Monday, 26 September 2011

China’s Growth – Is It Over?

That “the world’s economic center of gravity will inevitably shift to the Asian nations of the Western pacific” is “called into question by the simple observation that the remarkable record of East Asian growth has been matched by input growth so rapid that Asian economic growth , incredibly, ceases to be a mystery”…”If growth in East Asia runs into diminishing returns, however,  the conventional wisdom about an Asian-centered world economy needs some rethinking”…”From the perspective of the year 2010 (sic!), current projections of Asian supremacy  … may well look as silly as 1960s-vintage forecasts of Soviet industrial supremacy did from the perspective of the Brezhnev years”.
Oh, Paul Krugman (1994), you write so well – and, well,  so wrong! Who looks silly now?
As Professor John Ross, Shanghai, correctly observed:
“Not only has the growth of the East Asian ‘emerging’ economies continued, but the most developed, Singapore, has achieved a GDP per capita higher, in parity purchasing powers (PPPs), than the US. This latter fact might, indeed, be considered ‘revenge of reality over (erroneous) theory’ as Paul Krugman singled out Singapore for perhaps the most comprehensive criticism for relying on an ‘extensive’ pattern of economic growth, dependent on accumulation of factor inputs of capital and labour, rather than on increases in total factor productivity (TFP).”
Were the OECD Global Development Perspectives 2010  that analyzed the shift of the world’s gravity center toward Asia for its implication for the South “silly” then? Not if you read  The Economist highly readable special report “A game of catch-up” which borders on plagiarising the OECD 2010 report but manages not to mention it even in the acknowledgements.
Recently, however, the chorus of learned people has become louder who give China little prospect to grow vigorously even correcting for the inevitably sinking impetus from convergence push as the giant grows richer. Many people have been predicting the rapid decline of China’s growth rate; so it is impossible to list them all:
·         Take, well, The Economist (a magazine which likes to contradict – itself). In June 2002, it published a special report with the self-explanatory title ‘Out of puff- a survey of China’. This predicted: “In the coming decade, therefore, China seems set to become more unstable. It will face growing unrest as unemployment amounts. And if growth were to slow significantly, public confidence could collapse, triggering a run on the banks that would undermine China’s financial stability.

·         Nouriel Roubini predicts crisis in China after 2013, under the pompous title “China’s Unbalanced, Uncoordinated and Unsustainable Growth Model”.  No empirical test will be available in 2013, let’s hope for him; predictions two years out tend simply to be forgotten.

·         Dani Rodrik, in a recent paper for the Jackson Hole conference (see my last blog entry on Prasad’s paper presented at the same get-together) argues that the ability of China and other Asian economies to pursue their growth strategy will be increasingly circumscribed by two factors: the onset of political maturity, and the refusal of other economies (emerging and developed) to run ever-increasing trade deficits with Asia. Rodrik refers to China’s ‘ever growing trade surplus’ and to the limited time span it can grow with double-digit rates . In fact, China’s trade surplus peaked at in March 2009 and  has since fallen substantially until Summer this year, even more so as a percentage of China’s growing GDP. And the  Chinese growth 'miracle' has already exceeded the three decades limit of Rodrik's schema, and may be said to have invalidated it, even before it was written, as China has grown by 9 percent/year since 1977 already!

