China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

Bandwagoning About China’s Economy

In the wake of the global economic downturn, China’s economy is growing slower; “only” 9 to 9.9% on the year (Reuters), and perhaps expanding at 8 to 9% in 2009 (China Daily, 11/8/08). Some experts warn that China needs to grow between 6 to 8% to ensure stability and sufficient employment for newly-emerging workers. These worries led to a spate of articles spouting warnings about China’s 2009 economic prospects. Announcement of China’s “financial stimulus” package led to a brief hope-driven turnaround in investor opinion, but China alone cannot lead worldwide economic recovery (other analysts agree). Still, China’s economic composition allows it to weather this recession quite well.

The mass media seems at times to get into “bandwagons” of “fad” commentary that lose sight of the big picture behind issues. For purposes of perspective, I present a cautionary review of some now-ironic predictions and “dire warnings” that were made from November 2007 until today.

(Later, I hope to present a case for what circumstances will allow for continued Chinese economic viability.)

Inflation versus Deflation.

There always seems to be another crisis looming, and yet, China sustains its economic growth. This summer, China was buffeted by increasing energy prices, which contributed to rising prices for food and other commodities. Now, China has seen six consecutive months of declines in its inflation rate and China fears deflation may arrive around February 2009 (The Guardian). China last dealt with deflation in 2002, shortly after China joined the WTO (in late 2001); interestingly, that deflationary experience was similarly precipitated by domestic overcapacity.

Remember back in March 2008 when “Premier Wen Jiabao said tackling inflation was ‘the biggest concern of the people'”, and the BBC commented that “[t]his is a serious concern for the government, which fears higher food prices could trigger social unrest.” (BBC, March 11, 2008).

Deflation may harm China’s growth, but it may also correct a near-overheated inflationary market that was otherwise in danger of bursting. In 2002 the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce warned of deflation, but also noted its benefits (I emphasized the most pertinent part); “[a]lthough deflation can give consumers greater spending power, it ultimately gives way to weaker demand as consumer confidence begins to erode [because prices keep falling]… On the flip side, deflation can help increase consumers’ spending power, raise the standard of living of China’s poorer residents, and weed out weaker companies…Mild deflation in China has so far kept the economy from going into recession, and the economy has enjoyed steady growth for the whole of 2002.”

Both inflation and deflation can harm economies, given other surrounding factors, but when making “bets” on China’s future, this current situation should serve as a reminder to draft out a long term plan. In February and March, headline articles appeared not to see this slowdown coming. Instead, they were concerned that inflation driven by rising commodity prices would lead to rising prices for exported Chinese goods, and dire domestic consequences.

A Basically Strong China Supports the World versus A Structurally Weak China Burdens the World.

Just four months ago, Albert Keidel’s piece on China’s coming economic rise was touted as a harbinger of a Chinese Century of overpowering strength. Although people who study China know China currently lacks the economic heft to single-handedly support the world economy, TV newscasters, the BBC, and others complained about how China’s demand was either the main or a significant factor for driving up oil prices. Although China’s rising demand certainly contributed to some of the climb to $150/barrel oil, no one country’s sole future expected supply and demand caused oil’s massive price fluctuations from $60 to $150.

Importantly, China’s decreases in demand for certain commodities came after American consumers cut back on their mileage driven and energy utilized (June 2008 saw the biggest decline in US oil utilization in 17 years). In China, however, imported oil demand was up 17.3 percent in the first five months of 2008 [and was up 3 percent in June] despite prices rising 66.9 percent over the previous year (Xinhua, June 2008). China’s imported oil demand decreased 7 percent in July, but then gained 11.5 percent in August, according to Bloomberg.

Additionally, bulls who bet that oil would become scarce and that demand would remain high were confronted with Western public policy pushes toward financing and supporting recovery of additional energy sources.

When considering China’s current affect on the world, it is important to remember that although China is growing, “China accounts for no more than 11% of global GDP, against 21% for the U.S, on a purchasing power parity basis.  [5% for China and 28% on non-PPP numbers] Its domestic market is only one-eighth of the size of the U.S.’s at $1.2 trillion (2007 consumption). (Forbes). China can be a guiding factor, one of many in the growth of the world economy, so its domestic policies will likely neither harm, nor hurt the global economy much more than Japanese domestic economic policies (which admittedly is no small effect). But China alone cannot shake the world… yet.

Bonus

* A paper delivered at the Peterson Institute on April 3, 2008 argues that to combat inflation “the world economy really needs what is now forecast for 2008/2009: a significant slowing of economic growth.” It’s good to remember that some people thought this recession could help the economy avoid a larger future financial disaster. Could America’s economic implosion actually have saved China from its own domestic inflationary and energy-price-driven meltdown? It is an interesting point to consider.

To avoid over-capacity, economies need to grow at measured rates. 20 years of growth at 6% is arguably better than 5 years at 10%, 2 years at 5%, then 4 years at 9%, then 3 years at 4% since steady growth rates guarantee a modicum of both stability and job security.

* To allow another view to express itself; perhaps China caused part of the fluctuation in demand for some commodities. J. Christoph Amberger at Seeking Alpha warned in April 2008 that slowing growth in textile and light industry export toward Western countries would contribute to Chinese economic weakness post-Olympics.

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12 November, 2008 Posted by | China Economy, China Future | , , , | Leave a comment

What is Happening With China’s Economy?

