Long live China’s slowdown!

At 7.7%, China’s annual GDP growth in the first quarter of this year was slower than many expected. While the data were hardly devastating relative to a consensus forecast of 8.2%, many (including me) expected a second consecutive quarterly rebound from the slowdown that appeared to have ended in the third quarter of 2012. China doubters around the world were quick to pounce on the number, expressing fears of a stall, or even a dreaded double dip.

But slower GDP growth is actually good for China, provided that it reflects the long-awaited structural transformation of the world’s most dynamic economy. The broad outlines of this transformation are well known – a shift from export- and investment-led growth to an economic structure that draws greater support from domestic private consumption. Less well known is that a rebalanced China should have a slower growth rate – the first hints of which may now be evident.

A rebalanced China can grow more slowly for one simple reason: By drawing increased support from services-led consumer demand, China’s new model will embrace a more labor-intensive growth recipe. The numbers seem to bear that out. China’s services sector requires about 35% more jobs per unit of GDP than do manufacturing and construction – the primary drivers of the old model.

That number has potentially huge implications, because it means that China could grow at an annual rate in the 7-8% range and still achieve its objectives with respect to employment and poverty reduction…

…Capital-labor substitution is at the heart of modern productivity strategies for manufacturing-based economies. But it left China in a deepening hole: increasingly deficient in jobs per unit of output, it needed more units of output to absorb its surplus labor. Ultimately, that became more of a problem than a solution…

It is premature, of course, to conclude that a services-led transformation to slower growth is now at hand. The latest data hint at such a possibility, with the tertiary sector (services) expanding at an 8.3% annual rate in the first quarter of this year – the third consecutive quarter of acceleration and a half-percentage point faster than the 7.8% first-quarter gain recorded by the secondary sector (manufacturing and construction). But it will take more than a few quarters of mildly encouraging data to validate such an important shift in the Chinese economy’s underlying structure

Financial markets, as well as growth-starved developed economies, are not thrilled with the natural rhythm of slower growth that a rebalanced Chinese economy is likely to experience. Resource industries – indeed, resource-based economies like Australia, Canada, Brazil, and Russia – have become addicted to China’s old strain of unsustainable hyper-growth. Yet China knows that it is time to break that dangerous habit.

Uncle Sugar and agitprop flunkies like the NY TIMES have a problem with consumer-led growth in China. It defies Cold Warrior slander. And China’s surplus saving will stay home instead of being stuffed into dollar-based assets such as US Treasury bills.

As China embraces slower growth as a natural consequence of its rebalancing, Stephen Roach notes that “the rest of the world will need to figure out how to cope when it does”.

One thought on “Long live China’s slowdown!

  1. keaneo says:

    Though I disagree with Dr. Roach about 20% of the time, he’s spot on and more up-to-date on Asia than most economists.

    Meanwhile, the average well-informed American, dissident or critic, remains locked into opinions based on data a decade old or more. Like, cheap-er labor siphoning away American jobs – as incorrect as that wee distorted analysis is – “hip” independent “occupiers” don’t seem to know that industrial wages in Mexico are lower than in China. And the freight from Juarez to, say, Chicago is a hell of a lot less than Shanghai to San Francisco.

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