Does China hitting the wall reflect a deeper reality about emerging economy growth?

It’s easy enough to say the Chinese economy is slowing down and that is creating problems for some other countries around the world.  Never settle for such a comfortable understanding!  Might there be deeper ways to think about the problem?

I am not endorsing any of the following speculative hypotheses, rather they are attempts to imbed the Chinese slowdown into what is possibly a broader framework.  Here are a few possibilities:

1. We’ve been realizing that autocratic government isn’t as effective as we had thought.

2. We’ve been realizing that virtually all of the world’s emerging economies will be hit by “premature deindustrialization,” China included.  China will produce more manufactured goods, but because of automation this will never build a fully-sized middle class in China.  And historically service sector jobs have never had the same kind of oomph at lifting a nation over various development hurdles.  The same limitations may apply to a variety of other countries.

3. Perhaps developing nations have reached “peak stuff”?  That may mean the Chinese manufacturing model, along with the manufacturing models of other nations, will prove less potent than we had thought.

4. Maybe we’ve been learning that a demographic slowdown is harder to reverse, and is more costly for long-run growth, than we had thought.

5. The geopolitical stability of the South China Sea is not as robust as it seemed three or four years ago.

What else?

In each case the relevant realization may be popping China, and some other emerging economies, out of better multiple equilibria and into inferior multiple equilibria (“is Greece a Balkans nation or a European nation?”).

Again, I am not dismissing the highly relevant China-specific factors of excess capacity, high municipal debt, real estate bubble, and so on.  I am simply wondering what other broader trends may be operating here beneath the surface.


Interesting thoughts, but, really--given China's slowdown I think we should morally preen and thus take in one billion Chinese refugees to the USA. This will make the US economy boom and we can show how much more moral and humanitarian we are than those nasty, icky white people in fly-over states.

Thanks for dragging down the level of discussion today! Can we have at least one post per morning where the comments form an intellectual discussion of the topic where we all try to avoid showing ourselves to be feces throwing apes?

+1, but good luck with that

This is one. Remember the reasons for Chinese Exclusion!

Maybe even more fundamental. The business cycle is as much a part of economic growth and stable societies as is investment, a mature banking sector with solid traditions of management.

And any concerted effort to get rid of them is ultimately unsuccessful, and counterproductive. For the simple reason that it tries to do away with the only positive aspect of the free market, it's ability to self correct. Bad ideas tend to stack up.

#1 - What reason was there ever to be optomistic about the effectiveness of autocratic government? This should really be a case of confirming what we knew all along.

The overwhelming evidence is that autocratic government is economically ineffective. Rapid growth from very low baselines can occur under autocracies, since the government only needs to meet minimal conditions for this (stability, some basic infrastructure, not getting in the way too much). However, at some point these nations hit a wall imposed by their inherent inefficiencies.

Are there any counterexamples at all? China's GDP per capita is around $7000, so they are still in "growth from a low baseline" territory. South Korea is sometimes cited, but their GDP per capita was <$4000 current US dollars at the point autocratic rule ended. They reached Western levels of wealth under democratic rule, and indeed the transition to representative government appears to be an inflection point in the curve:

Why believe that China is any different? I think people were misled by its sheer size. This magnifies any trend and allows it to appear as an economic powerhouse on the global stage despite still being quite poor in per-capita terms. However, I never saw any evidence for overturning our beliefs about autocracies.

Also, it seemed to me that some on the left believed in China's economic miracle simply to be anti-anti-communist. The growth of China annoyed all the right people (no pun intended), and that was sufficient reason to support it. Dare I say mood affiliation?

what on earth do you base this on? This seems a 'mood affiliated' assertion with little empirical support?

I agree, autocratic government is not efficient. There are strong incentives to just "shove the dirt under the carpet", instead of "using a vaccum cleaner". Also I suspect the level of curruption is not far from "brazilian petrobras" levels, or could be even worse...

It's hard to allow creative destruction to occur when the losers of creative destruction, who have to find new lines of business, are those who were close enough to power to get all the plumb contracts.

