IMF Sees China’s Economy With Momentum To Face Headwinds

IN ITS LATEST World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund has left its forecast for China’s growth this year and next unchanged from January’s 6.6% and 6.4% respectively.

Both numbers are one-tenth of a percentage point higher than the Fund’s forecast in October last year. They are also in line with the most recent forecasts from the World Bank and the OECD.

Faster than expected global growth and domestic policy support has sustained the economy in the form of resurgent net exports and healthy private consumption, giving it some momentum to propel it into the challenging headwinds of America First protectionism and still-risky domestic overleverage.

Thereafter, the IMF provides a familiar refrain:

Over the medium term, the economy is projected to continue rebalancing away from investment toward private consumption and from industry to services, but nonfinancial debt is expected to continue rising as a share of GDP, and the accumulation of vulnerabilities clouds the medium-term outlook.

And its obligatory silver lining:

Tighter regulation of nonbank intermediation in China, where nonfinancial corporate sector debt is still rising, is a welcome start of a needed policy response to contain the accumulation of vulnerabilities.

But it also highlights a missed opportunity:

Fiscal policy has played a vital part in shoring up short-term growth at the expense of eroding valuable policy space. Gradual consolidation, together with a shift of spending back onto the budget and away from off-budget channels, would help improve sustainability.

The Fund’s accompanying Global Financial Stability Report goes into greater depth about the elevated risks posed by what it says is the large-scale, tight and opaque linking of the banking system to the shadow banking sector (see diagram below) through its exposure to off-balance-sheet investment vehicles largely funded through the issuance of some 75 trillion yuan ($12 trillion) of investment products.

One-third of those by value are directly managed by the banks, who are seen as implicitly guaranteeing the products. A key challenge for authorities will be phasing out those implicit guarantees, which will require banks to improve their liquidity and capital buffers as there are large maturity mismatches between the products’ assets and liabilities.

Diagram of linkages within China's financial system. Credit: IMF Global Stability Report, April 2018

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China Shows Off Its Blue-Water Fleet

PLA-Navy warships including the aircraft carrier Liaoning and its latest submarines take part in a review in the South China Sea , April 12, 2018. Photo Credit: Xinhua/Mo Xiaoliang.

IT IS NO secret that China is building a modern blue-water fleet. What is notable is that more than half the PLA-Navy vessels that took part in the country’s largest naval review on April 12 have been commissioned since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

The review was a high-profile affair, conducted in the South China Sea with Xi himself taking the salute from the deck of the Changsha, one of the PLA-Navy’s most advanced guided-missile destroyers. In a speech, Xi promised to speed up the fleet’s modernisation.

More than 10,000 service personnel were involved along with 48 ships sailing in seven groups according to their combat functions: strategic strike, submerged attack, open-sea operations, aircraft carrier strike, amphibious landing, offshore waters defence, and support.

The centrepiece was the aircraft carrier, Liaoning (seen in the picture above), itself a symbol of the reorienting of naval strategy. Sea trials of the country’s second, and first indigenous, carrier are imminent.

The warships involved in the review then headed off to join a three-day naval exercise off Hainan island that had started the day before. For the Liaoning that meant carrying out live-fire exercises for the first time. That these were held away from disputed waters suggests that this was also an exercise in power display rather than a provocation of neighbours that dispute Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Earlier in the week, Vietnam published draft legislation that would expand the powers of its coastguard to open fire to protect sovereign rights and particularly at ships operating illegally in Vietnamese waters that refuse requests to halt their activities.

Given Beijing’s preoccupation with its trade disputes with Washington and the Trump administration’s growing engagement with Taiwan (new US National Security Advisor John Bolton is expected to visit the island soon), China will have neither the will nor the diplomatic capacity to take on another crisis in the South China Sea — even if it has the ships to do so.

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Asian Development Bank Pushes Beijing On Tax Reform

Headquarters of the Asian Development Bank in Manila, Philippines, seen in 2016. Photo credit: ADB. Licenced under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0

CHINA’S ECONOMY WILL grow by 6.6% this year and 6.4% next, according the Asian Development Bank’s newly published Outlook 2018. That is pretty much in line with the most recent revised OECD forecasts from mid-March.

