Doug Criscitello, Executive Director of MIT’s Center for Finance and Policy
High rates of debt growth by local governments are a cause for concern in any country. In China, where recent turmoil in the equity and foreign-exchange markets has put a spotlight on that country’s economy and growth prospects, increasing levels of borrowing by provincial and other lower levels of government has resulted in local indebtedness rising nearly four-fold since 2008, reaching about 40% of GDP.
Debt growth of that magnitude raises concerns about fiscal sustainability, debt affordability, transparency and accountability. Cautionary tales abound. From New York City in the ‘70s, emerging market countries in the ‘80s, Russia in the ‘90s, and Detroit, Greece and Puerto Rico more recently, there is a long list of governments that have experienced the painful economic repercussions of taking on debt they could not afford.
While the massive debt buildup in China presents challenges, the situation is not as dire as a full-blown debt crisis, a new policy brief from the MIT Center for Finance and Policy by Xun Wu, a visiting scholar, suggests.
The latest Obama-Xi announcement sends a strong message: the two nations are acting fast to enable a global low carbon transition. Friday’s joint announcement is an unprecedented step by the world’s #1 and #2 emitters to commit, at the highest levels, to a strong set of domestic policies and to reinforce global mechanisms that will help to engage peers ahead of the upcoming landmark climate change negotiations in Paris.
The ability of the Chinese government to control is undisputed and unparalleled compared with governments in other countries and, indeed, compared with the Chinese state during imperial times. If the stock market does not go up, then prevent it from going down by shutting it down. If too many investors want to cash out their positions at the same time, just charge them with “malicious intent to sell” and arrest them as proverbial chickens to scare off the monkeys.
The problem is that a government so focused on and obsessed with controls is not one that cares about or is particularly good at establishing credibility. A government needs credibility when it tries to convince others to do its bidding without the ability to dictate actions directly.
In his book, The Courage to Act, Ben Bernanke wrote about how US Federal Reserve officials debated and deliberated long and hard about particular words and phrases, and even about the usage of different punctuation marks, in their communiqués with the public.
The reason is that the effectiveness of the Fed does not depend on its ability to arrest people at will but on how it is perceived by market participants – whether it is perceived as being capable, deliberative and above all credible. If the Fed lost the confidence of the market, much of its influence and leverage would evaporate.
When Chinese officials recently announced plans to support investment in robots in China’s manufacturing industries, the reaction in some US circles was one of astonishment, if not incredulity. Much of China’s attraction as a manufacturing powerhouse, after all, has been low labour costs, so turning towards robots would seem like relinquishing a key competitive advantage. In fact, several key drivers explain why this is a very intentional and strategic move.
One key factor is that while China’s labour costs still lag behind those in other key economies, Chinese labour has become relatively expensive compared to nations such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Moreover, Chinese labour costs are increasing at a much faster rate than in the US and, while the gap is still considerable, it is narrowing at a relentless pace. China also faces a labour scarcity in its economic boom centres.
Stock markets continue to respond strongly to China’s economic woes, fearing a crippling slowdown since China suddenly devalued its currency two weeks ago — a move widely interpreted as a desperate attempt to support growth.
But Chinese growth in the future will be limited until the government makes fairly substantive structural reforms.
China’s growth model is one in which the role of the state in the economy has become more intrusive. For years, many US observers hailed China’s government-led and investment-heavy model as a pillar of strength. Their favorite comparison is between the spunky new airports in Beijing and Shanghai and the supposedly dilapidated New York JFK and Los Angeles airports. While comparison has an element of convenience to it — you have to depart from a US airport and arrive at a Chinese airport when you visit China — the “airportology’’ is flawed, because it doesn’t take into account that China has clearly overbuilt, and at a considerable cost to its middle class.