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July 25, 2024

China’s Economy: Declining or Deception

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By: Anjali Mahto, Research Analyst, GSDN

Renminbi & Dollar: source Internet

China’s economic achievements over the past thirty years have been spectacular. In 2022, its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reached US$ 18.3 tn, which is 73% of the United States’ GDP, and its per capita income was about US$ 13,000. With 35% of the rise in global nominal GDP, China has been the main driver of global economic expansion. China’s enormous government spending during the 2008–2009 recession contributed to the global economy’s survival and rebound. However, as the world is on the edge of a global recession, a repeat of China’s 2008–2009 economic rebound is less likely due to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Moreover, others contend that domestic vulnerabilities including a weak institutional framework and an ineffective banking system made China’s economic collapse inevitable.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s economy grew by only 3% in 2022 and 5.2% in 2023, recovering from three years of severe “zero Covid” control measures. However, the optimistic recovery scenario does not project a return to the country’s high growth rates since 1978, when annual GDP growth averaged about 10%. China’s private-sector restrictions and stringent lockdowns have disrupted supply chains and harmed investor confidence since the outbreak began. Furthermore, the population reduction in January 2022 raises concerns about the future workforce.

Despite surpassing the government’s 5% growth target last year, the Chinese economy faces obstacles such as low private investment, poor consumer confidence, and high youth unemployment, all of which point to potential future issues.

Why the economic decline?

Economists and analysts believe that China’s era of double-digit growth is probably ended because the country’s previous economic model has reached its end and the future is unpredictable. Due to high inflation and an extended period of deflation, China faced difficult economic conditions outside when it reopened in January 2023 following the relaxation of severe “zero-COVID” regulations. Rising inflation discouraged people from purchasing Chinese goods, and discouraged domestic buyers from resuming their purchases. The real estate crisis persisted in November 2023, with prices falling by 0.5% annually—the biggest decline in three years—and home sales falling to half their December 2020 levels. Developers were in danger of defaulting.

China’s massive labour pools, which have fueled its low-cost industrial foundation, are diminishing due to an aging population, slowing birth rates, and debt-laden real estate and infrastructure projects. Since 2008, total factor productivity has fallen from 2.8% to 0.7% per year, demonstrating that real estate and infrastructure expenditures are yielding lower returns.

China’s economy has been largely dependent on the expansion of its investments, which have been supported by an ineffective banking system. This dependence grew following the global financial crisis of 2008. By lowering growth that is heavily reliant on investments and emphasizing household spending as the primary driver of GDP growth, the government hopes to rebalance the economy. To enhance employment growth, this involves shifting away from physical capital-intensive growth and producing more growth from the services sector than from low-skill, low-wage manufacturing.

China’s heavily reliant real estate sector, which accounts for 30% of GDP and 70% of household wealth, poses significant economic challenges with 60-80 million empty apartments and 20 million unfinished ones. If the sector declines by one-third, 10% of production would need to be replaced. Despite Beijing’s avoidance of a major Western-style bailout, 50 developers have been placed on a list for government support. Efforts to reduce property reliance have had mixed results, with electric vehicle and green energy industries making strides and semiconductors struggling. In 2019, Beijing poured US$ 29 bn into its semiconductor industry, but corruption and inefficiency were reported. The country faces significant local government debt amounting to US$ 12.6 tn or 76% of economic output in 2022 according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a downgraded credit rating from stable to negative by Moody’s citing the real estate crisis and shrinking population.

China’s President Xi Jinping has prioritized political control over the economy, blurring the lines between the state and the ruling Communist Party. This has led to a regulatory crackdown on tech, financial services, and private education industries. In 2023, the National Financial Regulatory Administration was established to regulate the financial industry. However, other changes including anti-espionage law have raised concerns about the legality of foreign consulting and business intelligence work as China has investigated consulting firms Bain & Company and the Mintz Group, fining the latter US$ 1.5 mn in August 2023. This has resulted in a stronger state-led approach in deciding China’s industries. Moreover, US sanctions on Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine have increased the cautiousness of geopolitical risks among Western investors as sanctions mean that you need to pull up quickly as there would be a lot of money.

