Even The Ever-Optimistic IMF Frets Over China-US Trade Tensions

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND has cut its forecast of China’s 2019 GDP growth by 0.2 percentage point to 6.2% because of the expected impact of tariffs imposed as a result of its trade dispute with the United States. In its newly published World Economic Outlook, the Fund also projects 6.6% growth for this year, down from 6.9% in 2017 as the policy measures to slow credit growth and deleverage the economy take effect.

However, the IMF expects China to apply domestic stabilisation measures that will boost growth in 2019 by 0.5 percentage points to offset the impact of the tariffs, which the Fund estimates to cut growth by 0.7 percentage points potentially.

The Fund’s baseline forecast takes account of tariffs announced by mid-September. Maurice Obstfeld, the director of the IMF’s Research Department, says he is less optimistic about a resolution to the trade dispute with the United States than he was six months ago. In one scenario modelled by the Fund, an escalation of trade restrictions could cut 1.6% of China’s GDP in 2019.

Obstfeld, who retires soon, also took what by the IMF’s diplomatic standards was a hugely political swing at ‘America First’ unilateralism. He concluded what will be his final forward to the Outook with this paragraph.

Multilateralism must evolve so that every country views it to be in its self-interest, even in a multipolar world. But that will require domestic [Obstfeld’s italics] political support for an internationally collaborative approach. Inclusive policies that ensure a broad sharing of the gains from economic growth are not only desirable in their own right; they can also help convince citizens that international cooperation works for them. I am proud that during my tenure, the IMF has increasingly championed such policies while supporting multilateral solutions to global challenges. Without more inclusive policies, multilateralism cannot survive. And without multilateralism, the world will be a poorer and more dangerous place.

Dealing with one aspect of ‘America First’, the US-China trade dispute, the People’s Bank of China has again just eased monetary policy, reversing its recent stance to rein in credit growth and address financial risks though deleverage.

The Fund says applying domestic stimulus will be at the long-term cost of delaying tackling China’s internal financial imbalances. It has advocated for some time that China should de-emphasise the quantity of growth and think more about the quality of growth and the economy’s resilience to financial instability — the shadow banking sector and over-leveraging in local government financing being two of the most glaring point of vulnerability.

“It will be important, despite growth headwinds from slower credit growth and trade barriers, to maintain the focus on deleveraging and continue regulatory and supervisory tightening, greater recognition of bad assets, and more market-based credit allocation to improve resilience and boost medium-term growth prospects,” the Fund says.

In its Financial Stability Report, issued the day after the World Economic Outlook, the IMF says:

In China, financial conditions have remained broadly stable, with an easing in monetary policy largely offsetting the impact of external pressures. China’s equity markets have weakened on rising trade tensions. Tighter liquidity resulting from earlier regulatory efforts to de-risk and deleverage the financial system has led to pockets of stress in corporate bond markets, which prompted Chinese authorities to ease monetary policy. The central bank injected liquidity via cuts to the required reserve ratio and through lending facilities. The exchange rate weakened further, down 7 percent against the U.S. dollar (and down 5 percent compared with a basket of 24 currencies) since mid-June, prompting authorities to reintroduce a 20 percent reserve requirement for foreign exchange forwards.

The trade-off between growth and stability is a difficult one for policymakers in any country. In China, that will always lean towards stability, which will likely mean a more accommodative macro policy stance and only fine-tuning to deleverage.

Hence the IMF repeats its mantra:

Despite a growing emphasis in China on the quality rather than the speed of growth, tensions persist between stated development goals and intentions to reduce leverage and allow market forces to play a larger role in the economy.

An overarching priority is to continue with reforms, even if the economy slows down, and to avoid a return to credit- and investment-driven stimulus. Key elements of the reform agenda should include:

  • strengthening financial regulation and tightening macroprudential settings to rein in the rapid increase in household debt;
  • deepening fiscal structural reforms to foster rebalancing (making the personal income tax more progressive and increasing spending on health, education, and social transfers); tackling income inequality by removing barriers to labor mobility and strengthening fiscal transfers across regions; and
  • more decisively reforming state-owned enterprises; and fostering further market liberalization, particularly in services.

Addressing the distortions that affect trade and cross-border flows is also needed.

All of which, as ever, is more about domestic political priorities than economic policymaking.

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