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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