The first point is that in confronting the international financial crisis direct financial turmoil is not a key feature of the situation in China - unlike the spectacular manifestations of this seen in Europe or the US. China's banks had almost no exposure to now heavily discounted, or worthless, sub-prime mortgage or similar financial products. While in Hong Kong there is some concern over the direct financial fallout, no mainland Chinese bank has suffered significant losses in this field. The immediate issue for China is the effect on its productive economy and on the renminbi’s exchange rate. But underlying these is a still more fundamental issue – maintenance of China’s savings and investment rates.
Indeed. seen from China, the international financial crisis might be posed from a different angle. It may be viewed as the 'third great Asian financial crisis' – the first being that of Japan and the yen in 1973-90, and the second that of the South East Asian debt and currency crisis of 1997. To emerge successfully will require from China an enormous response and a new stage of its economic development.
Socialist Economic Bulletin has noted that the fundamental determinant of the much higher rates of growth of a number of Asian economies, compared to the US or Europe, is their far higher investment rates. Therefore for the US and Europe to regain competitiveness with Asia one of two things has to happen. The US and Europe have to raise their investment rates up to Asian levels, or the Asian economies have to lower their investment rates down to US and European ones.
These two courses have very different implications for world economic growth. If the US and Europe raise their investment levels towards Asian ones then Asia will essentially maintain its present economic growth rate and that of the US and Europe will increase – i.e. world economic growth will accelerate. If, however, Asian investment levels are reduced towards US and European levels then the growth rate of the Asian economies will also fall, while economic growth in the US and Europe will not increase – i.e. world economic growth will decline. It is, therefore, far preferable that the US and Europe increase their investment rates rather than that those in Asia fall.
Nevertheless, in successive economic crises of the last thirty years, the outcome was the opposite of the preferable one – the US and Europe did not increase their investment rates, indeed those in Europe fell, but the investment rates of a number of Asian economies declined.
To illustrate this process in more detail, Figure 1 shows the level of fixed investment as a percentage of GDP for the US, Germany and France. As may be seen, the US fixed investment level has been essentially constant for the last half century at around 20 per cent of GDP – itself a continuation of a very long term trend in US investment rates. The German and French levels were somewhat higher than that for the US for the period up to the early 1970s, at around 25 per cent of GDP, and then fell to levels comparable to the US. Such investment levels generate rates of growth of 1.5-3.5 per cent a year.
If these US and European trends are compared to the situation in Asia there is a clear contrast. Asian economies have achieved far higher levels of investment, reaching over 40 per cent of GDP, and far higher rates of growth – in some case approaching or achieving double digit rates. However, the effect of both the post-1973 crisis in Japan, and the 1997 crisis in South East Asia, was to reduce these investment rates and with them also rates of growth of growth of GDP.
Considering this trend in a number of Asian countries in greater detail, Figure 2 shows the proportion of GDP accounted for by gross fixed capital formation in Japan. Japan’s fixed investment level peaked at 36.4 per cent of GDP in 1973. At this time, averaging the preceding five years, the annual average rate of growth of Japan’s GDP growth was 9.3 per cent.
The economic events which commenced in 1973, and which were accompanied by the first ‘oil shock', greatly affected Japan. The proportion of GDP devoted to gross domestic fixed capital formation declined to 27.5 per cent by 1986, and Japan’s average annual rate of growth of GDP, over the preceding five years, fell by two thirds to 3.1 per cent. By 1986 the Japanese economy, which had been expanding almost three times as fast as the US in the early 1970s, was growing more slowly than the US – in comparison in 1986 the average annual growth rate of US GDP over the preceding five years was 3.5 per cent.
Japan’s investment rate then temporarily rose under the impact of the hyper lax monetary regime during the ‘bubble’ economy in the late 1980s – a consequence of Japanese financial policies introduced to aid US economic stability following the 1987 Wall Street stock market crash. Following the bursting of Japan's financial bubble in 1990, the investment rate fell again and by 2002 gross domestic fixed capital formation had declined to 25.8 per cent of GDP while Japan’s five yearly annual growth rate of GDP had declined to 0.2 per cent.
Summarising these processes, under the successive impacts of the oil price increase and the monetary effects in Japan of the measures it chose to take to respond to the 1987 Wall Street crash, the proportion of the Japanese economy devoted to fixed investment fell by 10.6 per cent of GDP, and Japan’s annual growth rate decelerated from 9.3 per cent to 0.2 per cent - a 98 per cent decline.