China requires fundamental reforms, and economic challenges have highlighted President Xi Jinping’s leadership. He has shifted from a “growth at all costs” to a “high-quality growth” strategy, emphasizing resilience to external pressure, equal wealth distribution, and less reliance on export-driven growth to build an economy fueled by domestic consumption and pursue cutting-edge technologies such as advanced semiconductors and quantum computing. This move recognizes China’s new reality and the necessity for new narratives to retain the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After all, the communist government is not raising corporate tax rates.

Major challenges for 2024

The IMF anticipates 5.4% growth in China’s GDP, but economists expect a decline in 2024 due to structural challenges such as high debt and low birth rates. According to Goldman Sachs, China’s foreign investment deficit reached US$ 11.8 bn in September 2023, while capital outflows hit US$ 75 bn, the largest level in seven years.

The consumer price index dropped in November 2023 by the most in three years, indicating that China’s deflationary forces have gotten harsher. Due to low domestic demand, producer price inflation has been negative for more than a year. This has resulted in a decline in production, a rise in unemployment, a decline in wages, and an increase in real borrowing costs since 2016.

China’s government implemented stimulus measures in 2023 in response to weak aggregate demand and decreasing prices. The People’s Bank of China reduced policy interest rates, probably due to poor loan demand and a weaker currency and the Central Economic Work Conference proposed relaxing monetary policy but no large-scale stimulus.

Chinese consumer confidence is at a historic low, with households storing savings in liquid assets like bank deposits which earlier they would have spent on real estate, reaching a record level of Renminbi (RMB) 135 tn. The long COVID pandemic has been a major cause, and support measures in the housing sector by the government have not restored confidence or increased sales. The state-owned banks are being asked to provide more loans to property developers to support developer financing.

China’s economy is facing low investor confidence due to rapid Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) exit, with foreign firms not only reluctant to make new investments but also selling assets and remitting earnings. Geopolitics and other factors contribute to the collapse, making it uncertain if foreign investors will return in 2024.

The World Bank has reduced its forecast for Chinese GDP growth for 2024 from 4.8% to 4.4% due to the country’s property sector weakness and potential overdraft on future growth. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Yi Fuxian argues that China’s economic growth over the past decade has been an overdraft on future growth that may never materialize. However, Northwestern University’s Nancy Qian Nancy Qian argues that China’s economic performance is less concerning than Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries like Spain, Italy, and Sweden, and Yu Yongding, a former member of the People’s Bank of China argues that China can achieve higher growth rates than most developed economies in the future.

Is there really an economic downturn in China?

The State Administration of Foreign Exchange revealed data in 2022 that showed that half of China’s US$ 6 tn in foreign exchange reserves are “hidden.” China’s export surplus has likely increased, and a large amount of China’s foreign exchange reserves are not included in the People’s Bank of China’s official records. Rather, these reserves also referred to as “shadow reserves,” are kept by organizations like policy banks and state commercial lenders. According to Brad Setser, a former US Treasury and trade official, this poses a new risk to the global economy given China’s size and centrality in it.  Setser emphasized the lack of transparency regarding China’s reserves as a concern, as any actions taken by China will have an enormous impact on the rest of the world. China’s reserves have been instrumental in funding the Belt and Road Initiative, aiming to develop global infrastructure, was originated from China’s efforts to diversify its foreign exchange holdings after the 2008-09 financial crisis. Despite domestic debt issues, China remains a massive global creditor, and the weight of its foreign exchange accumulation continues to be felt worldwide.

Conclusion

In conclusion, China’s economy has performed remarkably well over the last thirty years, but there are still a lot of challenges and uncertainties ahead. With structural problems like high debt, low birth rates, and a reliance on investment growth posing significant challenges, the era of double-digit growth appears to have ended. The problem is made worse by the collapse in the real estate market, low investor confidence, and geopolitical tensions.  Despite a slowdown in growth, China remains a global economic powerhouse with significant foreign exchange reserves, yet the lack of transparency about these reserves creates new risks to the global economy. China’s US$ 3.1 tn shadow reserve raises questions if it is purposefully keeping it secret, and whether it intends to have a substantial negative influence on the world economy. China has suffered significant economic losses, but with such a large reserve, it may resume its role as a major driver in global economic growth, opposite to what economists predict. China’s transition towards a “high-quality growth” strategy under President Xi Jinping reflects a shift in priorities towards resilience and domestic consumption. However, the extent to which China can navigate these challenges and maintain its economic trajectory remains uncertain.

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