Economics

Why China is hard to figure out

by on May 18, 2015 at 12:31 am in Economics, History | Permalink

It’s not just the differences of language, history, and culture.  It’s not just the (sometimes) questionable economic data, or the paucity of good Chinese academic research until very recent times.

Today’s China is sui generis.  The country has grown so quickly that every decade or so there is a very new China.  And so we cannot easily look to the past as a guide.  In economic terms, China seven years ago is equally removed from China today as the United States about thirty-five years ago is removed from the United States today, putting recent cyclical factors aside.

You could say that China’s recent past is relatively thin in terms of information.   For a more extreme example, how well would we understand an economy which went from zero to fully grown in the span of a week?  When do the diagnostics get to be run and how well would we understand its resiliency?  Arguably we also would not understand the resiliency of an economy which never grew and never changed in our sample…which raises the question of which rate of economic growth makes recent history “thickest” in terms of information and instructiveness?

Economics aside, China’s political system also has changed much more than ours, and it is less predictable than ours.

So for any question about contemporary China, it is n = 1, if that.

Has it been so bad?  For us?  For them?  How many of us had even noticed?

Here are some information (pdf), and here (pdf), I thank Matthew Vogel for reminding me of this.

Here is my previous post on ISDS and TPP.  Here is a good CRS brief on previous trade agreements with Vietnam.

Tyler and I are delighted to have the great Ramez Naam guest blogging for us this week. Ramez spent many years at Microsoft leading teams working on search and artificial intelligence. His first book, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement was a thought provoking look at the science and ethics of enhancing the human mind, body, and lifespan. More recently, I enjoyed Ramez’s The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, an excellent Simonesque guide to climate change, energy and innovation.

Frankly, I didn’t expect much when I bought Ramez’s science fiction novel, Nexus. Good non-fiction authors don’t necessarily make good fiction authors. I was, however, blown away. Nexus is about a near-future in which a new technology allows humans to take control of their biological operating system and communicate mind to mind. Nexus combines the rush of a great thriller, the fascination of hard science fiction and the intrigue of a realistic world of spy-craft and geo-politics. I loved Nexus and immediately bought the second in the trilogy, Crux. I finished that quickly and I am now about half-way through the just released, Apex. Thus it’s great to have Ramez guest blogging as I race towards the end of his exciting trilogy! The trilogy is highly recommended.

Please welcome Ramez to MR.

Nexus Cover


That is my recent Upshot column for The New York Times, here is one bit from it:

…there is a much more disturbing possibility that could turn out to be more accurate: namely, that the recession was a learning experience that we haven’t fully absorbed. From this perspective, the radical and sudden changes of the financial crisis were early indicators of deep fragility and dysfunctionality.

Slowly but surely, we may be responding to these difficult revelations by scaling back our ambitions for the economy — reinforcing negative trends that were already underway. In this troubling view, we have finally begun to discover some unpleasant truths. Borrowing a phrase from the University of Toronto economist Richard Florida, it’s possible that we are experiencing a “Great Reset.”

And this:

Here is another change that might be a broader sign of a pending reset: A heavy burden of adjustment in the overall labor market is being borne by the young. Wages for the typical graduate of a four-year college have dropped more than 7 percent since 2000, and the labor force participation rate of the young has been falling. One consequence is that young people are living at home longer and receiving more aid from their parents. They also seem to be less interested in buying their own homes.

…Earning a lower wage in earlier years is predictive of lower wages through the rest of one’s career. While we are seeing economic problems for the relatively young, they will eventually become dominant earners in the economy and the major force behind broader statistics.

Do read the whole thing.

Supposedly they were built to guard the tomb of an emperor:

terracotta-army-pit1-l

So what’s up?

1. The emperor had a state-dependent utility function (e.g., money is worth less when you are dead), and this was the ancient equivalent of cryonics.  If there was a chance you might be called back to life, spend a lot of resources protecting your corpse and its burial site.

2. The emperor was signaling (sorry Noah!) his ability to assemble such an impressive row of life-size figures, and of course the original had many more than what has been restored to date.

3. This was a form of fiscal policy, to stimulate the economy in slow times, by employing craftsmen.

4. The guild of said craftsmen was an influential interest group.

5. It was intended as a gift to a distant future; what else could they have done that would be of more value to us today?

6. Because the emperor could.

What else?

David Smith sets us straight on this one:

One of the most enduring claims about the British economy in recent years is that the then coalition government abandoned austerity in 2012. It is a claim that gives comfort to those who see everything that has happened to the economy through the lens of fiscal policy. Only when austerity was abandoned in 2012, some argue, did the economy begin to recover. Unfortunately it does not fit the facts. It is a myth.