Can the CCP say no to close friends and insiders?

I dare say that it's ability to shift into the "next stage of growth" MIGHT depend on it. But then again, there is a fairly large "free market", so some zombie companies might "live" at a certain expense to the central bank and major banks, without creating major roadblocks to other areas of innovation and modernization.

The free market policies are responsible for the explosive growth in China, but at some point the inefficiencies of the autocracy will become a ceiling preventing further development.

I think it's more of an instance of a lot of us have had so many points in the past 7-8 years where we thought that because of x, y, or z growth in China was going to grind to a halt. At some point when you make enough wrong predictions, you start looking for explanations as to why you were wrong and you look at ways in which this situation is different from others. That shouldn't prove that the authoritarian government caused the continued gains, but it make at least a little sense from a Bayesian reasoning standpoint.

As I've said before on MR, more than a decade ago Dani Rodrik pointed out that while we have strong evidence that everything from Stalinist state production to nepotist kleptocracies can get a country to middle income, we have almost no evidence that you can be rich from something other than resource rents without being a democracy - Singapore being virtually the sole exception. Rodrik was speaking against the then-fashionable Washington Consensus development model for low-income countries but no one should confuse this with advocating for a different end. His support of government transparency and democratic politics was not misplaced.

Excellent post, Dan1111

The "we" in Prof. Cowen's question consists mostly of professors and other middlebrow intellectuals. People who actually know history and are capable of thinking never shared those intellectuals' enthusiasm for autocracy.

How to tell if a poster is the real Tyler Cowen:

1) He has a blue highlight on his comments.

2) He's not an idiot.

This blog seems to collect old grudges.

There has developed an aversion to Chinese manufactured goods. You can't swing a cat without hitting someone who has faced major costs as a result of shoddy quality control in manufactured goods. The price pressures have either put quality manufacturers out of business, or forced them to match the race to junk.

From copper pipe to thermistors to valves, motors, plastics that outgas and deteriorate, safety code changes which demand redundancy, the necessity to do materials testing on commodity goods. Auto electronics manufacturers are required to buy components from certified suppliers, introducing fragility into the supply chain.

There was one instance that cost me money. A particular manufacturer made a change and instead of Japanese had thermistors manufactured to specifications in China. They cut corners and there would be intermittent failures, sometimes causing extensive damage and warranty costs.

Another was faulty copper pipe used in grocery store refrigeration. It would split, or the fittings would fail, blowing an expensive refrigerant charge and closing the store, forcing a repiping of the whole system at great expense. Neither the store not the installation contractor would be willing to buy Chinese again.

I look for made in Mexico or Europe. I avoid made in the US because they usually are assemblers of components made elsewhere as cheaply as possible. Or Japanese manufacturers. Korean are reasonable but not excellent.

By the way, this is fixable by the infliction of pain. See business cycles and/or Japanese management techniques.

The reputational issue sounds like what everyone was saying 20-30 years ago, rather than now. iPhones and other goods requiring precision manufacturing are made in China without apparent problem.

Yes, there is shoddy manufacturing happening in China (try ordering something shipped directly from China on Amazon). However, are suppliers who demand quality in Chinese goods or parts really unable to get it at this stage?

I can't speak to your specific examples, though.

The quality of software and hardware of wide distribution consumer goods has no relation at all to the hardware and software quality of everything else. I have to train iPhone using people on the realities of hardware and software in the real world.

The thermistor issue was in a product that sold 13 million pieces worldwide per year at the time. A quick look shows 18 million iphones in a quarter. The volume and pricing power allows strict control over every aspect of the process. There is a good business managing Chinese manufacturers to meet specification. Which is fine if the scale can pay for it. There are vast swaths of manufactured goods in the economy where the scale can't. Meaning that two identical looking items, one choosing a fraction of the other, the cheap one always gets the sale. Once.

One costing a fraction. The great stagnation in comment editing continues.

