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Default Can China Save the World?
by StrawberrySun 07-31-2009, 04:28 PM

www.time.com

On a steamy saturday afternoon just outside Shanghai, Zhang Yi is in a blessedly cool General Motors showroom, kicking the tires of the company's newer models. He's not there to beat the heat. He drives a small Volkswagen now and wants to upgrade. A middle manager at a state-owned steel company, Zhang has no worries about his job or China's economy. "Things are still pretty good," he says. "I have no problem now affording one of these," nodding toward the array of gleaming new Buicks nearby.


There aren't a lot of places in the world these days where consumers speak with that kind of confidence. With the U.S., Japan and all of Europe mired in the worst global recession in 30 years, China has shown a restorative strength that six months ago many doubted it had. A devastating slump in exports crippled growth late last year, but on the back of a $586 billion government stimulus program about 13% of GDP, spread over two years China has snapped back. The economy grew 7.9% in the second quarter and will now probably expand 8% or more this year. Evidence of increasing momentum appears almost every day. Factory production has begun to edge up, in part because Chinese consumers continue to spend money at a healthy pace. Auto sales, helped significantly by government subsidies for small-car purchases, hit an all-time record in April and will easily surpass those in the U.S. this year. Overall, retail sales in China this year are up 16%.


Numbers alone do not capture the sense that the balance of global economic power is shifting eastward. There have been several moments that seemed to crystallize the zeitgeist, none more memorable than U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's speech in June before the best and the brightest at Peking University, the Harvard of China. Not long ago, students there would have been the most respectful and polite of audiences. Yet when Geithner tried to reassure one questioner that China's investments in U.S. government debt were "very safe," the response was perhaps an indication of the onset of a new economic order: the students laughed.



The U.S., the unquestioned leader of the global economy, is now in the midst of a disorienting shift in economic policy, away from the let-it-rip form of capitalism that has guided it for almost 30 years and toward more overt government control and regulation of huge swaths of the economy. No one yet can safely say whether this is wise, but in the U.S. it is certainly the stuff of increasingly fierce debate. No such doubts are evident in China, where the government reacted to the crisis with alacrity and the economy is now responding in kind.



That's why, for global companies like General Motors, China is no longer the future. It's the present. Of the world's 10 biggest economies, China's is the only one that is growing, and it could soon surpass Japan's to become the world's second largest. The Shanghai exchange has soared more than 80% this year, by far the best performance among major markets. Nations that depend on producing commodities, such as Australia and Brazil, have benefited immensely over the past six months as demand from China has driven up the price of raw materials. Helped by trade with China, Asia's export-driven economies are sputtering back to life. Overall, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts that in the three years from 2008 to 2010, China will, astonishingly, account for almost three-quarters of the world's economic growth. Not surprisingly, China has now become the focus of a world that is looking for a way out of the swamp. As Shanghai-based economist Andy Xie puts it, "Everyone wants to know the same thing: Can China save the world?"



Trading Places
A few years ago, that question and the notion that China could drive global growth would have seemed absurd. After all, China's economy was dependent on manufacturing, which was in turn dependent on demand from the U.S., the world's undisputed economic locomotive. But that engine remains sidetracked. The IMF predicts the U.S. economy will contract 2.6% this year. American home prices continue to fall in some cities, while the unemployment rate has soared to 9.5%, the highest since 1983. The U.S.'s much ballyhooed stimulus plan has so far yielded little measurable benefit, save putting some spark back in stock markets. The absence of real signs of recovery has Washington discussing the possibility of yet another round of stimulus spending, despite a ballooning federal budget deficit.

The speed and relative success so far of China's stimulus stands in stark contrast with that of the U.S. According to a recent study by the World Bank, Beijing's government spending will generate more than 80% of the country's overall economic growth this year. This is partly because China was already in the midst of a nationwide infrastructure program when the recession hit. Emergency spending measures simply added to existing schemes already under way. In other words, the projects really were shovel-ready, and the money hit the streets quickly and in large dollops. Outlays on new railway construction, for example, were $41 billion last year. They will be $88 billion this year. Says one senior FORTUNE 500 executive: "In the U.S., NIMBY [not in my backyard] is still the order of the day, whereas in China it's more like IMBY. They build where they want, when they want. And they move fast."


China's recovery and growing economic importance have led some to suggest that global institutions such as the Group of Eight the U.S., the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia are becoming obsolete; that the only dialogue that really matters going forward is the conversation between the "G-2": China and the U.S. On July 27, President Barack Obama appeared to acknowledge this when, addressing participants in high-level talks between the two countries, he said Washington's relationship with Beijing would "shape the 21st century." In recent months, Beijing has started to throw its weight around. China seeks and will almost certainly soon get greater voting rights in the IMF. In June, China agreed to buy up to $50 billion in bonds issued by the IMF to boost the fund's capacity to deal with the global financial crisis. Earlier this year, Chinese leaders, worried about the strength of the U.S. dollar and the safety of their own $763.5 billion investment in U.S. Treasury Department debt, called for the creation of an alternative to the greenback as a global reserve currency. More recently, Beijing has signaled an intention to slowly establish its own currency, the renminbi, as a dollar alternative in international trade by providing subsidies for Chinese companies to price their exports in renminbi. One economist, Qu Hongbin of HSBC in Hong Kong, goes so far as to say that 40% to 50% of China's overall trade flows could be settled in renminbi by 2012 (though few other economists believe this will happen anywhere near that fast). This willingness to make its positions known publicly and push other governments to see things China's way "is very different from 10 years ago, when Beijing was much quieter and more low-profile," says Jun Ma, an economist at Deutsche Bank in Hong Kong.


