China is now a top-rank, market-moving source of daily news. It is not only the world’s second largest economy, but over the past decade, it accounted for nearly thirty percent of global economic growth. No wonder stories about a slowdown in China and trade conflict with the United States send shudders through financial markets. As conditions are worsening, uncertainty has jumped to record levels in China and elsewhere.
In the near term, if China and U.S. trade negotiators can come to an agreement avoiding a further hike of U.S. tariffs, some of this heightened uncertainty may fade. But a more persistent source of risk arises from China’s medium- and long-term growth prospects. While the country has sustained 6%-plus growth since 1991, in recent years it has done so by increasing investment per unit of growth. The prominence of these diminishing returns from incremental capital outlays lead many informed observers to conclude that a further medium-term deceleration is inevitable. Worries about the sharp increase in nonfinancial corporate debt over the past decade, and the lack of transparency regarding the risks in China’s financial system, only serve to compound this pessimism.
Given these circumstances, Nicholas Lardy’s excellent new book, The State Strikes Back, could hardly arrive at a better moment. Using careful analysis to challenge common hypotheses, Dr. Lardy takes a close look at the principal factors affecting China’s longer-run growth prospects. Ultimately, he is hopeful, but realistic: China could sustain its recent pace of growth for an extended period—or grow even faster—but only if the government is willing to return to its earlier commitment to serious reforms that favor market, rather than state, allocation of resources. So far, despite the prominent market advocacy in its 2013 “policy blueprint”—the first under President Xi Jinping’s leadership (see the opening citation)—the Xi government has shifted in precisely the opposite direction.
In the remainder of this post, we explore Lardy’s conclusion that China’s growth potential remains high. On the key issues of substance, his logic is compelling. A combination of the opportunities generated by convergence to advanced-economy productivity levels, continued improvements in competition and trade, and a renewed shift toward the private allocation of resources—especially through changes in the structure of both state-owned enterprises and the financial system—points to the possibility of a return to higher growth. Nevertheless, we find ourselves somewhat less hopeful. Even if China’s government were to make fundamental economic reform its top priority, in our view the odds favor a further slowdown over the next decade…. Read More
After years of relative calm, in recent months several emerging economies have found the cost of attracting foreign funding is going up. Faced with a halt of external financing, Argentina obtained a three-year financing deal worth $50 billion from the IMF, while funds also appear to be flowing out of Brazil, Turkey, and elsewhere. And, recent bond market turbulence in Italy suggests the possibility that political risks are triggering outflows there.
In this post, we explain balance-of-payments (BoP) crises—the sudden stops or capital flow reversals—that compel countries to restore their external balance between exports and imports or, in the case of capital flight, shift to export surpluses. In addition to describing common features of BoP crises, and characterizing sources of vulnerability that make them more likely, we examine one emerging-market example—the Asian crisis of 1997-98—and one advanced-economy episode—the crisis of the euro-area periphery from 2010 to 2012…. Read More
With Sunday’s election of President Emmanuel Macron, voters confirmed that France remains a bedrock of the euro area, buttressing the region’s financial markets. But political risks to the euro have not disappeared. In coming months, concerns probably will turn to Italy, where the leader of one popular party has called for a referendum on leaving the euro area, and where parliamentary elections must be held before 20 May 2018.
From an economic perspective, Italy stands on a knife-edge. The economy is smaller and less productive than it was in 2001, while government debt has jumped by 30 percent. As long as interest rates remain low, and the government continues to run a primary budget surplus, the situation is only mildly unsustainable (with the debt/GDP ratio creeping higher). But even a small problem at home or abroad could drive funding costs higher and expose Italy’s precarious state.
Would independent Italian monetary policy, controlled by the Banca d’Italia in Rome, be sufficient to bring Italy back from the precipice and promote economic growth? We doubt it. In the long run, the most effective way to ensure debt sustainability is to implement growth-enhancing structural reforms. Nothing about Italy’s membership in the monetary union prevents this. The problem is a lack of political will... Read More
When governments don’t like the numbers their statisticians report, they have two options. They can modify their policies with the aim of changing the trajectory of the economy. Or, they can push to change the data to conform to what they would like to see. In countries with trustworthy leaders, those who understand the value of objective facts, we see the former. In places where leaders think that facts are a matter of opinion, we all-too-often see the latter. Finding some economic facts inconvenient, President Trump’s inclination appears to be to change the data, not his policies.
Two recent news reports have been particularly troubling, one having to do with trade statistics and the other concerning growth forecasts.... Read More
Governments play favorites. They promote residential construction by making mortgages tax deductible. They encourage ethanol production by subsidizing corn. They boost sales of electric cars by offering tax rebates. These political favors usually diminish, rather than increase, aggregate income. They’re about distribution, not production.
With the ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency, U.S. government intervention has taken a particularly troubling turn. Not only has he threatened companies planning to produce their products outside of the United States, but he has appointed strident free-trade opponents (ranging from China-bashing Peter Navarro to trade-litigator Robert Lighthizer) to key positions in his administration. In his first week in office, President Trump has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and moved to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). His representatives also have threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico (and other countries). In what seems like the blink of an eye, these actions have sacrificed the valuable U.S. reputation–earned over seven decades since President Truman—as a trustworthy leader in the global fight for open, competitive markets.
Historically, government guidance of the economy has come in many forms... Read More
Twenty years ago, a group of experts – the “Boskin Commission” – concluded that the U.S. consumer price index (CPI) systematically overstated inflation by 0.8 to 1.6 percentage points each year. Taking these findings to heart, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) got to work reducing this bias, so that by the mid-2000s, experts felt it had fallen by as much as half a percentage point.
We bring this up because there is a concern that as a consequence of the way in which we measure information technology (IT), health care, digital content and the like, the degree to which conventional indices overestimate inflation may have risen... Read More
Since its cyclical peak in 2007 – just prior to the financial crisis – the U.S. economy has grown by only 1.2% at an annual rate. This is down sharply from the 3.0% pace that had prevailed since 1990. The resulting cumulative shortfall now exceeds $2 trillion, or more than $6,500 per capita. Naturally, we all want to know why. And what, if anything, to do about it... Read More
When we were college students in the mid-1970s, some of our friends wanted to change the world. Their work aimed at providing cheap energy, improving information technology, curing cancer, and generally making our lives better. By the 1990s, attitudes had changed. Many top students, including newly-minted Ph.D.s, moved from natural science and engineering to finance. Their goal was to get high-paying jobs.
Would we be better off today if some of these financial wizards had focused instead on inventing more efficient solar cells or finding ways to forestall dementia? The older we get, the more we think so. And, believe it or not, there is now notable, cross-country evidence buttressing this view. Read More
When the U.S. economy was booming in the 1990s, new firms flourished and willing workers found jobs quickly. In the current decade, these patterns faded. Startup and job finding rates have slowed so that employment has only just surpassed its 2007 peak. While part of current U.S. frailty remains cyclical, these trends suggest a worrying loss of economic dynamism... Read More