I understand the anecdotal occurences of this, but is there any systematic evidence? Is China worse than other developing markets?

This used to be the case for Japanese products. Now Japan makes some extremely high quality products.

Quality is improving in China, and there is no reason to believe that quality will not continue to improve.

Also, this is often a problem of specifications. If you seek the cheapest suppliers, or buy the cheapest product on the shelf, do you blame the manufacturer (who produced the cheapest product on the shelf) or yourself (who bought the cheapest product on the shelf)?

Many Chinese manufacturers are perfectly capable of making higher quality products than they sell, but people keep on asking them to make it cheap, cheap, cheap, and so that's what you get.

The trouble in China is that there is no IP protection, including trademarks. Why develop a brand for making quality goods when someone will start making knockoffs and sell them for less as the real thing? It's a problem.

2. Japan and Germany got where China-- measured by PPP per capita-- is a long time ago.

In 2008, I decided to do a comparison between China , which was holding the Olympics, and where Japan was at when it held its “We’re back from the war” Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
I found:
1) both countries were trying especially hard to show themselves to the world as modern

2) both economies had been growing rapidly at around 8 to 10% for a decade

3) GDP/capita (ppp) was about the same

4) cars/capita was about the same

5) life expectancy was the same, around 70-72

6) both had one party rule for even though Japan was supposedly a democracy then.

7) both Beijing and Tokyo had stifling smog

8) The city names “Beijing” and “Tokyo” contain numbers of letters which are prime just as “Kennedy” and “Lincoln” contain a number of letters that are prime.

Very good!

If I am reading the data correctly, some provinces in China have near western levels of GDP/capita, while others are in the doldrums. It is to be expected that the provinces which are near western levels would slow down. What I don't understand is what is keeping the other (land locked?) provides down.

Even within small European nations, you can see large regional differences in GDP (ex: Portugal) . Given China's focus on concentrating development in large cities (right?), that does not seem surprising.

Also by land-locked chinese province you could read: quite difficult to ship goods to the West (?)

Oh I agree, water transportation is far cheaper. But look at other developed nations, the interior isn't a basket case.

Re: you comment about the west having similar issues, I don't think to the same extent. I would need to crunch the numbers but the ratio of 'developed province GDP' / 'underdeveloped province GDP' in China looked far greater than I would expect from the west.

While they all share the same government and monetary policy, it does seem like we are grossly generalizing to talk about "The Chinese Economy". This is especially true since there isn't true freedom of movement within China. In some ways the worker stuck in a low GDP province might as well occupy a separate country.

I don't know if that's the real Tyler or not, but nearly all of these are wrong, except 1, and it's only maybe true for those who highly ranked the efficacy of autocracy.

I would have gone with the old "all the low hanging fruit are picked" thesis. It's probably more true of China now than it has ever been of the US. And maybe even the middle income trap, or something like that. China had an unusually big set of competitive advantages for a long time, and that's just not true anymore.

There's plenty left ahead China can and will do, including automation, but the managed capitalists don't seem to have any clear vision of where to go from here.

I'm surprised by your certainty. I think the point is that there are alternative explanations that are at least somewhat plausible (certainly I assign some probability to #2), and the more of these there are, the less certain we should be.

#2: Productivity = affluence, period.

#3: US import volumes up 7.4% y-o-y in first half, Latam export volumes up 9.6% (

#4&5: could be true as statements (depends on what "we thought" and "it seemed"), but definitely have nothing to do with China slowdown

No 3 is the most wrong comment ever made by Tyler, in jest, parody or earnest sincerity.

"Peak stuff" will be attained shortly after the marxist revelation, and quite some time after the apocalypse.

Why? Setting aside replacement of broken or worn out stuff, why should we all need more and more stuff?

There does come a point when you can't have more stuff, but you can keep improving the quality of the stuff.

Thats fair, but, and perhaps the comparison is strained here, doesnt "peak X" posit that although you still produce X you never will at the rate of the peak? Given that, you can still produce stuff thats better then what you had before and still produce stuff to replace the stuff lost due to attrition, but still be on the downward side of your peak curve.