Indeed, China is increasingly open about both its ambitions and its concerns over U.S. economic policy, given its position as Washington's largest foreign creditor. Beijing never signed on to what became known in the late 1990s as the Washington Consensus on global economic policy, which called for free trade, privatization, light-touch regulation, prudent fiscal policies and at least as many interpreted the consensus free capital flows. The U.S. Treasury, in the wake of the credit meltdown, has put forward a plan to enhance regulation of its own capital markets, but that is unlikely to prevent Beijing from continuing to push for the IMF to take a greater role in policing global markets. At its core, despite embracing many aspects of the market, China runs a top-down, command-and-control economy, and its success so far in skating through the recession relatively cleanly may encourage other developing countries to adopt its brand of capitalism.



Not So Fast
still, the best possible answer to the question of whether China can save the world is: Not yet. Plenty of economists doubt that China's economy is as sound as it appears or truly on the road to a sustained recovery. And many more dismiss the chatter about China as the world's economic savior as hopelessly premature.
China's overall economic vigor may continue to impress, but there are questions surrounding the quality of its performance. The People's Bank of China, the central bank, is giving great gobs of money to state-owned banks that, with Beijing's forceful encouragement, are lending to state-owned companies participating in infrastructure construction. Skeptics are frightened by the amount of cash being shoveled out the doors. The central bank recently announced that new loans in June totaled $224 billion. That was more than double the previous month's amount and brought new bank lending in the first six months of the year to nearly $1.1 trillion, exceeding the total for all of 2008.

To optimists, the June data showed just how determined the Chinese government is to implement effective monetary countermeasures to fight the downturn. As Peking University finance professor Michael Pettis says, China is "throwing everything including the kitchen sink'' at the problem. There is no question that as a result of the flood of financing, a lot of Chinese have jobs they otherwise wouldn't. But, as Grant's Interest Rate Observer, an influential Wall Street newsletter, points out in its latest issue, "Massive injections of money and credit ... are always bullish before they are bearish." The newsletter draws worrying parallels between China's current credit boom and the gush of lending that produced the U.S. housing bubble, the collapse of which devastated the financial sector and triggered the global credit crisis and current recession.



There are certainly signs that some aspects of China's recovery are ephemeral. Part of the reason China's stock market has soared is that Chinese companies have received so much cheap financing that they have dumped proceeds into the equity market for lack of better alternatives. Andrew Barber, Asia strategist at Research Edge, a New Haven, Conn., investment-research firm, estimates that up to 30% of new bank lending this year has wound its way into equities. Why isn't the money going into new businesses? The evidence suggests that in key parts of the economy growth remains anemic, particularly the important export-manufacturing sector, which continues to suffer from the reduction in global demand. According to a report from Fitch Ratings in the U.S., Chinese lending continues to accelerate even though corporate profits overall are shrinking suggesting that China may be incubating its own financial crisis that could be triggered when the adrenal rush of the stimulus wears off.


Little Big China
Those caveats are important. But China's technocrats are well aware of the risks they are running. "They came into this [crisis period] with eyes wide open," says Barber, recognizing that loans being granted in a relatively weak economic climate could start to go bad in droves. The country's once shaky financial sector was cleaned up several years ago in 2007, nonperforming loans amounted to just 3% of total bank assets and vehicles set up to deal with China's last banking crisis still exist. In other words, Beijing thinks its financial system is strong enough to handle the risks of its very loose monetary policy.



To be sure, even if darker scenarios never unfold and China's economy continues to power ahead, it will probably not, on its own, be enough to drag the rest of the world into a recovery. Size matters. The U.S. has a $14 trillion economy; China's is $4.4 trillion. The U.S. accounted for nearly 21% of total global GDP last year; China just 6.4%. Chinese consumption, in other words, is growing but is still insufficient to lift the world's advanced economies out of recession. Consumer spending drives less than 40% of China's GDP; in the U.S. before the bust, the consumer accounted for almost 70%. With American shoppers now on the sidelines the U.S. savings rate has soared from zero to nearly 7% in the past nine months as consumers have closed their wallets the world desperately needs someone to step into that void.



China can help. But it remains a relatively poor country, with an annual per capita income of $6,000, compared with $39,000 in the U.S. and $33,400 in the E.U. To be solidly middle class in China's big cities is to have an income of about $12,000. Brisk though auto sales may be, most Chinese still can't afford a Volkswagen or a Buick, let alone a BMW. Even as China's consumers feel richer, their share of its economy may not change much until Beijing enacts reforms to the health-care and social-security systems, steps that would give people more confidence to spend rather than save. Last year, says Peking University's Pettis, China's consumption was about the equivalent of France's. No one is calling on France to save the world.



China faces enormous challenges a massive shift of population from rural areas to cities, cleaning up decades of environmental degradation, continuing to provide the increase in prosperity that has underpinned political stability. Given their scale, it should surprise nobody that it is still most concerned with saving itself economically not anyone else. Beijing is most unnerved by the prospect of labor unrest of the sort that resulted in the death on July 24 of a steel-company executive in northeast China at the hands of a mob.



But the resilience of the Chinese economy is no mirage. If Beijing can come through the global crisis without an economic meltdown of its own, its leaders' reputation and confidence will be boosted. An economic model that survives the worst downturn since the Great Depression will have undeniable appeal in the developing world, at a time when the Washington Consensus is thoroughly shot. Beijing, before the crisis, was already rising, its global reach and influence expanding. As the rest of the world falters, that is truer than ever. China is not yet the leader of the global economy. But it's getting there.
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