The ADB sees strong consumer spending, rising exports and steady public spending underpinning current growth. It also joins the chorus calling for tax and other structural reforms to ensure that growth is both inclusive and sustainable as it resumes its measured glide path of slowing under the effects of excess-capacity reduction, the gradual resolution of the debt problem and the shift of growth drivers from capital accumulation to total factor productivity, to give a more technical description of the rebalancing of the economy.

In summary, the ADB says:

PRC growth accelerated on strong demand from home and abroad. The service sector grew by 8% on buoyant domestic demand, and net exports expanded as trade in intermediate manufactures rebounded. Assuming mildly tighter monetary and fiscal policies in the PRC, growth is expected to moderate from 6.9% in 2017 to 6.6% in 2018 and 6.4% in 2019. Further progress on reforms such as strengthening financial sector regulation and supervision, and addressing debt issues would lay a foundation for solid macroeconomic stability.

The ADB highlights the importance of services to rebalancing. In 2017, it notes, services were already the main driver of growth, expanding 8%, up from 7.7% the previous year, and contributing 4.0 percentage points to GDP growth. In contrast, industrial growth slowed to 6.1% last year from 2016’s 6.3%, and industry’s contribution fell to 2.5 percentage points.

The services sector also kept the labour market buoyant, creating 13.5 million new urban jobs last year (exceeding the official target of 11 million). But prices in the service sector are rising, meaning that inflation did not cool as much as it might otherwise. Consumer prices rose 1.6% in 2017, against 2% a year earlier. The ADB thinks inflation will pick up this year, to 2.4%, as consumer demand strengthens.

The ADB also notes in passing that services comprise barely 51% of GDP, low by international standards. As investment, in contrast, at almost 40%, is comparatively high, there is ample scope for further ‘rebalancing’.

The risks to the ADB’s forecast are pretty straightforward: a trade war with the United States, which could undercut exports and investment. It is not particularly worried about the tariffs the Trump administration imposed on steel and aluminium imports, seeing an unintended benign consequence of measures to tackle the corporate debt issue:

Prices for aluminum and iron ore (iron being the bulk of stainless steel) rose by 23% in 2017. This raised profits in the producers’ home economies more than enough to offset the impact of tariffs, had they been imposed a year earlier. Profits in heavy industry, including large steel producers in the PRC, rose by 21% in 2017 thanks to higher prices and government-imposed production quotas, allowing these industries to service their debt and reduce borrowing while trying to shed excess capacity. Thus, these producers should be able to manage lower demand expected from the US, given the small share of exports to the US directly affected.

However, it is the United States’ next round of tariffs on Chinese exports of intermediate inputs, especially for renewable energy, electricity generation and electrical and optical equipment, that is the immediate concern as they could undermine the business and consumer optimism. Absent Trump’s ‘massive trade deal’ with China, these will take effect in the next few months and would play directly into investment intentions, and especially those connected to US firms’ links to Asian value chains in manufacturing.

The double risk is that a strengthening dollar on the back of rising US interest rates could also spur greater capital outflows, irrespective of authorities’ discouragement.

However, the ADB believes, the government’s fiscal strength and political will enable the economy to weather any squalls. The question for this Bystander is how stormy the trade can weather get.

The particular area for structural reform tha is exercising the ADB is tax:

[The] ratio of tax revenue to GDP has stagnated at 17.5%, with heavy dependence on indirect taxes in the PRC atypical at its stage of development. The authorities there should broaden the tax base while ensuring that the revenue system is progressive.

The average tax revenue to GPP figure for OECD countries is 25%, and even in the ten emerging economies of the G20 countries, it is 21%. The combination of falling tax revenue and rising expenditure translates into rising budget deficits for Beijing, more public debt and thus contingent liabilities.

The ADB suggests that there is there is substantial potential to raise more revenue from personal income taxes, which are now paid by fewer than one in five wage earners. Personal exemptions are twice the annual average national wage, and the top rate (45%) kicks in at 35 times the annual average national wage. OECD averages are for personal exemptions of one quarter the average annual national wage and top marginal rates starting at four times that level.

This indicates some easy changes that could be made to broaden the income tax base and make it more progressive. (which are in train as was signalled at last month’s National Peoples Congress sessions). Structural tax reform is also central to tackling income inequality, a central concern of the Xi administration.

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A Sewbot In Time

CHINA IS THE world’s largest exporter of garments, worth some $170 billion a year. So far, the industry has escaped the retaliatory tariffs Washington is to impose on more than 1,300 Chinese exports, no doubt much to the relief of members of US President Donald Trump’s family with clothing brands whose merchandise is made in China.