I'm calling BS on this, for any level below multi-billionaire.

I mean, maybe you don't need more stuff, but there are people who would be buying more stuff at that income/wealth level

It's a theoretically inevitability but we're quite a ways off from it.

As TC mentioned in an earlier post, there's a trade up in quality over time.

Instead of eating mass produced noodles out of a styrofoam cup, we start eating handmade noodles crafted by an individual chef. We don't buy the cheap plastic molded furniture from IKEA, we start buying ergonomic office chairs designed by sophisticated engineers.

Trading up in quality means using more labor-intensive goods and services.

We might be using less stuff but it will be more complex and higher quality. The amount of effort that goes into producing our stuff will go up, not down.

Seems to me it's really a demographic issue. As long as there are lots of young people who want stuff, things will be good. If the ratio falls globally (I have no idea what the numbers are), then peak stuff is more likely until a very fecund generation comes along.

China's slowdown has to be seen in the context of the slowdown in the world economy and drop in the demand for China's manufactured goods. Of course, that's to state the obvious. Or not so obvious to Cowen, who seems to view the world's slowdown as being the result of China's slowdown: the world is China's stage, we are only players on it. What's fascinating is that China mirrors the U.S., with a high level of inequality and a financial asset bubble. It's true that other developing countries often experience a high level of inequality and an asset bubble, but both are usually products of land ownership (by a very few) and world demand for their natural resources (hence, the bubble in natural resources). In some places it's a recurring pattern, with high levels of inequality leading to a faltering economy, political unrest, oppression, and revolution. China is different in that industrialization led economic growth, and came with the development of financial markets not seen in most other developing countries. China is also different politically in that it's development was led by its political leaders in a top down model rather than by a few elite land owners who patronized (and thereby controlled) an (oppressive) political leadership. For some reason, China makes people irrational. For example, absent China's economic miracle, Singapore likely would not have happened, at least not the Singapore many so much admire. What's China's future? For now, China is responding to the owners of capital, not unlike the response in places such as the U.S. during the financial crisis. That may work for awhile but not forever if the political leaders are to survive. And political leaders like to survive. The presidential campaign in the U.S. is revealing the gulf between political elites who represent the interests of the owners of capital and dissatisfied but very confused voters - they know something isn't right but are clueless as to what that is. Political elites in the U.S. have always been able to ride out the storm, through a combination of money and voter confusion (the former contributing greatly to the latter). I don't see China following the recurring pattern in many developing countries (a faltering economy, political unrest, oppression, and revolution); China's political leadership is too sophisticated for that. The question is whether China will muddle through and essentially maintain the status quo (as in the U.S.), or will China take a different road and implement the kind of "reforms" designed to achieve a more balanced economy. The fear in the U.S. among many is that China will take a different road and it will work.

this post is like a sewer pipe--long and full of it.

Actually, the only fear the US should have is that the Communist Party risks global war in an effort to distract the Chinese people from its economic incompetence, corruption and brutality. This seems to be going on already. As to whether China can take a "different road" espoused by the Fellow Traveller who wrote this post leads in only one direction: nowhere.

Option #1 makes me nostalgic. I remember my parents telling other people how the authoritarian USSR and Cuba were Paradise where everyone could achieve their dreams. If only our local government would have a stronger would be better. Ahhhhh, the 80s =)

China is not a real economy. Never has been, and it certainly isn't now.

It's still a Soviet economy. It's still dominated by state owned companies. These are the same companies that bought up commodities to dizzying heights (remember $140 a barrel oil?) and who now dump their products on world markets far below cost (look at the level of steel imports into the US recently).

"5. The geopolitical stability of the South China Sea is not as robust as it seemed three or four years ago."

This doesn't mean anything. The Chinese economy hasn't slowed down because of "geopolitical stability". You just wanted to say "geopolitical" to sound smart.