There are two elements to this. The first is the question of whether, in response to slower growth in the economy, or other factors, George Osborne abandoned his programme of fiscal consolidation.

The two foremost authorities on fiscal policy in Britain are the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Office for Budget Responsibility. The IFS set out the position clearly after each budget and autumn statement during the last parliament. Chart 1.6 on p26 in its latest green budget, here, sets out the broad position. As it shows, consolidation continues through the parliament.

The IFS’s updated figures, published as part of its Election 2015 coverage, has the following sequence of numbers for the fiscal consolidation: 2010-11, 1.5% of GDP, 2011-12 2.3%, 2012-13 1.1%, 2013-14 1.5%, 2014-15 0.7%, 2015-16 0.6%, adding up to a cumulative fiscal tightening between 2009-10 and 2015-16 of 7.7% of GDP.

The OBR also addressed this, in its paper, Crisis and Consolidation in the Public Finances, here. Chapter 3 is the relevant chapter which, like the iFS, shows a programme of fiscal consolidation extending through the parliament. There was no abandonment of austerity.

There is more here, with other points of interest, hat tip goes to Chris Giles.

Adding the ‘errors and omissions’ deficit to recorded net hot money outflows gives an aggregate estimate of overall hot outflows or capital flight from the mainland. By construction, this slumped to a record $209.5bn ($838bn annualised) or an eye-watering 9¼% of GDP (Chart 2). Overall, in the year to Q1, China has seen capital flight of $584bn or 5.6% of GDP.

That is from Richard Iley, cited by David Keohane at the FT.

By the way, here is the response of the Chinese government:

China has again ruled out the possibility of massive capital outflow, saying an overwhelming majority of foreign companies that pulled out their investments in the country were shell firms, The Beijing News reported on Wednesday.

The average investment scale of those firms is relatively small, and 20 percent of them entered China less than five years ago, said the newspaper citing Tang Wenhong, head of the Department of Foreign Investment Administration of the Commerce Ministry.

Judge for yourself…a better response would have been “this outflow is a natural process of investment diversification, as China liberalizes its capital markets gradually over time.”  That doesn’t account for everything that is going on, but at least it makes potential sense.

By the way, if you ask some Chinese about India, they will mention Buddhism and people riding on the top of trains.

The Grasping Hand, written by our GMU-law colleague, Ilya Somin, is an excellent read and the definitive treatment of eminent domain and the Kelo case. As you might expect, Somin discusses the legal issues with aplomb. So much so that the book is endorsed by both of Kelo’s opposing counsel! In addition to the law and economics, Somin offers what for me was an eye-opening investigation of the history behind many of the major cases.

graspingIn the famous Poletown case, for example, GM and the cities of Detroit and Hamtramck used eminent domain to forcibly remove 4,200 people, 1300-1,400 homes, 140-600 businesses, 6 churches and one hospital in order to build a factory. The primary argument for the expropriation was the economic benefits that GM and the mayor promised would flow from the creation of at least 6,000 GM jobs.

Even though the entire case hung on the number of jobs to be created this number was simply cheap talk. In the marketplace, if GM says that this 100 tons of aluminium is worth more building cars than it is building airplanes they have to demonstrate their belief by outbidding Boeing and all the other users of aluminium. In politics GM need only voice an assertion and with the right lobbying the political system will make the transfer for them. Neither GM nor the city were under any requirement to guarantee new jobs but the majority judges simply accepted the numbers as given to them.

…many judges may have an unjustified faith in the efficacy of the political process and thus may be willing to allow the executive and legislative branches of government to control oversight of development projects. For example, the Poletown majority emphasized that courts should defer to legislative judgments of “public purpose.” Whatever the general merits of such confidence in the political process, it is misplaced in situations in which politically powerful interest groups can employ the powers of government at the expense of the relatively weak.

So what happened?

The GM plant opened two years late; and by 1988— seven years after the Poletown condemnations— it employed no more than 2,500 workers.

Moreover, as Somin continues, it gets much worse because not only were the benefits overstated the costs weren’t stated at all.

An especially striking aspect of the Poletown decision was the majority’s failure to even mention the costs imposed by condemnation on the people of Poletown or the city of Detroit as a whole.

According to estimates prepared at the time, “public cost of preparing a site agreeable to . . . General Motors [was] over $200 million,” yet GM paid the city only $8 million to acquire the property. Eventually, public expenditures on the condemnation rose to some $250 million. In addition, we must add to the costs borne by the city’s taxpayers, the economic damage inflicted by the destruction of up to six hundred businesses and fourteen hundred residential properties. Although we have no reliable statistics on the number of people employed by the businesses destroyed as a result of the Poletown condemnation, it is quite possible
that more workers lost than gained jobs as a result of the decision.