  • Barry Eichengreen and coauthors nourish their scepticism on China’s growth prospects by pointing to the country quickly reaching a fatal ‘middle-income trap’. The evidence they present would suggest that rapidly growing economies slow down significantly, in the sense that the growth rate downshifts by at least 2 percentage points, when their per capita incomes reach around $17,000 US in year-2005 constant international prices, a level that China should achieve by or soon after 2015. And: growth slowdowns are more likely in countries that maintain undervalued real exchange rates. These results obtained by Eichengreen + Co, however, may be heavily influenced by middle-income countries in Latin America and Eastern Europe whose growth performance has been hampered by banking crises and frictions in the course of transition from socialist production.
Richard Herd who is the main author of the OECD Economic Surveys of China conveniently produces a growth-accounting on China’s growth. First, it shows that Nobel Prize winner Krugman 1994-vintage indeed looks silly: From 1994, China’s growth rate has not slowed down – it has increased! Second, China’s growth has mainly based on two sources: i) continued rapid expansion of the capital stock, and ii) reallocation of labour away from agriculture toward services and manufactures. The OECD (and the IMF) project China to grow by 9 percent in real terms in 2011.
Source: OECD Economic Surveys China 2010, p 25.
Looking at these numbers, it seems to me that understanding how large emerging countries can catch-up to leading per capita levels over the long term, rather than the concern on  more immediate macroeconomic policy challenges, requires to focus on two features in particular that have characterized sustained growth episodes there:
  • High investment rates, to foster structural change and technological upgrading,  backed by high domestic saving rates to avoid ouput cost due to ‘sudden stops’ of foreign capital.
  • The duality of the economies  and the role of the sectoral shift of labour resources from low-productivity subsistence sectors to high-productivity urban sectors.

The evidence produced by the OECD China Survey seems to suggest then that the Krugmans, Roubinis, Rodriks, Eichengreens of today inform us perhaps less about the future growth prospects of large converging countries such as Brazil, China and India than did Adam Smith’ and Arthur Lewis’ core models of economic development.

Professor Ross explains sustained Asia’s growth performance with Adam Smith’s classical (not neoclassical) paradigm:
  • “In the classical theory, economic growth is driven by division of labour, not by ‘entrepreneurship’, as in Schumpeter’s growth theory for example.
  • Smith’s view that the percentage of the economy devoted to investment rises historically was followed by others, including Keynes, but such a conclusion was challenged by Friedman and still does not play a central role in many growth theories – indeed, as noted, an extremely high investment level is seen as a policy error in the development of the East Asian economies.
  • In Smith’s analysis technological process is driven by the consequences of division of labour, rather than technology being an external driving force of productivity - as for example in the analysis of views typically deriving from Solow. “
Indeed, no less than Brad DeLong and Larry Summers[1]  had produced (for the period 1960-85) hard quantitative evidence in support of the “older, traditional” view that the accumulation of machinery is a prime determinant of national rates of productivity growth, and against the supposition that the private return to equipment investment mirrors its social product. “High rates of equipment investment for example, account for nearly all of Japan’s extraordinary growth performance”, they added (funny that, in view of later, official statements by Summers in particular). The authors emphasized then:

“Moreover, the data strongly suggest that high equipment investment is a cause, not a
consequence of rapid productivity growth. The cross nation pattern of equipment prices, equipment investment quantities, and growth rates is consistent with the belief that fast growing countries are those where equipment supply curves have shifted outwards. It is not consistent with the belief that fast growing countries are those in which other determinants of productivity growth have shifted equipment demand curves outward. We interpret the cross country evidence as suggesting social returns to equipment investment on the order of 30 percent per year.”

While I do not see then an obvious barrier to China saving for high investment in the immediate future, and a balanced current account would not be one of them, things may look different with respect to the growth implications of the second core model of economic development[2], the Lewis-Fei-Ranis model.  A 2010 paper by Jiping and Tingsong presents a general equilibrium model to assess the likely impact of the Lewis turning point (when rural surplus labour starts to be exhausted and the Ricardian labour market turns neoclassic in the sense that business has to pay wages equal to labour marginal productivity).  Their modeling results suggest that China would loose competitiveness in labour-intensive industries, with a falling current account surplus, higher inflation and lower growth.

To be sure, any global crisis that comes in the way (as it did in 2008 and is likely to do now), will slow down the transition from a market with unlimited supply of subsistence labour to a ‘normal’ labour market in China.

[1] Equipment investment and economic growth. Quarterly Journal of Economics,  106  (1991), pp. 445–502.
[2] Gary Fields (2004), Dualism In The Labor Market: A Perspective On The Lewis Model After Half A Century,
Manchester School, University of Manchester, Vol. 72, No. 6, pp. 724-735, December.

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