Nuances and questions abound in discussion of China’s economy and where it is headed. Is it due for a fall? Will exports decline? What about currency reevaluation? What about inflation?

Here, I collect and comment on some recent numbers and articles dealing with China’s economic situation: 

Useful Numbers

Budget Surplus
“China’s budget surplus for 2008, to July 31, was more than $200 billion, up by 33 per cent year on year in the first half” (Callick, The Australian).

Consumer Spending / Domestic Consumption
“Retail sales, the main measure of Chinese consumer spending, grew by 23.2% year on year in August, slightly less than July’s 23.3% but substantially better than last August’s 17.1%” (Pettis).

Retail sales rose to $128.1 billion in August (Oliver). Interestingly, the Olympics did not appear to provide much of a “bump” in August retail sales.

This leads me to conclude that although industrial construction might rise post-Olympics, consumer spending will likely actually decrease for September as “belts tighten” and reasons for splurging diminish. Although more employees will be “back on the job,” they will not necessarily have extra discretionary income to spend. By October or November, the “Olympic bump” of disruption should cease affecting China’s consumer spending numbers, and it is wholly possible that they will trend downward.

Economic Growth
In its Asian Development Outlook 2008 Update, the Asian Development Bank “anticipated China’s gross domestic product (GDP) would grow 10 percent this year, consistent with its April forecast. However, it lowered China’s 2009 predicted growth rate from 9.8 to 9.5 percent… In the first half of this year, the nation’s GDP expanded 10.4 percent, 1.8 percentage points slower than the same period last year” (China Daily).

“Official loan growth, if adjusted to strip out the effects of inflation, expanded a modest 4% in August, according to Standard Chartered estimates” (Oliver).

“Effective Tuesday [September 16], the People’s Bank of China lowered by 0.27 percent, to 7.2 percent, the regulated benchmark rate that commercial banks may charge for one-year loans to business borrowers with strong credit histories… The central bank also lowered by a full percentage point the share of assets that small and medium-size banks must deposit as reserves with the central bank, effective Sept. 25. The so-called reserve requirement ratio is an important tool in China for limiting how much money can be lent by commercial banks” (New York Times).

Export Growth
“Export growth also slowed, to 21.1% year on year in August from 26.9% in July. That left the trade surplus for August at a record $28.7 billion – a number which will help ensure that China’s money supply will continue expanding sharply in August” (Pettis).

“If the “Chinese content” of China’s goods export sector is around 50% (Vox), goods exports account for between 17 and 18% of China’s GDP. Exports of goods and services account for about 12% of US GDP” (Setser.)

Setser’s numbers imply China is susceptible to a global downturn and decline in its export sector. To offset a decline in national growth, domestic spending will need to rise significantly if export demand suddenly drops off. Between rising oil prices, costs of doing business in China, and a developing worldwide economic malaise, it appears China will see some significant declines in export growth from September through October.

FDI Into China
“Foreign direct investment into China rose 41.6 percent in the first eight months of the year compared with the same period last year, Beijing said.

“Overseas companies invested 67.7 billion dollars in the period from January to August, the commerce ministry said in a brief statement on its website” (AFP).

This is an intriguing trend, when contrasted against a couple of alarmist mainstream media articles discussing business flight from China to elsewhere. (At the time of those discussions, China Law Blog, myself, and Business Week among others, notably demurred.)

Import Growth
“Imports grew last month at a 23.1% in August, down sharply from 33.7% in July” (Pettis).

Post-Olympics, Import growth is likely to resume as demand for internationally-acquired resources used in construction will increase.

Industrial Growth
“Industrial output grew by 12.8% year on year in August, versus 14.7% in July, and 17.5% last August. There was weakness in almost every sector, with iron and automobile production actually contracting versus one year ago” (Pettis).

“China’s industrial production expanded at its weakest pace in six years in August, reflecting factory shutdowns for the Olympics and cooling overseas demand for consumer goods … Merrill Lynch estimates the factory shutdowns, combined weaker demand for steel, cement other materials resulting from the construction freeze, knocked 2.5 percentage points off headline growth. [They] expect a post-Olympic rebound in industrial production growth [based] on both pent-up demand and the post-quake reconstruction.” (Oliver, MarketWatch).

Inflation
“CPI inflation for August, was surprisingly good, coming in at 4.9% year on year, which is well below July’s 6.3% and also well below market expectations of around 5.5%. The decline in CPI inflation was driven mostly by declining prices in pork and vegetable oil… All the decline in CPI occurred in the food sector – non food inflation was steady at 2.1%.” (Pettis).

“The [Asian Development Bank] bank also lifts its inflation projection for next year to 5.5 percent from [an April estimate of] 5 percent… citing possible price hikes of fuel and electricity, which may lead to higher production costs being passed onto consumers” (China Daily).

Monetary Policy
“Commenting on the moves, Zhuang Jian, senior economist at the ADB, said the rate cuts indicate the government’s tightening monetary policy is beginning to relax. He also expected more loosening policies to come either later this year or in 2009 in order to ensure the sustainable growth of the economy” (China Daily).

RMB Reevaluation and China’s Foreign Investments
“From June 2007 to June 2008, the foreign assets of China’s central bank increased by $681b” (Setser).

“If China’s total foreign holdings rise to $3 trillion by the end of 2009—an increase that is consistent with China’s current pace of foreign asset accumulation—a 33 percent RMB appreciation against the dollar and euro would produce a $1 trillion financial loss” (Setser, 30).