Declan Butler reports:

Giving some of the world’s poorest people a two-year aid package — including cash, food, health-care services, skills training and advice — improves their livelihoods for at least a year after the support is cut off, according to the results of an experiment involving more than 10,000 households in six countries.

The poverty intervention had already been trialled successfully in Bangladesh, and the study’s researchers say it shows the approach works in other cultures too. “We finally have truly credible evidence that a programme for the poorest of the poor can really help them meaningfully reduce their poverty,” says Dean Karlan, an economist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and a co-author of the study, reported today in Science. “Until now, we haven’t really been able to go to a government outside Bangladesh and say, we’re confident this works.”

Ethiopia, one of the countries that was in the trial, is planning to continue and scale up the intervention to cover around 3 million people, says Karlan, and Pakistan and India are considering scaling up interventions, too.

Banerjee and Duflo are involved in the work as well, and this is sometimes called the “graduation model,” because the aim is to graduate people out of poverty.  Note this:

The intervention is not cheap. Costs per household ranged from $1,455 in India to $5,962 in Pakistan, although they were offset by positive returns on investment ranging from 133% in Ghana to 433% in India. The researchers hope to cut costs in future by scaling back the experiment’s more expensive components, such as training.

And while the model worked in many places, it failed in rural southern India and Honduras, in part due to…problems with chickens.  Nonetheless this is big, big news.  The link to the original research is here.

For pointers I thank Kevin Lewis and Michelle Dawson.

What if, circa 2007, the Fed had figured out what was going on and wanted to take some concentrated steps to save the day?  Well, that is the position China is in today, and they are acting fairly decisively:

China is imposing a $160bn municipal bonds for debt swap on banks in an effort to shift some of the financing costs of cash-strapped local governments back to lenders…

Banks are supposed to swap out higher-yielding business loans in return for more municipal bonds, noting that banks owned about 63 percent of the outstanding municipal bonds to begin with.  As a form of compensation, the central bank will accept these municipal securities as collateral for some of its special lending facilities.  The policy is a mix of jawboning and inducement, in which exact proportions we shall see; there is further coverage here.

You can think of it as “we may expect you banks to share in some of the losses on this paper, but if push comes to shove we’ll just monetize the municipal debt and bail you out too.”

You may recall:

Rating agency Standard & Poor’s late last year estimated that half of all Chinese provinces would merit junk ratings…

These (non-transparent) municipal debts may exceed $3 trillion. And Christopher Balding, in his excellent post on all this, makes a very good point:

Especially with land revenue falling by more than 30% annually when it typically constitutes more than 50% of government revenue, the provinces’ ability to repay is highly suspect.

Some goals of the bailout are to keep the local governments up and running, and also building infrastructure, so that urbanization does not slow down.  This is all being done in conjunction with a series of interest rate cuts, and there is likely yet more to come.

Balding adds this as well:

…the banks, after getting cash for the bonds as collateral from the PBOC, are being encouraged to lend out this cash to firms in favored industries.  Given the drop in risk weighted capital from holding government as an additional benefit, this means that banks will have significant new capital to lend.  The rapid rise in Chinese debt, which has even officially surpassed most developed countries, seems bound to rise even more.  I can’t [help but] think that this seems like trying to sober up an alcoholic by buying him a beer.

…Here is hoping that deposit insurance will never be needed.

It will be very interesting to see how this goes, and so far these events remain a dramatically undercovered story.  My net takeaway, to date, is that the finances of the provincial governments must be worse than most observers had thought.

My research convinced me that bounty hunters were an effective part of the American justice system so I have long favored using large bounties to find international terrorists. In 2008 the Washington Post argued that Bounties were a Bust in Hunt for Al-Qaeda:

So far, however, Rewards for Justice has failed to put a dent in al-Qaeda’s central command. Offers of $25 million each for al-Qaeda founders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have attracted hundreds of anonymous calls but no reliable leads, officials familiar with the program say. For a time, the program was generating so little useful information that in Pakistan, where most al-Qaeda chiefs are believed to be hiding, it was largely abandoned.

“It’s certainly been ineffective,” said Robert L. Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan and former director of the agency’s counterterrorism center. “It hasn’t produced results, and it hasn’t particularly produced leads.”