If any industry is emblematic of China’s rise as an economic power on the back of low-cost export manufacturing, it is probably textiles and apparel.

Low-cost labour has underpinned an army of seamstresses and tailors churning out garments by the million for retailers from the world’s leading brands to cheapest stores. It has also enabled the growth of an extensive ecosystem of spinners, weavers, knitters, dyers, processors and finishers, not to mention makers of fasteners, zippers and trimmings, all backed by cheap and efficient trade logistics.

As happened in Japan and South Korea before it, this has lifted millions of people out of poverty. But rising wages and a greying workforce are putting an end to that model.

Like the car and electronics industries before it, textile and apparel manufacturers in search of lower costs first offshored production, particularly in cheaper labour nations like Bangladesh and Myanmar. The industry’s outbound foreign direct investment hit a record $2.7 billion in 2016.

Now it is turning to automation not so much there but in its developed markets.

One striking example of this that caught this Bystander’s eye. Suzhou-based Tianyuan Garments Co., one of the biggest apparel makers in the country and which numbers Adidas, Armani and Reebok among its customers, is opening a $20 million factory of 300 sewing robots (‘sewbots’) in the United States.

It will make T-shirts for Adidas; 23 million a year once it is running at full pelt by the end of this year, a volume of relentless production that means its economies of scale will make it impossible for cheap labour anywhere to compete with it. Robots can sow faster, indefatigably and more consistently than humans: sweatshops without the human sweat.

The 400 human jobs that will be created at the new factory will support and maintain the robots and in logistics. The twist to the tale is that the sewbots are developed by a US company, SoftWear Automation, whose initial R&D was funded by the US Department of Defence. The US military needs domestic manufacturers of uniforms, clothing and basics such as towels and mats as it has a mandate from the US Congress to buy ‘Made in America’ yet three decades of offshoring has decimated the US textile and apparel industry and thus its potential suppliers.

SoftWear’s sowbots use computer vision to steer the fabric first through cutting and then along the production line through series of sewing needles. This is an automated step beyond the sort of manufacturing companies like Adidas are doing in their robot-aided production lines in Germany.

Tianyaun’s new factory is located in Little Rock, Arkansas, with the state providing $3.2 million in incentives and a 65% break on property taxes to attract it. Another Chinese company, Shandong Ruyi Technology Group Co., is investing $410 million in an automated yarn spinning factory in Forrest City less than 100 miles from Tianyaun’s T-shirt operation.

Shandong Ruyi has a growing portfolio of some 40 global fashion brands, including Bally, Gieves & Hawkes, Aquascutum, the Paris-based fashion group SMCP (Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot) and Italy’s Cerruti 1881. It is moving into an old Sanyo plant that closed in 2007, an unintended symbol of how the industrial world is turning — and one that raises some questions about what ‘America First’ really means in such circumstances.

Once tariffs, duties and shipping costs are factored in, the case for shortening supply chains by shifting production closer to consumers in developed markets becomes compelling. It makes the turnaround of new lines quicker, essential in the fickle and fast-moving world of fashion.

For Tianyuan (and Adidas) there is the additional benefit of its robots being able to sew “Made in the USA” labels into the T-shirts it will be making for its German client. Xu Yingxin, vice-president of the China National Textile and Apparel Council, says Arkansas is becoming another centre for China’s textile industry.

So far, sewbots are limited in their ability to replicate the dexterity of the human hand. They can manage something simple like a T-shirt, but even hemming is challenging, and it will be several years before they can produce more complex garments like a dress shirt.

The industry’s vision of on-demand custom-made clothing that can be delivered to a customer overnight is still far off, but no longer unimaginable. E-commerce retail giant Amazon recently received a patent for a manufacturing system that produces “on-demand” apparel.

For low-wage countries like Cambodia or Vietnam, hoping to follow China’s development path the prospect should be terrifying. The International Labor Organization estimates that more than 43 million people are employed in the textile industry in Asian developing countries. Those jobs will not just go elsewhere; they will just go. The ones that will replace them will require different skills.

With hefty government support, China’s textile and garment makers may be moving out of the labour intensive end of the industry and into higher value-added specialty textiles for medical, engineering, filtration and automotive applications and into highly automated mass production overseas at just the right time.