Value-Added To Exports & Results for Currency Reevaluation
According to a new way of evaluating value-added to products; “the share of foreign value added in Chinese manufactured exports is at about 50%… which is much lower than most other countries. This implies that a given exchange rate appreciation is likely to have a smaller effect on China’s trade surplus than for other countries. The domestic content share is particularly low in sectors that are likely to be labelled as sophisticated, such as electronic devices and telecommunication equipments. This means the competitive pressure China’s exports place on skilled workers in high-income countries is smaller than suggested by a simple-minded look at the raw trade data.” (Vox) (These assertions are well worth a detailed examination at a later time.)

Useful Information

Are Asian Central Banks Still Behind the Inflation Curve?
Arpitha Bykere and Mikka Pineda, Asia EconoMonitor
An Overview of Asian Monetary Policy, with tables, charts, and analysis.

CPI inflation was unexpectedly low, the trade surplus unexpectedly high
Michael Pettis, China Financial Marekts
Something is odd regarding China’s recent inflation numbers, Professor Michael Pettis (of Beida) argues.

How much of Chinese exports is really made in China?
Robert B. Koopman, Zhi Wang, Shang-Jin Wei
A new formula calculates the value-added content of China’s export-manufacturing. It finds the domestic value-added content to be 50%.

Fire and Ice
Michael Pettis, China Financial Markets
China’s falling stock market, declining increases in industrial production, and future economic challenges.

As Economy Slows, China Eases Monetary Policy
Keith Bradsher, The New York Times
An overview of China’s latest monetary policy developments.

22 September, 2008 Posted by | China Economy, China Future | , , , , | 1 Comment

The Other Challenges

Last week, I discussed John Pomfret’s Washington Post article that described challenges China faces to becoming a superpower.

What Is A Superpower?

In comments on my site, and on the China Law Blog, Here and Here, several readers indicated it would be useful to define “superpower” when discussing China’s future propensity for achieving “superpower” status.

The debate about what defines a “superpower”, whether it is a high ranking on the Human Development index, whether it is equivalent or not to “hegemon”, whether it is “force projection”, or merely “military” or “economic” force, is quite expansive.

For the purposes of my post, I’ll take a simplified position. From what I gather, when the hoi polloi (common people… the laobaixing 老百姓) discuss “superpower” or what makes a nation great, they mean an entity that can project its force overwhelmingly and has the ability to influence geopolitical events on a worldwide scale. Other countries need to plan around this country’s policies. In that sense, the United States and the USSR were “superpowers”; to some degree, the economic Japanese juggernaut was a superpower in the late 1980s and 1990s. Increasingly, China is becoming an economic superpower.

While I acknowledge this definition can be debated, I hope to keep the definition simple so I can move into the point of the post.

Another issue perhaps worthy of consideration is that my article and Pomfret’s did not set a timetable on when China might achieve said “superpower” status. I assume Pomfret was taking Keidel’s statement of China surpassing the US in total GDP around 2030 as the date most people assume for China’s arrival at superpower status.

In listing possible challenges facing China, I’ve tried to base statements on the time horizon of 2020-2025, shortly after the sixth generation of PRC leaders comes to power. One inspirational source was the roundtable discussion of Cheng Li, Pieter Bottelier, Fenggang Yang, and David Lampton in “China in the Year 2020.” 

China’s Challenges

To continue its rise to an economic and soft power status that can “shake the world” by 2025, China’s pressing challenges include a need to ensure energy supplies, tame inflation, confront environmental degredation, deal with dissent/protests/petitioning by instituting a rule of law and providing social services.

Below, I briefly cover these ideas. Eventually, I hope to deal with these challenges at length– a lot of good articles and books have been written on all of them and they are all large issues and deserve more treatment.

Energy Supply Maintenance

China will require 11.6 to 12.3 million barrels of oil a day, up from 6.9 million/day in 2005, and around 7.5 million/day in 2007, and allegedly 8 million/day in 2008 (according to IEA-2004 and DOE-2005 estimates, respectively (Kreft, 2) and more recent energy statistics.) Nearly 75% of this capacity will have to be imported since China can only produce around 3.7 million/day domestically.

China could also experience a deficit of 620-770Mt/a of coal in 2020 alone, according to He Youguo in a 2003 report by China Coal Industry Development Research and Consulting Co. Ltd. (7).

If current trends continue, Herculean efforts at ensuring an uninterrupted energy supply will need to be undergone to ensure that the lights stay on at China’s factories.

More on China Energy:  Nuclear Power, Wind Power, Natural Gas.

Taming Inflation

In 1989, part of the impetus for the protests was runaway inflation, rising unemployment and lowering standards of living. And as Pieter Botellier also argued; “the Communists’ defeat of the Nationalists in the Chinese civil war of 1945-1949 was greatly assisted by the run-away inflation of those years, which sharply reduced the popularity of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) government. “

China’s economic system today, however, is more sophisticated. Still, this is the highest inflation we’ve seen in China since the mid 1990s, with over 20% price hikes on food and double-digit growth in gas prices.

Currently, policy priorities appear to be toward promotion of economic growth rather than inflation containment. Arguably, maintaining growth could contribute more toward long-term stability. Still, if growth only goes to the middle and upper classes and the poor bear the brunt of inflationary increases, and their lives stop becoming noticably better- and their standard of living stagnates… there may be problems. Every year, China’s ranking on the GINI coefficient, which measures wealth distribution, becomes increasingly unequal. Currently, China’s GINI hovers between .37 and .46 (depending on measurement), either slightly more equal than the US’ GINI rating, or much less equal.  