I wasn’t impressed with that argument at the time and now Seymour Hersh says it wasn’t torture or the billions spent spying on the world that led to bin Laden’s discovery but a bounty:

…the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US…

I can’t evaluate Hersh’s larger claims but I find this part of the story plausible.

 Addendum: The time I went bounty hunting in Baltimore.

Via Jasper Plan, Jonathan K. Pedde has a new paper on this:

Standard zero-lower-bound New Keynesian models generate large fiscal multipliers and expansionary negative supply shocks. Thus, according to these models, a political party that implements fiscal contraction coupled with policies to increase aggregate supply should unambiguously cause economic contraction, compared to a party that implements the opposite policies. I test this prediction using high-frequency prediction- and financial-market data from the night of the 2015 U.K. election, which featured two such parties. By analysing financial-market movements caused by clearly exogenous changes in expectations about the election winner, I find that market participants expected higher equity prices and a stronger exchange rate under a Conservative Prime Minister than under a Labour P.M. There were little to no partisan differences in interest rates, expected inflation, or commodity prices. These results cast doubt on the empirical validity of zero-lower-bound New Keynesian models.

And here is Noah on the UK, he is right, and I call this one pretty much settled.

NYTimes: While everyone welcomes Crispr-Cas9 as a strategy to treat disease, many scientists are worried that it could also be used to alter genes in human embryos, sperm or eggs in ways that can be passed from generation to generation. The prospect raises fears of a dystopian future in which scientists create an elite population of designer babies with enhanced intelligence, beauty or other traits.

Does the author really think that smart, beautiful people are a bad thing? Should we shoot the ones we have now? (It seems unlikely that we are at a local maximum).

Sometimes my fellow humans depress me. But I hope for better ones in the future.

For just a while?  Keep in mind that an aging population still can be moving more people into prime working age:

Changes in demographics are an important determinant of economic growth, and although most people focus on the aging of the “baby boomer” generation, the movement of younger cohorts into the prime working age is another key story in coming years…

The prime working age population peaked in 2007, and appears to have bottomed at the end of 2012.  The good news is the prime working age group has started to grow again, and should be growing solidly by 2020 – and this should boost economic activity in the years ahead.

That is from Bill McBride at Calculated Risk.  Check out this St. Louis Fed graph, via Conor Sen.

On Sunday the Chinese central bank cut interest rates for the third time since November.  I have read a number of pieces on this move, but overall am a little disquieted at how quickly people are comparing China to the Keynesian vision of the United States or for that matter Japan.  I would stress a few points:

1. Many of China’s municipal governments are broke or close to broke, and in the meantime too heavily dependent on land sales and land leases for revenue.  Lower rates are intended to help them refinance themselves.  That is not opposed to a Keynesian or AD framework, but it is distinct from it.

2. The Chinese government is at the same time relaxing controls over deposit interest rates, so some interest rates in the economy will be going up.  In other words, part of the problem is figuring out the optimal speed for removing financial repression, and in the process allowing to “shadow banking bubble” to deflate at an appropriate speed, all the while trying to keep deposits in the formal banking system.

2b. A lot of borrowers are paying effective nominal rates of six to seven percent — don’t you wish we had a better understanding of the true rate of price inflation in China?  One policy goal is to get more loans to these businesses, but there the very real jawboning of the Chinese government may prove more effective than the interest rate cuts.  But should those businesses get more loans?

3. In an Austro-Chinese, excess capacity model of the business cycle, there is a gain and a loss from cutting interest rates when an economy is well into the over-expansion phase.  The gain is that you may mitigate the costs of the “secondary deflation,” as the Austrians call it.  The cost is that you may overextend the excess capacity even further.  That is a call the central bank must make, noting that the excess capacity model applies only with some probability.

4. “China’s imports also plunged 16.2 percent in April from a year earlier, a fall that economists attributed partly to low commodity prices and partly to weak demand within China’s economy.”  I doubt if they are growing at a true seven percent, or even a “slightly below seven percent” figure.

5. For well over thirty years, the Chinese economy has lived in a world where both the AD and AS curves swing rather wildly (in a good way) outwards and to the right.  Some of this is driven by migration to the cities, some of it is driven by trickle-down growth and the adoption of foreign technologies.  Some of it may be driven by China’s own TFP, and for sure some of it is driven by policy reform.  In any case, as long as that process continues, China is semi-immune to the standard Keynesian dilemmas — who needs to lower nominal wages when worker productivity and customer demand are rising so quickly?  But does that ongoing outward real expansion it render them immune to Austro-Chinese business cycle theory as well?  Sadly, Hayek never seems to have considered that problem, but it’s very much on my mind out here in Shaanxi.