As trade slows, China doesn’t rethink its growth strategy …

My title is a play on the New York Times’ online headline: “As Trade Slows, China Rethinks its Growth Strategy.” The print version of the Times carries a headline that more accurately reflects the content of Keith Bradsher’s story : “Juggernaut in Exports is Withering in China.”

Chinese exports were doing reasonably well in October but dipped in November and — if Korea’s December trade data offers any guide — will fall even more in December. Bradsher’s story documents the depth of the slowdown but doesn’t offer much evidence that China is “rethinking” its growth strategy. Bradsher reports:

“In the last two weeks, Chinese officials have announced a series of measures to help exporters. State banks are being directed to lend more to them, particularly to small and medium-size exporters. Government research funds are being set up. The head of the government of Hong Kong, Donald Tsang, plans to seek legislative approval by late January for the government to guarantee banks’ issuance of $12.9 billion worth of letters of credit for exports. Particularly noteworthy have been the Chinese government’s steps to help labor-intensive sectors like garment production, one of the industries China has been trying to move away from in an effort to climb the ladder of economic development with more skilled work that pays higher wages. But now China has become reluctant to yield the bottom rungs of the ladder to countries with even lower wages, like Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

China has been restoring export tax rebates for its textile sector, for instance, which it had been phasing out. Municipal governments have also stopped raising the minimum wage, which doubled over the last two years in some cities, peaking at $146 a month in Shenzhen. “China will resort to tariff and trade policies to facilitate export of labor-intensive and core technology-supported industries,” Li Yizhong, the minister of industry and information technology, said at a conference on Dec. 19. “

Rather than trying to shift away from exports, the global slump seems to have prompted China to cling to its existing export-led growth strategy. China seems to be rethinking is its previous willingness to move out of low-end labor-intensive exports as higher-end export sectors expand. With jobs scarce, that no longer seems like a great idea. China also seems to be rethinking its exchange rate policy. Here too it seems to going back to the past. Over the past several months the RMB has been effectively repegged to the dollar — going up when the dollar went up (October) and going down when the dollar went down (December).

But the global environment is changing in ways that will make it harder for China to avoid a sharp downturn in its exports no matter what China does. And that isn’t just because China’s efforts to subsidize its exports and limit the RMB’s appreciation against the dollar may attract the ire of the US. Bradsher reports that Indonesia is keen to find ways to limit its imports from China that do not formally violate its WTO commitments.

In Indonesia, the third most populous country in Asia after China and India, the government is already acting to limit imports of garments, electronics, shoes, toys and food — five large categories in which Indonesian producers are struggling to compete with China. Starting in the new year, importers of these products will have to be registered with the government, use only five designated ports for their shipments, arrange for a detailed inspection of goods before they are loaded on a ship or plane bound for Indonesia and then have every single container exhaustively inspected on arrival by Indonesia’s notoriously slow customs bureaucracy. The plan, intended to comply with W.T.O. rules, was adopted after heavy lobbying by Indonesian manufacturers and labor unions.

h/t Rybinski

The jobs argument cuts both ways. Indonesia wants jobs for its rural migrants too.

China’s export sector hasn’t experienced a sharp cyclical downturn in a long time. In 2001 global trade did contract. But that contraction didn’t hit China all that hard. It came at a time when the electronics industry was migrating to China, allowing China to increase its share of a shrinking global market. Year-over-year export growth slowed from 25% at the peak of the .com boom in 2000 to 5% — but it didn’t turn negative. In dollar terms, the y/y increase in a rolling 12m sum of China’s exports went from $50b to $15-20b. But y/y exports never fell in dollar terms.*

But China now is a much much bigger share of global trade. China’s 2008 exports — in dollar terms — will be more than five times large than its 2000 exports. That means that China is now far more exposed to the global economic cycle than it was. And this cycle looks brutal.

Korea is reporting its biggest drop in industrial production in twenty-one years. That is the kind of data point that gets my attention. I was a bit surprised to hear that the current fall is sharper than the fall that accompanied Korea’s own crisis in 97/98.

The natural instinct of China’s policy makers is to do what they can to support employment in China’s export sector. But there are limits to how much China can do to offset the global fall in demand. And the more the world’s biggest surplus country does to support its exports, the more frustrated the world’s deficit countries are likely to become …

Pettis is right. If the deficit countries are the ones most willing to use macroeconomic policy to support demand and the surplus counties are among the most reluctant to run expansionary macroeconomic policies (Germany) or among the most inclined to subsidize their exports (China), the likely result is a widening deficit (meaning non-oil deficit) in the deficit countries — i.e. bigger imbalances among the oil-importing economies– even as activity in all economies slows. That adds to the risk of future trade conflict. Signs of future trouble aren’t hard to find even now.

*1998 and early 1999 was a bit worse. Y/y export growth turned negative. But exports weren’t quite as large a share of China’s economy then — and perhaps as importantly, China wasn’t going off a long boom where exports only went up. Volatility was far more expected then.

Originally published at the CFR blog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

2 Responses to "As trade slows, China doesn’t rethink its growth strategy …"

  1. Guest   January 6, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    BusinessWeek Quotes Michael Pettis supporting an US Trade War with China. It’s all China fault that US manufacturers aren’t globally competitive in almost every labor intensive industry. Not a sentence about trade barriers by the US government that prohibit high-tech exports to China where Americans still retain some comparative advantage (ie. supercomputers, semiconductors, machine tools, satellites, carbon composite materials, aerospace parts, etc). General Motors receives billions of US taxpayer dollars to pay exorbitant executive salaries to incompetents, but Michael Pettis complains about some Chinese government export programs for sock and shoe manufacturers. Even Businessweek admits that the Chinese government hasn’t broken any WTO trade laws. The Chinese should boot Michael Pettis from Beijing for slanderous remarks. University finance professor Michael Pettis goes so far as to liken China’s tax-rebate move to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, the U.S. law that sharply hiked tariffs to protect American manufacturers. Smoot-Hawley is widely blamed for a wave of global protectionism that helped usher in the Great Depression. Back then, America was the world’s workshop and suffered from huge overcapacity at a time of global contraction. “China is in the same position today,” says Pettis. “So far, China is acting like it thinks it can export its way out of this problem. I am very, very worried.”

    • Anonymous   January 9, 2009 at 1:30 pm

      Did you actually have a point to make, or are you just telling us that you don’t like Mr. Pettis?