Environmental Challenges

China faces severe environmental challenges. Pomfret, Economy, and other experts have discussed this in detail. For China to continue 10%+ yearly GDP growth, it will have to clean up its polluting industries. According to China’s Green GDP, in 2004, pollution cost China at least 3% potential growth. The Green GDP numbers for 2005 were never released, and arguably China’s pollution increases every year.

Energy efficiency per unit of GDP improved 3.66% in 2007, and arguably should improve this year as energy-intensive factories are shuttered. But, partially due to rising car ownership, pollution expanded significantly in the 21st Century. China hopes to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP 20% by 2010, but it is a little behind its goal of yearly reduction percentages. Small coal mines and plants have been shut to ensure compliance, but to avoid power disruptions, many mines have recently been reopened.

Stability and the Rule of Law

China could arrest dissidents en masse, growing more repressive, but this will increase tensions in its relations to the outside world, and might stifle ideas and innovation.

However, as China’s economic influence becomes felt around the world, it is possible that it might set up its own international framework in competition to the West’s APEC, WTO, and IMF. (See the last section of my article on Maslow’s Hierarchy and Rule of Law- Not Human Rights for more info.)

With sovereign wealth holdings of over $1.7 trillion, China has extensive ability to affect the world… Unless of course, that wealth becomes tied down in foreign non-performing assets, declining currencies, and a need to invest in overpriced resource markets.

China is a giant in terms of wealth, so it can take quite a beating in economic losses from its funds, but poorly performing assets can lead to public opinion backlashes.

Without strong development of a domestic consumer economy, China will have difficulty in existing isolated from international economic forces.

Providing Social Services

Pomfret identified China’s demographics, its aging, and its peak of a working age population around 2015 as being a large problem. I rebutted that. However, with China’s GINI coefficient rising (at increases of 6%, the fastest in the world for the past decade), and with a degrading environment, and 350 million smokers, perhaps 1/3 of the world’s total smokers, health care costs will rise and create public tensions if the government fails to aid sick people.

Fear of these tensions could be a reason the Party prevents cross-provincial NGOs from organizing, and is cracking down on Sichuan post-earthquake support organizations and people who threaten to challenge the Government’s handling of the incident.*

Crafting an efficient social safety net, or preventing unrest in response to lack of said net, will be an important challenge for future Chinese administrators.

* Note: I realize this particular person, Huang Qi, has a history of challenging the state which might lead it to be more repressive. However, the point still stands; the state has harassed and/or  paid off families not to complain about allegedly faulty construction that may have caused more schools to collapse than should have if codes were followed.

Conclusion

To solve its many challenges, China could turn inward and become repressive, or turn outward and allow development of civil society, or it could mix the practices. While some commentators might paint China’s future as that of a “negative” (closed-society) or a “positive” (democratic society), both I and the commentators in “China in the Year 2020” tend to see opportunities from many points along the choice continuum.

China could “succeed” in achieving superpower status even in spite of democratization. Or it could fail to achieve said status even despite democratization and liberalization. 

Once again, I welcome your comments regarding challenges China’s development could confront in the coming 20 years.

* On August 25, 2008, The Wall Street Journal presented its own ideas about which challenges China faces. (Inequality, Resources, Population/Aging).

5 August, 2008 Posted by | China Future, China Stability | , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Out of China

Canon, Nissan, and Germany’s Steiff Toys are either forgoing China expansions or leaving China to produce in other countries. Other companies are leaving China to find cheaper, less regulated places to manufacture. RMB appreciation, costs of training, the new labor contract law, end of some preferential tax breaks for foreigners, inflation, visa regulations, and energy rationing have made China a little less attractive for foreign businesses and manufacturing. But where will these companies go, and why? Even some of the so-called drawbacks to doing business might be good for the long term. Below, the issue is examined.

Why Leave China?

Booz-Allen and AMCHAM released a March 2008 study that argued “More than half, or 54 percent, of companies surveyed [out of 66] believe that China is losing its competitiveness to other low-cost countries.” And “wages in China now [as of June are] rising close to 25 percent a year in dollar terms in many industries” (IHT). Specific “problems” include:

1.) China’s new labor contract law, which went into effect this year, might increase costs by 8% on average per firm, and will make it more difficult to lay off workers. One provision states; “from January 1, workers who have been with a company for 10 years – or signed two fixed-term contracts – will be entitled to one month’s severance pay for every year worked.” One could argue that this law is well-needed to align Chinese workers’ interests and pay with international norms. But still, it does put upward pressures on costs of doing business.

2.) RMB appreciation. The currency has risen by 7.1% this year against the dollar, which is amazing since the RMB only appreciated 3% from July 2005 through March 2006. (But there are opposing views, namely that the evaluation is overstated due to a weak dollar- since the RMB has actually declined 16% from 2006-2008 versus the Euro.)