If Japan post-1973 was the first great Asian economic/financial crisis, the second was the debt and currency crisis of the South East Asian economies in 1997. The similarity of the outcome to the earlier crisis in Japan’s is striking.
Figure 3 therefore shows South Korea’s rate of gross domestic fixed capital formation. This rose progressively to 39.0 per cent of GDP in 1991. By that year the average annual rate of growth of South Korea’s GDP over the preceding five years was 9.4 per cent.
By 1996, the last year before the currency crisis, South Korea was still investing 37.5 per cent of GDP and its five yearly annual average rate of growth of GDP was 7.3 per cent.
Following the 1997 debt and currency crisis, however, the proportion of South Korea’s GDP devoted to fixed investment fell sharply, to only 28.8 per cent of GDP in 2007, and its five yearly annual average growth rate of GDP declined by almost half to 4.4 per cent.
Figure 4 shows the similar process in Thailand. By 1996 the proportion of Thailand’s GDP devoted to fixed investment was 41.1 per cent of GDP – although this level was clearly unsustainable as it far exceeded the domestic savings available to finance it, resulting in a balance of payments deficit of 8.2 per cent of GDP. Thailand’s five yearly average annual rate of GDP growth was 8.1 per cent.
Following the currency crisis, by 2007 the proportion of Thailand’s GDP devoted to gross domestic fixed capital formation had declined to 26.8 per cent and the five yearly average annual rate of GDP growth had fallen to 5.6 per cent.
Figure 5 shows the similar process in Malaysia. By 1996, the last year before the debt/currency crisis, Malaysia’s gross domestic fixed capital formation was 42.5 per cent of GDP - although again this was being unsustainably financed by a balance of payments deficit. Malaysia’s five yearly annual average rate of growth of GDP was 9.6 per cent.
By 2007, ten years after the currency crisis, the proportion of Malaysia’s economy devoted to fixed investment had fallen to 21.7 per cent and the five yearly average annual rate of growth had dropped to 6.0 per cent.
Therefore, although the mechanisms of the crises were different, the outcomes in Japan in 1973-90, and South East Asia in 1997, were essentially the same - the proportion of the economy devoted to investment fell drastically and therefore so did the growth rate.
The impact of these two previous Asian economic crises, therefore, clearly illustrates the challenge facing China. China’s level of investment is significantly higher than Japan’s in 1973 – China's fixed investment rate is over 40 per cent of GDP compared to Japan's 30-35 per cent at that time. China's annual average annual rate of growth for the last five years is over ten per cent compared to Japan's nine per cent in 1973. In a number of South East Asian states, on the eve of the 1997 crisis, their very high investment rates were unsustainable, as they far exceeded domestic savings levels and were financed through extremely high balance of payments deficits. In contrast China’s savings level, running at over 50 per cent of GDP at nominal exchange rates, is even higher than its level of investment – see Figure 6. China, therefore, does not fact the international financial constraints facing South East Asia in 1997. There is, therefore, nothing inherently financially unsustainable in China’s very high investment rates. It has more than adequate domestic savings to finance its current investment levels and, therefore, approximately its present growth rate.
But it is the international context that has changed significantly and poses the economic challenge. With many economies moving into recession, and virtually all slowing, China's export growth will become significantly harder - even more so as simultaneously the renminbi is becoming a ‘hard’ currency.
As illustrated in Figure 7, the renminbi's exchange rate moved up against the dollar prior to the outbreak of the international financial crisis and it has remained constant against the dollar since its onset. As, however, the dollar has moved up against almost all currencies, except the yen, this means that the renminbi has undergone an upward revaluation against almost all other currencies.
China’s exporters, therefore, face a double squeeze. First, the markets in the economies into which they are exporting are either contracting or growing far more slowly. Second, the renminbi’s exchange rate is rising. This combination squeezes China’s exporters while simultaneously cheapening imports. China's balance of payments surplus may, therefore, decrease from its current level – the last available data being for 2007 showing a surplus of $372 billion.
However, statistically, the balance of payments is necessarily equal to the difference between domestic savings and investment - China’s balance of payments surplus reflecting that its savings level is even higher than its investment level. If China’s balance of payments surplus declines this can therefore only be achieved by its investment level moving up towards its savings level or its savings level declining towards its investment level, or a combination of the two.
