed issue between the two countries is the payments “imbalances”. Many in the US complain that China is manipulating its currency, to preserve excessive competitiveness. Certainly, China has a large current account surplus... No other country has as big a surplus.

The starting point then must be whether it makes sense for a poor country to export so much capital. The answer, I would argue, is “no”. But we must then also ask why China is running such large surpluses. ... Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the frugality of Chinese households is not the chief explanation for China’s surplus savings ..., the principal explanation is China’s huge corporate savings.

Between 2000 and 2005, ... some 70 per cent of the increase in gross savings was generated by the rising profitability of the corporate sector... Certainly, Chinese household savings are high by international standards ... an impressive 32 per cent of household disposable income in 2004. Nevertheless, household savings generate only a third of China’s overall savings. The undistributed profits of corporations are far more important. ...

Now consider the big question: does it make sense for China to save so much or, for that matter, to invest so much? After all, consumption – public and private – is no more than half of GDP, while private consumption is only 40 per cent of GDP. The answer, I suggest, is “no”. China can probably grow as fast with lower investment. It certainly does not need to accumulate more foreign assets. Higher consumption today would surely be desirable, particularly if it were consumption by – or on behalf of – the hundreds of millions of rural poor.

Moreover, as the World Bank has argued, the government has a simple way of achieving this outcome. It can ask the companies it notionally owns to pay dividends instead of keeping all the profits for themselves. Suppose it took 5 per cent of GDP from these companies in this way and spent this money on valuable social programmes: public health, for example. Other things being equal, the gross savings rate and current account surplus would fall. The welfare of the Chinese today would rise...

Now consider, instead, what might happen if gross investment were reduced, as those fearful of overheating and excessive investment suggest, but without cutting savings. Then the current account surplus would explode upwards. This would be globally disruptive and would bring no obvious benefit to China itself.

I would argue that the government needs not a policy to cut investment, but one to cut savings. Moreover, it can easily achieve this aim, because it is itself directly or indirectly responsible for the bulk of these savings. Above all, such a change is in the interest of the Chinese people. All the government needs do is exercise its rights of ownership. This, not a change in exchange-rate policy, is the most important step towards external adjustment...

    Posted by on Wednesday, October 4, 2006 at 03:06 AM in China, Economics, International Finance, International Trade, Saving | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (30)

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