3.) Preferential Tax Rates Ended for Foreign Firms; Export Tax Rebates Ended. Now, foreign firms pay a higher rate, generally 25% of taxes. (Information on the new law is from Deloitte, and HERE.) Also, export tax rebates were phased out. A trade manager quoted in AFP claimed, “The yuan appreciation has a huge impact on our business. It costs us much more in the production and delivery costs. What’s worse, the export tax rebates of 13 percent were cancelled so our total costs are up 20 percent,”

4.) Inflation.  “Seven out of 10 respondents cited the rising renminbi as a major reason for China’s decline, while wage inflation was cited by 52 percent of those polled.  Wages for white-collar managers and blue-collar workers have jumped 9.1 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively [on the year],” according to the AMCHAM study.

5.) Visa Regulations. The Wall Street Journal described how, due to the newly onerous visa regulations, one businessman had to leave China for Thailand, even though his company “researches commercially viable ways to sustain water and land resources in China.” In China’s defense, this businessman’s situation was made troublesome because his company had not been legally registered to operate. (Previously, many companies have not been registered). Visa regulations and enforcement of already on-the-book rules may do a little to slow inward-bound China growth. Ultimately, however, enforcement of logical laws will benefit China, so the stifling effect of strict Visa regulations may pass post-Olympics. (Michael at The Opposite End of China explains his visa problems HERE.) 

6.) Costs of Training/Turnover. The experience of Steiff Toys provides an interesting anecdote about the challenges of training and turnover in an emerging market. After being trained, employees might seek to market their talents at a better paying company. In Steiff’s experience, “[t]he company had frequently visited its Chinese partner to try to build up a good relationship. However, once, during a six-month gap between visits, almost the entire work force at one factory had changed.”

“It was no surprise the quality varied so much. New people came, the quality dropped, then they improved their skills and left,” he said, adding that the Chinese-made trampoline parts did not reach high enough endurance standards.”

7.) Energy Rationing. In January, and then again this summer, factories had to shut down power to ensure the grid was not overloaded.

Where to Go? 

Vietnam is the country most mentioned as a relocation place, but it faces surging inflation. In May 2008, food prices were 42% higher than they had been one year ago. China, in comparison, saw food prices increase by only 21% since 2007. Still, inflation worries in both countries only cuts their economic outlook from growth at 1-2% less than initially projected. This allows both countries to grow at 7% (Vietnam), or +9% (China) on the year.

What Vietnam lacks, that China increasingly has, are sufficient infrastructure developments. AmCham Vietnam discusses the problem of infrastructure. Vietnam’s plans for development are available at the World Bank.

Also, Vietnam’s population of 86 million pales in comparison to China’s 1.3 billion. International Lawyer Dan Harris, in informal interviews with several of his clients, believes that Vietnam’s manufacturing processes and human capital still need a great deal more of investment before they can compete with China- which may never happen.

Cambodia. Hailed as the next Vietnam, some garment manufacturers are relocating here. And “South Korea and Malaysia have been pouring in investment. In 2006, foreign direct investment totaled $2.6 billion, up from just $340 million in 2004, according to the International Monetary Fund” (IHT).

Cambodia “is where Vietnam was some 8 to 10 years ago.” [Yeo] likes a lot about Cambodia: its location in a fast-growing region, a young and inexpensive work force, rising productivity, a pro-business government, stable politics and strong GDP growth, which peaked at 13.5 percent in 2005 but was expected to mellow to 7 percent or 8 percent in coming years” (IHT). Still, Cambodia is tiny, with a population of 14 Million. And the vast majority of Cambodians are laregly uneducated and unskilled. Hyping Cambodia as a future economic powerhouse is probably overstated.

Malaysia’s International Trade ministry hopes to position itself to poach manufacturing plants that leave China. Malaysia claims it is interested in investments in “high technology,” less labour-intensive industries. Malaysia’s economy and workforce, however, is much smaller than China’s (at $357 billion PPP [Purchasing Power Parity] in 2007 and a 6.3% yearly growth compared to $6.9 trillion and 11.4% growth in China). More importantly, Malaysia has less to grow than China.  Only 13% of its workforce is in agriculture, compared to 43% of the workforce in China.) While it may attract certain manufacturing industries, a large-scale relocation is unlikely since costs in Malaysia will rise as the pool of workers decrease and compete for better-paying jobs.

India. People like to laud India over China due to its democratization, but India suffers environmental degradation just like China. And India suffers internal dissent, from Naxalites, from Jammu-Kashmir, from Islamist extremists, and from its rival Pakistan. Attempts to deal with water purification, smog, and other challenges will slow India’s growth in the short run, just like such attempts can short-term stall Western countries’ industrial expansions.

India’s Democratic society is also less likely to sanction the painful changes than China’s semi-autocratic government permitted to increase development. China ended or reduced many state pensions, reduced health benefits, and evicted thousands from their homes. As Robert Shapiro, a former undersecretary of Commerce, describes in his book Futurecast:2020, it does not appear India has the political will to carry through needed reforms.

India still faces a large variety of difficulties it must overcome before it can rightly challenge China as a competitive place for companies to relocate their industries. The day of relocations may come, but it is not yet here.

Why China is Still Attractive

China Law Blog believes the Labor Contract law did little to directly dissuade big foreign companies from investing in China. And that makes sense. China is a huge market, well worth the time and effort of investment, both for substantitve purposes (returns on capital), and for prestige (WE have a China office; do you?).

