Friday, March 30, 2012

Rebalancing Watch, China Edition

We'll be discussing the US-China trade imbalance in Econ 270 next week.  This played a prominent role in worries about "global imbalances" that were prevalent several years ago.  The concerns linger, but both the US current account deficit and China's surplus have come down significantly over the past several years. 

I discussed the US current account in a recent post.  China recently reported a trade deficit (!).  That was a bit of a fluke, according to The Economist:
China’s trade balance often dips around Chinese New Year, as export factories close for the festival. The holiday also arrived earlier this year than last, distorting the data. But even if the figures for January and February are added together, China ran a deficit of over $4 billion. Exports and imports typically rebound in sync as China gets back to work. This year, imports rebounded alone.
But the broader trend is for a significantly sinking surplus. Jeff Frankel attributes this to real appreciation:
[T]he yuan was finally allowed to appreciate against the dollar during 2005-08 and 2010-11, by 25% cumulatively [=17% + 8%]. Second, and more importantly, labor shortages began to appear and Chinese workers at last began to win rapid wage increases. Major cities raised their minimum wages sharply over each of the last three years [FT, Jan. 5]: 22% on average in 2010 and 2011 (somewhat less this year, in response to slowing demand: 8.6 % in Beijing, 13% in Shenzhen and Shanghai). Meanwhile another cost of business, land prices, rose even more rapidly.

As a result, whereas all signs still pointed to a substantially undervalued yuan as recently as four or five years ago, this is no longer the case. One important measure of undervaluation — a comparison of China’s prices with what is normal given the country’s level of income (the so-called Balassa-Samuelson relationship) — showed the renminbi as undervalued against the dollar by as much as 36% on 2000 data (Frankel, 2005) . Even after an improvement in the international price data, Balassa-Samuelson regressions estimated the undervaluation at roughly 30% in 2005 and 25% as recently as 2009. (Others had other ways of estimating undervaluation; see Goldstein, 2004, and those surveyed by Cline and Williamson, 2008.)

The renminbi’s real appreciation against the dollar over the last three years has amounted to 12%, reducing the degree of undervaluation by roughly half, depending on whether one measures it against the dollar or against all countries. More is to be expected, as Chinese relative wages continue to rise. In any case, China’s real exchange rate is already closer to this measure of equilibrium than are most countries’ exchange rates (Cheung, Chinn and Fuji, 2010).
However, Michael Pettis argues that China is trading external imbalances for internal ones (and trouble down the road...):
So is China rebalancing?  Of course not.  Rebalancing would require that the domestic consumption share of GDP rise.  Is the consumption share of GDP rising?  Clearly not.  If consumption had increased its share of GDP since the onset of the crisis, the savings share of GDP would be declining.

And yet savings continue to rise.  This is the opposite of rebalancing, and it should not come as a surprise.  Beijing is trying to increase the consumption share of GDP by subsidizing certain types of household consumption (white goods, cars), but since the subsidies are paid for indirectly by the household sector, the net effect is to take away with one hand what it offers with the other.  This is no way to increase consumption.

Meanwhile investment continues to grow and, with it, debt continues to grow, and since the only way to manage all this debt is to continue repressing interest rates at the expense of household depositors, households have to increase their savings rates to make up the difference.  So national savings continue to rise.
That sounds like trouble, though this Economist article noted that there are some reasons to believe that estimates of Chinese consumption might be understated:
China’s official statistics show private consumption growing less quickly than the economy as a whole from 2001 to 2010. But they also show retail sales growing faster than GDP from 2008 to 2010. The discrepancy is partly because China’s retail-sales figures include some things they should not (such as government purchases and sales of chemicals and other wholesale goods), and miss out other things (like health care and other services), that are a big part of consumer spending. But several economists also believe the official figures understate private consumption.

To derive an alternative measure, Yiping Huang and his colleagues at Barclays Capital, an investment bank, have tried to pick out those retail sales that are likely to reflect consumer purchases. He has combined those purchases with sales figures for service firms. By this alternative measure, consumption fell as a share of GDP until 2008, but started growing strongly thereafter. “Rebalancing of the Chinese economy has already started,” the Barclays economists conclude.

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