Some analysts who are usually astute and show a good understanding of economics seem to put on blinders before looking at China. It’s as if, when considering China’s prospects, they forget everything they know about economics and refuse to see beyond the superficial. A recent example is Doug Casey’s article titled “Chung Kuo“.
Here’s an excerpt from the Casey article:
“I can give you a dozen credible scenarios describing what might happen in China over the next couple of decades. But the trend that seems certain to continue is the rapid rate of wealth increase there. I don’t credit official figures with any great accuracy, but if we take them as being approximately right, then the U.S. economy is growing at 2%, and China’s at about 7% — but with a base of about four times the population. What this means is that the largest economy on the planet will soon no longer be America’s — but China’s.”
There are two big problems with the above paragraph. First, after saying that he doesn’t credit official figures with any great accuracy he takes these figures as being approximately right. The reality, however, is that China’s reported growth figures are completed fabricated. It’s not that China’s government reports growth of 7.0% when the actual rate of growth is 6.5%; it’s that China’s government reports growth in the 6.5%-7.5% range every year regardless of what’s happening. If the economy were shrinking rapidly the government would still report growth in the 6.5%-7.5% range. Based on other measures of economic activity there have almost certainly been 12-month periods over the past 10 years when China’s economy shrank in real terms, but during these periods China’s government still reported growth of around 7%.
The second problem is that the monetary size of an economy is irrelevant to the people living in it. What matters is per-capita wealth, not aggregate wealth and certainly not aggregate spending (which is what GDP attempts to measure). For example, it’s quite possible that in size terms Nigeria’s economy will overtake Switzerland’s economy within the next few years, but so what? Nobody in their right mind is saying that if this happens then the average Swiss will be worse off than the average Nigerian, because it obviously must be taken into account that there are 175M people in Nigeria and only 8M in Switzerland.
The Casey article then goes on to list some of the things that China has going for it, but most of these things were just as applicable 100 years ago as they are today. Therefore, they aren’t critical ingredients for strong, broad-based economic progress.
Surprisingly, given that Doug Casey’s big-picture analysis is usually on the mark, the Casey article fails to address any of the most important issues. There’s no mention, for example, that China has a command economy with only token gestures towards free markets.
The true colours of China’s economic commanders were shown in 2015 following the bursting of the stock market bubble that they had purposefully created. I’m referring to how they became increasingly draconian in their efforts to stop the price decline. When words of support didn’t work, they made short-selling illegal and began to aggressively buy stocks. When that didn’t work, they forbade corporations and investment funds from selling at all and made it clear that bearish public comments about the stock market would not be tolerated. And when the market still didn’t cooperate, they started apprehending or ‘disappearing’ people suspected of placing bearish bets.
Related to the “command economy” issue is the fact that China has always had an emperor. This means that there is no history of freedom or a culture of individual-rights to fall back on. Furthermore, Xi Jinping, the current emperor (who doesn’t call himself an emperor), has shown admiration for Mao Tse Tung, the most brutal emperor (who also didn’t call himself an emperor) in China’s history.
There’s also no mention in the Casey article that over the past 10 years China has experienced the greatest mal-investment in centuries. You would have to go back to the pyramids of ancient Egypt or the building of the Terracotta Army by China’s first emperor more than 2000 years ago to find comparable examples of resource wastage on such a grand scale.
All the ghost cities, spectacular-but-mostly-vacant shopping malls, barely-used airports and bridges to nowhere have boosted the Keynesian measures of growth — such as GDP — that don’t distinguish between productive and unproductive spending. Consequently, even if the GDP growth figures reported by China’s government bore some resemblance to reality (they don’t), the reported growth wouldn’t be a reason to be optimistic because so much of it is associated with wasteful spending. Moreover, the bulk of the spending is debt-funded by State-controlled banks that would make Deutsche Bank look financially ‘rock solid’ if given a proper accounting treatment.
Next, there’s the legacy of the “one-child policy” to consider. Thanks to decades of the national birth rate being restricted by the giant boot of government, China is now facing a major demographic problem. Specifically, for at least the next couple of decades the number of prime-age workers is going to shrink relative to the elderly.
Finally, it is worth mentioning China’s mind-boggling wealth disparity. A few hundred million people are doing OK and a few million have become extremely wealthy while at least a billion people are living in abject poverty.
As to why some people who produce well-reasoned analysis of what’s happening in the Western world seem incapable of applying the same principles and logic when analysing China, I can only guess. My guess is that they are too focused on trying to show the US in a negative light to see what’s going on in China. It is, however, possible to be concerned about the direction in which the US is heading without being bullish on China.