However, CLB also noted that “China has seen a number of factory closings of late, but most of these are very domestic factories that produced low end goods. I also have no doubt that many Taiwanese and Hong Kong and Korean factories producing the same sorts of goods have closed as well [because]… Beijing has instituted a number of policies explicitly aimed at marginalizing such factories so as to push China up the value chain. ”

Asia Sentinel backs up Dan Harris’ comments, calling attention to the closing of marginal manufacturing industries, but also stating that the higher value, better-run factories are staying open.

The Chinese Miracle, of its economic growth, still has a long way to expand. As the Motley Fool’s argues, the China Story is not going to end because wages are rising in coastal provinces. Instead, a new chapter will open as manufacturing and development “Go West” and drive to the interior. China has hundreds of million-person-populated second tier cities like Xi’an, Lanzhou, and Wuhan that can benefit from and contribute to internal development, services, and manufacturing.

China is experiencing teething pains, but it still has vast human resources. Its largest problems appear to be sustaining energy supply, its need to move more toward rule of law, and a need to contain inflation. And China, for the most part, is moving toward those goals (although containment of inflation is an open question). So will businesses depart from China? Some manufacturing might. Other manufacturing will just move farther inland, to take advantage of cheaper provincial labor as the coastal regions move up the value chain.

Extra

* September 8, 2008, the Washington Post presented a story about manufacturing moving from China to the US.

22 July, 2008 Posted by | China Economy | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Consequences of China’s Oil Price Hike

China has finally raised the prices on its oil. It came a bit sooner than I expected, but as I stated in “China’s Oil Price Freeze,” the raise was a lot lower than needs to be done (China’s prices are still 1/4 cheaper than gas in the US and 1/3 cheaper per liter than oil in the UK). The United States’ prices on oil have risen over 50% since December 2007 (based on calculations of average gas prices of 2.71 in 2007, according to the EIA);

China only raised their oil prices 16 to 18%. (In November, they raised prices 11% to confront $80/barrel oil;  China’s oil companies appear to still have a shortfall of $21 dollars per barrel from current prices of nearly $130 a barrel.)

Rising oil prices will affect Chinese stability, inflation, and government openness.

STABILITY

According to Xinhua, the Chinese State news agency: “more subsidies would be offered to farmers, public transport, low-income families and taxi drivers to cushion the crunch of price rises.” According to FT, “the finance ministry said the targeted subsidies would amount to Rmb19.8bn ($2.9bn, €1.8bn, £1.5bn).”

Given  China’s huge trade surplus, the burden of cost can be arguably borne by the government (And the amount of subsidies direct to the people currently is far less than the amount of subsidies ($50 billion plus) the Chinese government would have needed to give to state oil corporations forced to do business at under-market prices. Apparently,  Sinopec was losing money on imports when “the international price exceeded $78 a barrel.”)

The problem with the Chinese government pumping a lot of money into the hands of its poor peasants, however, is that it can lead to inflation. In a similar situation in Indonesia “the [Indonesian] government forecasts inflation will rise to 12% in June — up from 8.96% in April — as the fuel-price increase feeds into the broader economy.”

INFLATION

Remember, in 1989, part of the impetus for the massive protests was runaway inflation, rising unemployment and lowering standards of living. And as Pieter Botellier of the Jamestown Foundation also argued; “the Communists’ defeat of the Nationalists in the Chinese civil war of 1945-1949 was greatly assisted by the run-away inflation of those years, which sharply reduced the popularity of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) government. ”

This is not to say China’s government is in any danger of losing its grip on power– but rising inflation might cause its leaders to look to past lessons of history and react skittishly to the consequences of unrestrained inflation. According to Prof. Victor Shih of Northwestern, this is the highest inflation we’ve seen in China since the mid 1990s. Also according to Shih, there is a current factional dispute in China’s leadership about whether to continue to tighten the monentary supply, or to reevaluate the RMB upward to correct the domestic inflation problem. It’s a complicated situation, and I recommend reading his article for more details.

OPENNESS

In light of increased tensions as a result of upwardly spiraling inflation and energy costs; President Hu Jintao might be encouraged to crack down more on free press and coverage of unrest that will likely emerge as people are able to afford less and less.

The Chinese belief has long been that silencing opposition makes it go away. We’ll see what happens over the coming months.

RESULTS

Due to transportation costs, Chinese food prices will increase even more than the 22% percent they have already appreciated since last year. (In all, according to the BBC, China’s inflation as of April was up 8.5% on the year.) Rising inflation could lead to big problems and the end of 4 kuai (.50 cent) meals that sustain many low-paid migrant workers who labor in the cities and send remittances to their farming families.

Already, there has been a slight decrease in the amount of migrant workers in China’s coastal cities (regrettably, I can’t currently find the Journal article I saw the numbers for this cited in- I will post it as soon as I find it), driving up prices for construction and leading to more inflation. The eventual return of these workers to their villages and second-tier cities might be good for the economy in the long-term as some population stress is removed; but in the short term, their return with big city views, and big city demands for quality of life, these returnees could have big cosmopolitan demands for their local governments- demands that might not be met and could cause social unrest.

IN SUMMARY:

ONE Beijing still needs to subsidize a gap of around $20 in international purchases of oil. Its importing companies are still losing cash, but ultimately China can weather slightly cheaper oil prices than the rest of the world since “average Chinese [domestic] production costs were about $US20 ($21)”. It’s the internationally-bought oil gap that China has to pay for.

TWO China also has to manage the social unrest that will originate due to the rising oil prices. Subsidies to the right populations should take a lot of the bite out of that unrest. Prof. Victor Shih of Northwestern speculates a little on what needs to be done to prop up the Chinese middle and lower classes after gas prices rise. 

