Summers Sees Possible Abrupt Slow Down In China’s Growth Rate

CHINA, AND INDIA come to that, will grow much less rapidly than is currently anticipated. That forecast comes from former U.S. Treasury secretary Larry Summers and Lant Pritchett, a colleague of Summers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in a newly published working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S.

The pair say that regression to the mean is the strongest predictor of long-term economic growth; witness other fast-growing countries such as Japan. Pritchett and Summers expect China’s growth rate to slow to 3.9% over the next two decades, and India’s to 3%.

High levels of authoritarian political rule, corruption and extensive government meddling in business, the authors also argue, make slower growth even more likely. They also note that while “China’s growth in the past 35 years has been remarkable, and that nothing in our analysis suggests that a sharp slowdown is inevitable,” such phases of super-rapid growth tend to end “abruptly.”

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Facing A Slower Chinese Economy, Xi Needs A Winning Party Plenum

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND held its forecasts for China’s GDP growth this year and next unchanged in its latest quarterly economic outlook even as it trimmed those for the world economy. It is still expecting 7.4% GDP growth this year, slowing to 7.1% in 2015, down from 7.7% in both 2012 and 2013. “China is sustaining high growth, but slightly lower growth in the future is seen to be a healthy development,” the Fund says.

For this year, the IMF is projecting that the economy will come up just short of the official growth target of 7.5%. After a slower than expected first-quarter, Beijing launched a number of stimulative measures to get the economy back on track for hitting that target. These included tax relief for small and medium businesses, accelerated fiscal and infrastructure spending, and selective cuts in banks’ required reserve ratios.

But with the  property market still weighing on the broader economy, GDP in the third quarter, due to be announced on October 21st, is likely to confirm that growth continues gently gliding downwards, somewhere in the 7-7.5% range is this Bystander’s best guess. We expect some more if modest stimulus in the fourth quarter to make sure the full-year number comes out as close to the higher end of that range as possible. Prime Minister Li Keqiang is only the latest official to blur what counts as 7.5%; about 7.5% will be close enough.

It is likely that next year’s official target will be lowered to a more realistic 7% as the economy makes the transition to more sustainable long-term growth through rebalancing demand away from investment toward consumption, and the property market, especially residential investment, remains sluggish. However, infrastructure investment and credit will remain the main drivers of growth next year.

Excess industrial capacity and the dark shadow of provincial and municipal debt remain the main risks to the growth forecast along with the deflation of the property market getting out of hand. While the government has great capacity to absorb such a hard landing, that capacity isn’t infinite, and the policy challenge is exacerbated by the two-tier property market that has emerged in China. Bubble prices persist in large cities while small cities are experiencing a property recession thanks to overbuilding spurred by local governments desperate to spur growth.

A too-fast slowdown in property prices would work through to the banking and shadow banking system in short order. The IMF rightly notes in its report the importance of reforms to buttress financial sector stability:

It is crucial to implement key elements of the authorities’ structural reform that aim to strengthen the regulation and supervision of the financial sector, reduce implicit guarantees, liberalize the deposit rate, and use interest rates instead of quantitative targets for the implementation of monetary policy, thus encouraging market-based pricing of risks. Further expansion of the social safety net, by reducing the current high rate of social security contribution, and better health care benefits would help reduce household saving rates and raise domestic consumption.

More broadly, China needs to structural reforms to its education, labor and product markets to raise firms’ competitiveness and productivity while lowering credit growth and local government borrowing. All that touches just about every vested interest. That is meat for the forthcoming Fourth Party Plenum.

Last year’s Third Party plenum announced the need for reforms to strengthen social safety nets and the social security system as part of a 60-point blueprint sketched out for President Xi Jinping’s plan to rebalance the economy. This year’s plenum, due to start on October 20th, has as its first objective the consolidation of Xi’s rule of law cum anti-corruption drive — which will be a proxy for the jockeying for power and influence between Xi and his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

While Xi has moved faster to consolidate his power base than might have been expected, his ability to advance his economic-reforms agenda will require the backing of Jiang and Hu and their respective Shanghai and Communist Youth League factions. The appearances at National Day celebrations of some senior figures in the Party and army thought to be the subject of anti-graft investigations and who have not been seen in public recently suggests Xi may be rallying unity in the ranks to that end.