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One Trade War, Two Playbooks

WHAT IF CHINA and the United States are playing a different game over trade even as they stare each other down over tit-for-tat tariffs?

US President Donald Trump may well be following his well-tried playbook of creating maximum chaos with hardball threats and maximalist demands and then playing matters by ear as he seeks to negotiate the deal he wants.

Trump indeed hints at working on “a massive deal” with China, but China says there are no such negotiations and Trump’s new chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, confirms that, telling Bloomberg TV that he hopes there will such discussions in the next couple of months.

China, on the other hand, may just be waiting by the river, knowing that if it waits long enough, as the Sun Tzu playbook has it, the bodies of its enemies will float by.

If, as this Bystander believes, this is all really about control of the technologies that will determine economic prosperity in the future, then the long game is the one to be playing.

Little need to win the trade battle when the goal is to win the economic war.

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Technology, Not Trade Is Real China-US Fight

THE RETALIATORY 25% tariffs imposed on 128 US imports from frozen pork to specific fruit and nuts worth a total of some $3 billion are carefully chosen.  They mainly target products for which China is a principal market for US producers.

However, they are also a relatively mild retort to the tariffs imposed by the United States on steel and aluminium imports last month. The bigger concern is how Beijing will respond to the already announced but unspecified second set of tariffs that Washington has announced on $60 billion worth of Chinese exports in retaliation for alleged theft by Chinese companies of US technology and intellectual property.

“China has yet to unsheathe its sword,” state media commented.

The Trump administration is expected to announce the details of the second set of tariffs sometime this week ahead of Friday’s deadline.

For its first round of retaliatory tariffs, Beijing is acting under World Trade Organization rules that let countries impose tariffs to compensate for another country’s export restrictions. Hence Beijing’s use of the phrase in announcing its tariffs that they were ‘in order to safeguard China’s interests’, the necessary WTO condition that needs to be complied with in such circumstances.

Chart of US exports to China by category, 2016. Source: MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Beijing is also arguing that the tariffs, which Washington imposed on national security, not market disruption grounds, contravene WTO rules.

Trump has attacked the WTO in a tweet, but at the same time, the US is pushing its technology transfer misappropriation claims through the global trade organization’s disputes procedures.

This Bystander remembers how in the 1980s when it was Japan not China that was going to take over the world and eclipse the American century, that the United States waved the big stick of tariffs and then negotiated a settlement with Tokyo for voluntary Japanese export restraints.

The problem with that approach today is that it might reduce a bilateral trade imbalance, but it does little for solving technology transfer issues when both sides are fighting an existential battle to dominate the industrial future which will turn on control of technologies.

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Kim Jong-un’s Astute Shuttling

China’s President Xi Jinping (right) greets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during Kim’s visit to China from March 25 to 28. Photo credit: Xinhua/Ju Peng.NORTH KOREAN LEADER Kim Jong-un’s not-so-secret three-day visit to Beijing on March 25-28 dropped two markers ahead of Kim’s proposed meeting with US President Donald Trump in May.

The first is that China remains an integral part of any political settlement on the Korean peninsula. Beijing has long advocated multilateral talks to achieve that settlement. Kim’s proposal and Trump’s acceptance of a bilateral summit initially put Beijing on the back foot. The visit restored its balance. Special representative Yang Jiechi’s talks in Seoul with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday offer further evidence.

The second maker dropped by Kim’s Beijing visit is Pyongyang’s signal to Washington that Kim does not go into the meeting with Trump alone; he still has a powerful friend in China.

The atmospherics were one of the most notable aspects of the visit beyond the fact that it happened at all. The cordiality extended by President Xi Jinping to Kim belied the fact that neither had found reason to visit the other since coming to power (2011 in Kim’s case, 2012 for Xi) and that relations between the historically close neighbours were at a low ebb not least because of China’s unprecedented imposition of international sanctions on the Pyongyang regime because of its nuclear and missile tests.

Kim played his part in this show of restored fraternity to perfection, striking a delicate balance between the deference to be expected of a ‘little brother’ while remaining his own man.

This Bystander reflects on how adept Kim’s father and grandfather were at playing off China and the former Soviet Union against each other. We wonder if that gene has passed to the latest generation as Kim shuttles between summits with Xi, Trump and Moon regardless of what his true intentions remain.

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