THREE There may be citizen-government clashes over the increased oil prices, much as there were in March 2007 during the Yongzhou Mass Incident,  sparked over rising public transportation costs. This could be why public transport costs are being kept steady. (According to the FT, “CSFB, the investment bank, estimates that an 8 per cent increase in fares would add 2.3 percentage points to inflation. “)

FOUR If there are clashes, the government will likely clamp down, and try to keep the media from reporting on negative developments since China does not want to look bad in the year of its Olympics (as noted in my earlier article.) How successful they are remains to be determined.

FIVE And certainly, other reprecussions will be demonstrated, from migrant worker movements, to wage price increases, to possible capital flight from China. Remember, it’s China… Anything can happen.

—-

Also of note: An article on hidden cost of fuel subsidies explains why China needed to reevaluate its oil prices.

And Forbes discusses in more detail the weird situation where one of China’s national oil companies, Sinopec suffered under the system and required billions in state subsidies to prop up its foreign oil acquisitions.

http://www.eeo.com.cn/ens//Industry/2008/06/25/104320.html Also had an interesting article on the possible reprecussions of the price rise on China’s national oil companies.

20 June, 2008 Posted by | China Economy, China Energy, China Future | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

China’s Oil Price Freeze

Considering recent shortages in fuel in some places in China, as reported by today’s WSJ and an article by the Jamestown Foundation, many may wonder why China is leaving its oil prices at the same level since the last raise in November 2007?

What follows is an analysis focusing on bank loans and stability concerns. More work needs to be done looking into the elite political decisions, namely the discussions between ministers in charge of different portfolios since that can also affect these decisions, but that will have to wait for later.

China wants to present a good image to the world while it prepares to host the Olympic games. The Olympics are a coming-out ceremony for them, an opportunity for much 爱国 (aiguo) or love of country/patriotism. Red, the color of China, appears everywhere. Even PEPSI changed its traditional blue to red in the run up to the Olympics. As one Chinese said in the article: “I thought it was a good idea when I saw those promotional cans. They’re supporting Team China.”

So, what stereotypes does China have to promote to present a good image of their country?

1.) China is not backward

Thus they have retranslated many formerly amusing signs that made little sense in English, such as “Deformed Man” signs outside toilets for the handicapped.

2.) China is ruled by law and order and every Chinese loves China.

Thus, they will increase security and recently presented new regulations aimed at discouraging protestors, both from outside and inside the country. Additionally, the recent clampdown on foreigners overstaying and sometimes working on tourist visas is somewhat based on this. China wants to catalogue all the people inside the country. Laxity in law enforcement is dissipating as the government becomes concerned that foreign elements might seek to upset the festivities.

This also explains the move to ban liquids on Beijing subways starting on May 9th, which appears to be based on International Flight legislation banning liquids on airplanes, and the ban on liquids in other major cities’ subways around the world.

Additionally, the ban of reporters from travelling freely in T*b*t is another example of China trying to present a good “face” to the world– if no one is seen protesting, then it doesn’t happen.

And of course China’s press has cracked down against “negative stories”, and the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post and other media outlets routinely provide evidence of the country’s greater crackdowns on the free speech of the press. (“Free media for Games = media free of bad news, one city says.” South China Morning Post. March 20, 2007.); also see an April 30, 2007 report on: “The Olympics countdown – repression of activists overshadows death penalty and media reforms”

3.) China wants its economy to keep growing.

China has not reevaluated its currency extremely fast in order to control inflation since it fears (since 2007 in fact, when it had only appreciated 5% against the dollar since the July 2005 depegging, compared to the over 20% it has appreciated by April 2008) that exporters will not be able to survive if there is a rapid reevaluation. Chinese exports to the world have risen exponentially since the early 2000s as the multifiber agreement and trade protectionist agreements expired.

If exporters start suffering, then bad loans could accumulate back to levels not seen since 2005/6 when worries about China’s 10-45% nonperforming loans in state banks led some people to predict an imminent banking collapse– that did not happen, however (China claimed state banks NPLs were only 9.5%) . China seems to have cleaned up it banking act (surprisingly quickly), making its banks at least as solvent as those in America and Europe wracked by subprime.

Some argue that China’s state banks’ cleaned up their balance sheets. However, it appears that some exposure might be hidden. According to the 2006 NYT article: “China Construction had turned in the best numbers at that point, reducing its share to 3.92 percent of loan assets late in 2004, down from 17 percent in 2002… But the risk adviser began cautioning that bad loans were being hidden at the bank’s branches, erroneously labeled as good loans, even though company records showed that they were impaired. He told bank officials that in Beijing and Tianjin alone, he had uncovered $750 million in bad loans that had been deemed good.”

According to an article in Britain’s Telegraph from December 2006; “Less understood is that a sharp rise in the yuan could be the last straw for China’s banks, sitting on a network of loss-making factories living off marginal exports. Standard & Poor’s said a 25pc rise in the yuan combined with a 2pc rise in interest rates would slash corporate profits by a third.”

All these reasons may explain why China raised the reserve requirement to 17.5%. China’s leaders don’t want to risk a hit to their economy’s growth and want to insulate themselves from runs on banks that might happen if loans start to go bad.