Xi may well feel his best next tactical move for economic reform will be to revamp the 100-or so central-government controlled state-owned enterprises to improve their business performance and governance. These are the big dogs in the economy, and entrenched obstacles to reform in their various sectors. Making them over would have the added bonus for him of weakening some of the power bases of those not aligned with him.

The trick for Xi remains aligning the political realities he faces with the underlying structural slowing of economic growth, but without getting too close to the feared hard landing of the economy that would undermine his political position. As we have noted before, every mini-stimulus ratchets up a notch the difficulty of introducing the policies needed for rebalancing because they don’t address the underlying causes of unsustainable booms and the vested interests that benefit from them. And that needs a political solution before it can get an economic one.

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Hong Kong’s Umbrella Protest: Tanks For The Memory

PRESIDENT XI JINPING will not want a photograph of even a single Hongkonger facing down a line of PLA tanks to be the iconic image to emerge from the current Umbrella protest in the city. However, sending in the tanks, whether metaphorically or not, remains an option for the Party leadership in Beijing which has to suppress this protest against its monopoly on political power in short order.

While Hong Kong in 2014 is in a different time and place to Beijing in 1989, Beijing’s combination of cajoling condemning and cudgeling hasn’t yet done it. Xi may be prepared to wait out matters in the hope that the internal divisions among the demonstrators will eventually break their protest apart. Yet, as our man in Tiananmen Square in 1989 pointed out to us, there is a terrible symmetry taking shape: a tidy protest (demonstrators street sweeping in 1989; plastic bottle recycling in 2014) turning violent and unruly before being brought to a forceful end by the authorities.

The Party has to weigh the internal and external costs of shutting the protest down forcefully. One external consideration is the international sanctions it would bring. Beijing has been carefully following the response of the U.S. and Europe to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. It may conclude from that that those are the least of its worries. More concerning would be the effect of international confidence in Hong Kong as a place where China business can be done with Western legal safeguards. That would be shot, at least for a while, but there are internal municipal constituencies within China that would be happy for Hong Kong to be taken down a peg or two.

All of that pales against the internal calculation. Hong Kong is both a part of China and apart from it. One country; two systems. If its 50-year post-colonial assimilation agreement was seen from the south side of the Sham Chun River as prologue to the future — a chance for Beijing to experiment along the well-trodden development path of industrializing nations, letting the Party learn how to handle a growing middle class developing expectations of a greater voice in how they are governed and more say over their economic interests — then from the other side of the river that has just become to look like an existential threat. The further north you go, the acuter that threat seems.

The tinder that sparked the current demonstrations is Beijing’s requirement that no candidate may run in a Hong Kong election who has not in effect been nominated by the Party. Protesting Hongkongers want anyone to be allowed to stand. That is a long way from demanding reform to the elections themselves, which are a limited expression of popular democratic will at best. But it is a direct challenge to the Party’s notions of tight political control. And Hong Kong provides a beacon for the millions of urban middle class Chinese on the mainland where there is widespread dissatisfaction about the way they are governed, especially by local and municipal officials.

That, in turn, is a long way from saying that there is a groundswell of support for U.S. or European style democracy in China. There is not on any great scale, anymore than there was in Japan and South Korea at a similar stage of their economic development, even if democracy becomes shorthand for political reform, and a shorthand that is often misread in the West. But the bargain of rising economic prosperity in turn for docile political compliance no longer looks as attractive to many Chinese as it once did when they were poor.

The experience of industrialization has always been harsh for those living through it. For most, it is a hard daily slog in large, crowded cities with all the accompanying quality of life issues from adulterated food to killingly dirty air. Officials living high on the hog from corruption and cronyism sits ill with that. For Party bureaucrats the change is no less unsettling as they lose control of their economic levers of command and control.

Attempts by authorities to censor news of what is happening in Hong Kong are being only partially successful at best. How Xi settles his current Hong Kong issue will reverberate in the mainland for years to come, and especially if it is with tanks.

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Slowing China’s Too-Rapid Property Slump

Restrictions placed on the property market in 2010 to deflate the real estate boom are quietly being lifted at the local level. In only six of China’s 47 municipalities that imposed them do they remain in full force. At central government level there have been a series of targeted steps taken to support the market, the latest being this week’s reopening of the discount residential mortgage market for first-time buyers by the big banks.