Which of these two occurs will have a huge influence on both the Chinese and the world economies. As already noted, in the case of both Japan and the South East Asian economies, faced with crisis, investment levels fell. Their economies consequently drastically decelerated – negatively influencing the rate of growth of the world economy. A major deceleration of China’s economy, particularly under conditions of recession in other major economies, would have very negative consequences for international growth.
The health of the world economy, therefore, requires that if China’s balance of payments surplus is to shrink this should be by moving its domestic investment rate up towards its savings rate, not by its savings level falling towards its investment rate.
Domestic economic requirements China push in the same direction. The exchange rate of the renminbi has not merely moved upwards but will remain higher due to the underlying strength of China’s economy. A clear lesson of the current crisis is that any primary use of China’s financial resources not for domestic investment but fundamentally to attempt to maintain a low exchange rate of the renminbi will not work as a strategy – even in cases where the renminbi is stabilised against the dollar it moves up against other currencies.
China will, therefore, have to learn to compete at a higher exchange rate. This requires that its whole economic mechanism become more efficient, which can only be achieved through investment. China will cease to compete as a pure low wage economy – Vietnam and other economies now occupy the place China did twenty years ago. High levels of investment are therefore vital if China's economy is to compete in this new context.
Put in other terms, China's traditional strategy has been to keep its currency's exchange rate down to the level of productivity of its economy. In the future China will have to raise the level of productivity of its economy up to its appreciating exchange rate - requiring gigantic further investment in its productive base.
Consequently the cyclical requirements of economic management, that is ‘Keynesian’ anti-recessionary measures, coincide with the structural requirements of a high investment level. So far the Chinese government is heading in the right direction in announcing successive waves of infrastructure and other investment – railways, roads, housing. The fact that China has a large state owned economic sector allows it to take far more direct ‘Keynesian’ measure to sustain investment than are available in the US or Europe.
Nevertheless the scales of the programme’s which are required are gigantic. If, to take a hypothetical example, China’s balance of payments surplus were to fall by half under the impact of pressure on exporters and cheaper imports due to the higher exchange rate, while its savings level remained the same, this would required $175-$200 billion extra a year investment in China’s domestic economy. While there is no financial constraint on this, due to the high savings rate, the task of physically gearing up the economy for such a scale of extra-investment programmes is gigantic.
Naturally this particular example is arbitrary, and China’s balance of payments surplus may not fall to this degree, but it shows the scale of economic forces and shifts which are involved.
At the same time China faces new economic challenges it has not experienced previously. The fact that China is acquiring a 'harder' currency will undoubtedly lead to central banks of other countries wishing to hold the renminbi as part of their foreign exchange reserves – an issue China has not faced on a significant scale before.
Simultaneously China will come under pressure to use its financial resources for measures other than investment in its domestic economy. The US has announced that it is arranging dollar swaps for four economies that it considers systemically crucial – Brazil, Mexico, Singapore, and South Korea. But there will be a whole series of much weaker economies in deep trouble and it will undoubtedly be proposed that China should finance these, probably via intermediaries such as the IMF, rather than investing its resources in its domestic economy. When China attends the international economic summit in Washington on 15 November the US will also almost certainly propose that China accelerate a programme of buying US Treasury bonds.
So far China is rightly adopting the approach that 'the most important task for us now is to manage our own affairs well', as vice-premier Wang Qishan put it. But pressure put on China to change that stance, and divert resources away from its key goals, will increase. In other words many other people also have their eye on the funds which China could invest in its domestic economy.
With all these pressures, together with domestic programmes of improving social welfare and attempts to improve conditions in rural areas taking place simultaneously, not to mention other issues to manage, Chinese economic policy makers are going to be kept extremely busy in the coming months.
However, as noted, while there are many specific issues to tackle they are all within the framework of one decisive strategic choice. If China responds in the same way that Japan did in 1973-90, and South East Asia did in 1997, that is by reducing its savings and its investment levels, this will be bad not only for the Chinese economy but for the world economy. If, however, China is able to maintain its savings and investment levels through the present ‘third’ Asian currency crisis, which is a crucial aspect of how the international financial crisis appears from its perspective, not only will that be good for the world economy but it will be one of the greatest pieces of macro-economic management, not to speak of practical management of huge investment programmes, ever seen.
China since 1979 has achieved one of the greatest economic miracles in history. Confronted with the third great Asian financial crisis China again faces a gigantic challenge to its macro-economic management. How successfully it confronts that will have profound consequences not only for its own but for the entire world economy.
This article is adapted from one that appeared on the blog Key Trends in Globalisation.
Update 10 November:
China has announced a further large scale stimulus package.