As one professor said in regards to a 2006 report on China’s banks, quoted in the NYT: “If there is a slowdown, there will be a day of reckoning. It might be in a long, long time or it might be the day after the Olympics.”

BUT WHY WOULD RAISING GAS PRICES HURT THIS?

Considering all the unrest and trouble that China has recently suffered in T*b*t, and with increasingly loud voices calling for accountability in the construction of school buildings, China wants to avoid more unrest.

With inflation at around 8 percent on the year already, and likely to climb higher, increasing prices for gasoline and ending subsidies can send that rocketing even faster. China’s low per person GDP means that non-subsidized gas will negatively effect farmers, and small businesspeople disproportionately. This could cut into entrepreneurialship and send some to protest, like people have already done in India and Malaysia where “the pump price of gasoline rose Thursday by a whopping 41 percent to 87 cents a liter, or $3.30 a gallon.”

The question is, will gas shortages, caused by undersupply (due to price controls) result in more unrest than raising prices. It appears that as far as the Chinese leadership is concerned, they believe it is better to keep prices low, considering all the other hits to the world economy.

Therefore, I predict that if gas prices in China rise before the Olympics, they will rise much less than they have elsewhere in the world. More likely, the prices will be raised after the Olympic ceremonies are complete.

12 June, 2008 Posted by | China Economy, China Energy, China Future | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Unequal Wealth, Inflation, and Harmonization

President Hu’s policy of a harmonious society, which encourages a move toward slower, more manageable economic growth informed by environmental awareness and greater concern for the poor could be seen as a great leap forward for the Chinese toward a sustainable development model. However, the policy has increasingly resulted in greater degrees of “harmonization” (read about it and see a bizarre chinese video HERE) and suppression of free speech as the society grows increasingly challenged to appeal to ever-diverse interests.

In order to ensure harmoniousness in the face of unique challenges to China’s future, its leadership (and HERE for a more indepth look at the leaders’ CV’s) might be forced to take drastic measures to contain stresses originating from China’s rapid, but inequitable economic growth.

China’s economic progress continues at a rate of greater than 10% for the past several years, and despite cyclical shocks and a worldwide economic downturn, the Chinese economy appears strong enough to expand. This growth rate and the growth rate of other developing countries brought exuberance to the Shanghai stock market, with stock prices up to an average of 42 percent of valuation over earnings as of July 2007, according to Bill Powell of TIME Magazine. Although the Shanghai stock exchange was down 21% in 2008 by February, and was down nearly 50% in April from its high of 6,124 points reached in October 2007, the Chinese economy is still on pace to grow a bit over 9 percent, according to the World Bank.

With such high and constant growth rates over the past decade (where nearly all years recorded over-ten percent economic growth), inflation is becoming a problem. Even worse, food prices are rising higher than China’s overall rate of inflation. As China’s inflation grows, wealth disparity and purchasing power parity becomes a greater source of social instability as people lose access to amenities they once could easily purchase.

China’s Gini coefficient, used to measure income disparity, is now above .45, according to the 2003 UN Human Development Report, a number above which demonstrates a potentially dangerously unequal society on par with many economically imperiled Latin American states. In comparison, China in 1980 boasted a .33 Gini coefficient (higher numbers indicate greater disparity), according to AsiaTimes. The United States boasts a .47 Gini coefficient, up only eight points from 1970, according to Arthur Brooks in the Wall Street Journal.

Seeking a balanced economic growth rate was a major goal of President Hu Jintao’s first term. However, Hu’s “Go West” campaign to develop poorer interior regions failed to spread wealth as rapidly as was hoped– much more work needs to be done. This lack of development, and increase in rising foodstuff and transportation prices risks increasing the amount and vehemence of public protests.

Interestingly, (and ignoring for the moment the mass T1b1tan unrest) the reported numbers of protests has actually declined, but China is notorious for ordering newspapers not to report embarrassing stories. Jonathan Watts of Britain’s The Guardian discusses China’s press crackdown against “negative stories” in detail, and the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post and other media outlets routinely provide evidence of some Chinese officials’restrictions on individuals, and of the country’s greater crackdowns on the free speech of the press. (Staff Reporter. “Free media for Games = media free of bad news, one city says.” South China Morning Post. March 20, 2007.); also see an April 30, 2007 report on: “The Olympics countdown – repression of activists overshadows death penalty and media reforms” and of course the newest info on curtailing press freedoms in coverage of the Sichuan earthquake.

As worries about rising inflation and unbalanced economic growth increase, China becomes increasingly secretive, restricting press freedoms. Today makes me recall something that happened at the end of the decade of the 1980s; a time of widening press freedoms, rising inflation, exhuberance of the future and many people gaining wealth while others were left out. This led to protests and marches that were eventually suppressed to international disdain– a suppression that was partially modelled on how President Hu, then Provincial Secretary of T*b*t cracked down on social unrest there.

If economic inequalities lead to greater citizen unrest, it is likely President Hu will look to his past experience and party ‘successes” and enact increasingly draconian restrictions, rolling back much of the late-20th Century’s increased journalistic openness- with a goal of preserving stability and maintaining a harmonious society.

The question is, though, when will these economic inequalities come to a boiling point? It isn’t going to happen before or during the Olympics, but depending on what happens with China fuel subsidies, food prices, and inflation, the protest-barometer could be interesting to watch sometime after February or June 2009.

-An earlier version of this article was written in October 2007

5 June, 2008 Posted by | China Economy, China Future | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment