Two prisms for looking at China’s problems

Here is my latest NYT column, which contrasts Keynesian and Austrian (or neo-Austrian, if you prefer) ways of thinking about the Chinese economy.  Excerpt:

Keynesians would argue that Beijing has the tools to stoke aggregate demand. It could, for example, adjust interest rates and bank reserve requirements, instruct state-owned banks to maintain lending, or deploy some of its $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. The government also appears to have many shovel-ready construction and infrastructure projects that could help the economy glide to a soft landing and then bounce back.

The Austrian perspective introduces some scarier considerations. China has been investing 40 percent to 50 percent of its national income. But it is hard to invest so much money wisely, particularly in an environment of economic favoritism. And this rate of investment is artificially high to begin with.

Beijing is often accused of manipulating the value of its currency, the renminbi, to subsidize its manufacturing. The government also funnels domestic savings into the national banking system and grants subsidies to politically favored businesses, and it seems obsessed with building infrastructure. All of this tips the economy in very particular directions.

The Austrian approach raises the possibility that there is no way for China to make good on enough of its oversubsidized investments. At first, they create lots of jobs and revenue, but as the business cycle proceeds, new marginal investments become less valuable and more prone to allocation by corruption. The giddy booms of earlier times wear off, and suddenly not every decision seems wise. The combination can lead to an economic crackup — not because aggregate demand is too low, but because the economy has been producing the wrong mix of goods and services.

To keep its investments in business, the Chinese government will almost certainly continue to use political means, like propping up ailing companies with credit from state-owned banks. But whether or not those companies survive, the investments themselves have been wasteful, and that will eventually damage the economy. In the Austrian perspective, the government has less ability to set things right than in Keynesian theories.

Read the whole thing.


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