The world's third largest economy is sending worrying signals to those whose best hopes for an end to the Global Economic Crisis reside with China. Though Chinese growth projections seems spectacular in a recessionary world, with estimates ranging from 8% to above 9%, there is both more and less to these numbers than meets the eye.
The superstructure underlying China's impressive growth rate over the past decade and more has been exports, especially to the American consumer, with facilitation from credit flows emanating from Beijing. In a situation where the central government is priming the stimulus pump, growth is being artificially created to a large extent, since domestic demand cannot compensate for China's ravaged export markets. Factories may still be manufacturing export goods, however, the inventories are surging while shipments abroad are contracting. That appears to be the message revealed in new figures on China's economic performance.
According to China's customs bureau, exports in July declined a staggering 23% from a year ago. This number is apocalyptic, yet on paper China's GDP keeps soaring. How can an export driven mega-economy experience significant growth simultaneously with its core export sector undergoing a free fall contraction? By flooding the economy with liquidity through monetary easing, it would appear. However, this is not a recipe for long-term, sustained growth. This policy will only succeed if there is a rapid turnaround in China's export trade. That is a dim prospect, in light of the continuing decline in employment numbers in most of China's key export markets, especially the United States and the Eurozone.
Another revealing statistic to emerge from Beijing involves lending. The first 6 months of 2009 involved a floodtide of easy credit saturating the Chinese economy. However, in July new loans declined by a massive three quarters from the prior month. It seems policymakers in China are getting more concerned about the prospect that overly-loose credit will fuel an asset bubble in Chinese equities and real estate, while leading to an increase in loan defaults in the future.
Taken together, we see China engaged in a a series of massive interventions and policy actions in response to the Global Economic Crisis that are not dissimilar from other major economies. These steps are predicated on the hope that massive pump priming will keep the economy from imploding until there is a global recovery, enabling China's export trade to resume its upward trajectory.
In my view, despite the rosy growth projections, the underlying fundamentals of China's economy are based on fragile assumptions. If demand for China's export goods from overseas consumers remains far under peak demand levels for a sustained period, Beijing will confront this reality: the nation's massive export manufacturing infrastructure cannot indefinitely employ workers who fabricate products that pile up on the docks of China's major ports. That is the nightmare scenario China's leadership circles pray never unfolds.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more