Four consecutive months of falling real estate prices have left policymakers concerned about the knock-on effect on the broader economy, from worsening unemployment to heightened stress on the financial system — not to mention a loss of personal wealth among government and Party officials.

It is the softening labour market that is uppermost in their minds. The HSBC preliminary purchasing managers’ index for September points to increasing job losses, even though the mini-stimulus introduced in the second quarter appears to have stabilized what was becoming a too fast a slowdown.

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China Adds More Speed Bumps To The Road To Rebalancing

THE PEOPLE’S BANK of China has reportedly injected some 500 billion yuan into the five biggest commercial banks in the form of short-term low-interest loans. This can best be regarded as a targeted monetary easing to perk up an economy at risk of falling short of its official target of 7.5% annual growth following a run of soft monthly economic indicators. Four months of a weakening property market, in particular, has culminated in noticeable economic sluggishness since mid-August.

Taking such action ahead of the October national day holiday, during which the banks traditionally face high cash withdrawals, gives the central bank a fig leaf from behind which to claim, should it be of a mind to explain its motives, that it is not indulging in old-school stimulus. Much of the new loans is likely to end up in the real estate sector and funding new infrastructure, however, and thus lay down more speed bumps along the road to rebalancing the economy.

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Western Auction Houses’ Unlikely Role In Promoting China’s Soft Power

MOVIES GET MOST of the popular attention when it comes to the cultural front in China’s drive to raise its global soft power. But we are reminded today of the role fine art and antiques can play, and of the need for the country’s artists to establish themselves as international brands.

Last year, China accounted for nearly one quarter of the $61 billion global art market, according to the TEFAF Art Market Report. Its $15 billion of sales were second only to those of America artists. Two thirds of Chinese artists’ sales came at auction, with more than two-thirds of those sales taking place within the country.

Art Net, an online auction and arts news site based in New York, has now totted up which modern and contemporary Chinese artists have been the biggest money spinners at auction over the past three and a half years. The bigger the sale; the higher the international profile.

Topping its list is the late Wu Guanzhong, whose landscapes have given him the title of the father of modern Chinese painting and whose works have realized $510 million over the period under review, including the $23.5 million sale of a 1973 oil on paper landscape, the most expensive individual work. Zao Wou-Ki, the French-Chinese abstract artist who died last year, is second with auction sales of $417.6 million. Third is the highest ranked living Chinese artist, Zeng Fanzhi, at $226 million.

Art Net also notes that the international auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, are accounting for an increasing share of sales. Local salesrooms such as Beijing A&F Auction, Poly International and, in Taipei, Ravenel are being squeezed out — further evidence that, as the U.S. has found with Hollywood, the market may be a more powerful arm of cultural diplomacy than state-sponsored organisations such as the Confucius Institute.

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Jack Ma’s Open Sesame For The Wide World

IT IS EASY to overdo the symbolism in the fact that the biggest tech company listed on a U.S. exchange will soon be Chinese. Jack Ma’s e-commerce giant, Alibaba, is expected to to be valued at at least $163 billion after its forthcoming initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, eclipsing the $100 billion valuation Facebook achieved with its IPO.

If the share sale raises the expected $21.1 billion, and that would be a conservative sum given some of the hype that has preceded the newly filed prospectus, Alibaba’s would set an new high-water mark for a technology IPO, and be the third largest IPO from any sector. If pre-sale demand for its American Depositary Shares proves to be exceptionally strong, the offering might be repriced so that it topped the record $22.1 billion that Agricultural Bank of China raised in July 2010. Final pricing is expected during the week of Sept. 15th.

For now, the company’s business is China-centric, and is being touted to foreign investors as a way to tap China’s economic rebalancing with the expectation that e-commerce will take an increasingly larger slice of a growing pie of consumer consumption, though prospective investors should note that rivals such as Baidu, Tencent and JD have growing aspirations to loosen Alibaba’s grip on the wallets of the country’s growing middle class. But in a letter to investors, Ma made plain his global ambition. “In the past decade, we measured ourselves by how much we changed China. In the future, we will be judged by how much progress we bring to the world.” It is then that the symbolism will take on more substance.

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