Certainly I am less likely to invest in or sell to a company in Syria than Canada. Seems like geopolitical stability has some impact on the economy.

I'm with Derek above -- seems like a simple story of falling off the balanced growth path, with an investment boom requiring a readjustment to bring investment growth back into consistency with the growth of consumption plus net exports. But then I am a simple economist ...

occam's razor. you are correct

How about simply business cycles? China is due for a slowdown (3 - 4%).

Otherwise, I think the demographic bite holds true but it is in developed nations slowing down the purchase of goods which is compressing company profits. Which have grown the last couple years through falling input prices and automation. Soon it will hit the unemployment rate.

Geopolitical stability is not a function of economic slowdowns. China has spent the last several years shifting their geopolitical strategy into a more aggressive stance. Specifically they are trying to soften the Korean-American alliance and flex their muscles against the other nations in the region, and effectively annex large chunks of both the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Not exactly new.

Can we just agree that "China hitting the wall" ends up mixing metaphors oddly?

If you would like a big picture story that doesn't involves bubbles :

All (find me an exception) countries that have had large growth spurts in the last 3 decades have done so with trade serving as the primary engine. These countries are tiny relative to the world economy (even India, in terms of economic size). Chinese growth has lead to a large size and global general equilibrium conditions have in to play. This has manifested itself through global savings imbalances but also a sheer exhaustion in the markets that China can profitably serve at the margins that have worked so far.

But, I think bubbles are still a large part of the story.

Or convergence is two sided and we have a long slow trek downward.

I think that one obvious thing that we frequently overlook when discussing China is that it is still called the People's Republic of China, and that the Communist Party, is, well, the Communist Party. We suffer the delusion that Communism somehow ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in Europe and Deng's reforms in China. Not really. When we look at China, we see Shanghai's skyscrapers, Jack Ma's billionaire status, Foxconn's success with Apple, etc., etc. We somehow minimize that state owned enterprises are still the bulk of the economy, and have never been modernized, much less privatized We somehow also fail to notice that the government plans a great many things, including economic growth, This planning effort is clearly the dominant driver of the economy, more so than Alibaba or other components of the private sector. While up until
recently Western analysts seemed to be enthralled with Beijing's seeming omniscience, the reality is anybody who is willing to borrow a few trillion dollars (and not worry about pesky things like property rights and democracy) can go out and build loads of airports, high speed trains and entire cities in an effort to meet a growth "plan". But none of this is sustainable, or grounded in market reality. As such, this fraudulent growth that the CCP has created to maintain power has to come to a screeching end eventually, and it seems that time is now. So while Communism did not really end in 1989, it seems that the current crash could very well do to the CCP what the Tiananmen protestors could not do: bring down the whole corrupt dictatorship, and hopefully set China on a more democratic, capitalistic and sustainable path. We can only hope.

In 2008, I decided to do a comparison between China , which was holding the Olympics, and where Japan was at when it held its "We're back from the war" Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

I found:

1) both countries were trying especially hard to show themselves to the world as modern
2) both economies had been growing rapidly at around 8 to 10% for a decade
3) GDP/capita (ppp) was about the same
4) cars/capita was about the same
5) life expectancy was the same, around 70-72
6) both had one party rule for even though Japan was supposedly a democracy then.
7) both Beijing and Tokyo had stifling smog
8) The city names "Beijing" and "Tokyo" contain numbers of letters which are prime just as "Kennedy" and "Lincoln" contain a number of letters that are prime.

"1. We’ve been realizing that autocratic government isn’t as effective as we had thought."

Absolutely. We don't discuss examples of failed dictatorships. We only talk about China.

If you told 100 people to form investing strategies, the diversified S&P strategy is unlikely to win. The variance isn't high enough. The person who leverages everything in Apple would have been the winner.

Democratic countries diversify power; China is the individual who hit the jackpot this decade by buying Apple stock. It doesn't imply Apple, or China, will be the world's most successful company next decade.

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Cool! That's a clever way of lokonig at it!

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