A World Bank report to be released next week warns of an economic crisis in China unless state-run firms are scaled back. The Wall Street Journal discusses the report in New Push for Reform in China
An exclusive preview of an economic report on China, prepared by the World Bank and government insiders considered to have the ear of the nation's leaders, offers a surprising prescription: China could face an economic crisis unless it implements deep reforms, including scaling back its vast state-owned enterprises and making them operate more like commercial firms.
"China 2030," a report set to be released Monday by the bank and a Chinese government think tank, addresses some of China's most politically sensitive economic issues, according to a half-dozen individuals involved in preparing and reviewing it.
The report warns that China's growth is in danger of decelerating rapidly and without much warning. That is what has occurred with other highflying developing countries, such as Brazil and Mexico, once they reached a certain income level, a phenomenon that economists call the "middle-income trap." A sharp slowdown could deepen problems in the Chinese banking sector and elsewhere, the report warns, and could prompt a crisis, according to those involved with the project.
It recommends that state-owned firms be overseen by asset-management firms, say those involved in the report. It also urges China to overhaul local government finances and promote competition and entrepreneurship.
The report is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Of course increasing SOE dividends to the government for use in social programs will transfer wealth from the state sector to the household sector, but if the total profitability of the SOE sector is less than one-fifth to one-eighth of the direct and indirect subsidies transferred from the household sector, as I have argued many times, then even 100% dividends is not enough to slow the transfer significantly, and remember the transfers have to be reversed, not merely slowed. This proposal falls in the better-than-nothing category, but just.
What we really need are much more dramatic transfers, for example wholesale selling of assets, with the money used either to clean up bad loans or delivered directly to households. According to the article, however, “neither the World Bank nor the DRC proposed privatizing the state-owned firms, figuring that was politically unacceptable.”
This is the problem. The best solution for China, economically, seems to be off limits because it will be politically difficult. In that case the second best solution, a gradual build-up of government debt as growth slows for many years, is the most likely outcome.
And how much will growth slow? The World Bank report apparently doesn’t say, but the consensus has been slowly moving down towards 5-6% annual growth over the next few years.
That’s better than the crazy numbers of 8-9% most analysts were predicting even two years ago (and some still are), but it is still too high. GDP growth rates will slow a lot more than that. I still maintain that average growth in this decade will barely break 3%. It will take, however, at least another two or three years before a number this low falls within the consensus range.
And by the way when it does, metal prices should fall sharply. Copper prices have done reasonably well in the past few months as Chinese buyers have restocked, as we suggested might happen to our clients last fall. With the recent easing we may see more strength in copper over the next month or so, but I have little doubt that within two or three years copper prices are going to be a whole lot lower than they are today. Chinese investment demand simply cannot hold up much longer.