Column: Chinas growth puzzle

Written by Stephen S Roach | Updated: Mar 3 2014, 07:20am hrs
Once again, all eyes are on emerging markets. Long the darlings of the global growth sweepstakes, they are being battered in early 2014. Perceptions of resilience have given way to fears of vulnerability.

The US Federal Reserves tapering of its unprecedented liquidity injections has been an obvious and important trigger. Emerging economies that are overly dependent on global capital flowsparticularly India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, and Turkeyare finding it tougher to finance economic growth. But hand-wringing over China looms equally large. Long-standing concerns about the Chinese economys dreaded hard landing have intensified.

In the throes of crisis, generalisation is the norm; in the end, however, it pays to differentiate. Unlike the deficit-prone emerging economies that are now in troublewhose imbalances are strikingly reminiscent of those in the Asian economies that were hit by the late-90s financial crisisChina runs a current-account surplus. As a result, there is no risk of portfolio outflows resulting from the Feds tapering of its monthly asset purchases. And, of course, Chinas outsize backstop of $3.8 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves provides ample insurance in the event of intensified financial contagion.

Yes, Chinas economy is now slowing; but the significance of this is not well understood. The downturn has nothing to do with problems in other emerging economies; in fact, it is a welcome development. It is neither desirable nor feasible for China to return to the trajectory of 10% annual growth that it achieved in the three decades after 1980.

Yet a superficial fixation on Chinas headline GDP growth persists, so that a 25% deceleration, to a 7-8% annual rate, is perceived as somehow heralding the end of the modern worlds greatest development story. This knee-jerk reaction presumes that Chinas current slowdown is but a prelude to more growth disappointments to comea presumption that reflects widespread and longstanding fears of a broad array of disaster scenarios, ranging from social unrest and environmental catastrophes to housing bubbles and shadow-banking blow-ups.

While these concerns should not be dismissed out of hand, none of them is the source of the current slowdown. Instead, lower growth rates are the natural result of the long-awaited rebalancing of the Chinese economy.

In other words, what we are witnessing is the effect of a major shift from hyper-growth led by exports and investment (thanks to a vibrant manufacturing sector) to a model that is much more reliant on the slower but steadier growth dynamic of consumer spending and services. Indeed, in 2013, the Chinese services sector became the economys largest, surpassing the combined share of the manufacturing and construction sectors.

The problem, as I argue in my new book, Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China, is not with China, but with the worldand the United States, in particularwhich is not prepared for the slower growth that Chinas successful rebalancing implies.

The codependency construct is rooted in the psychopathology of human relationships whereby two partners, whether out of need or convenience, draw unhealthy support from each other. Ultimately, codependency leads to a loss of identity, serious frictions, and often a nasty breakupunless one or both of the partners becomes more self-reliant and strikes out on his or her own.

The economic analogue of codependency applies especially well to the US and China. Chinas export-led growth miracle would not have started in the 1980s without the American consumer. And China relied heavily on the US dollar to anchor its undervalued currency, allowing it to boost its export competitiveness.

The US, for its part, relied on cheap goods made in China to stretch hard-pressed consumers purchasing power. It also became dependent on Chinas savings surplus to finance its own savings shortfall (the worlds largest), and took advantage of Chinas voracious demand for US Treasury securities to help fund massive budget deficits and subsidise low domestic interest rates.

In the end, however, this codependency was a marriage of convenience, not of love. Frictions between the two partners have developed over a wide range of issues, including trade, the renminbis exchange rate, regional security, intellectual property, and cyber attacks, among others. And, just as a psychologist would predict, one of the partners, China, has decided to go its own way.

Chinas rebalancing will enable it to absorb its surplus savings, which will be put to work building a social safety net and boosting Chinese households wherewithal. As a result, China will no longer be inclined to lend its capital to the US.

For a growth-starved US economy, the transformation of its codependent partner could well be a fork in the road. One path is quite risky: If America remains stuck in its under-saving ways but finds itself without Chinese goods and capital, it will suffer higher inflation, rising interest rates, and a weaker dollar. The other path holds great opportunity: America can adopt a new growth strategymoving away from excess consumption toward a model based on saving and investing in people, infrastructure, and capacity. In doing so, the US could draw support from exports, especially to a rebalanced Chinacurrently its third-largest and fastest-growing major export market.

Compared with other emerging economies, China is cut from a different cloth. China emerged from the late-90s Asian financial crisis as the regions most resilient economy, and I suspect the same will be true this time. Differentiation mattersfor China, Asia, and the rest of the global economy.

The author is a faculty member at Yale University and former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.