In a recent much-remarked-upon and very short op-ed, George P. Shultz and Martin Feldstein argue that the only way, or at least the best way, to cut the U.S. trade deficit is for Washington to cut the U.S. fiscal deficit. It is at least as likely, however, that cutting the fiscal deficit will simply increase debt or increase unemployment.
Contrary to conventional thinking, a savings glut does not necessarily cause global savings to rise. A savings glut must result in an increase in productive investment, an increase in the debt burden, or an increase in unemployment.
As long as China has debt capacity, it can achieve any GDP growth rate Beijing requires, simply by allowing credit to expand. But debt levels are already high, and credit must expand at an accelerating pace to maintain growth. China is probably still a few years away from reaching its debt limits, but the more debt grows, the lower the country’s growth rate average will be over the long term.
Contrary to what one might first expect, Mexico’s role in global trade is actually beneficial to the United States. While restricting Mexican imports will reduce the American deficit with Mexico, it will increase the overall American deficit.
The Chinese development model is an old one and can trace its roots at least as far back as the infant industry protection, internal improvements, and system of national finance of the American System of the 1820s and 1830s. Understanding why the many precedents for its growth model have succeeded in some few cases and failed in others will help us enormously in understanding China’s prospects.
Whether the U.S. current account deficit is harmful or not to the U.S. economy depends on the assumptions we make about capital scarcity. In a world awash with excess capital and insufficient demand, the U.S. current account deficit is a drag on growth.
The three scenarios listed in a recent Financial Times article set out the range of plausible economic outcomes available to China. The most likely is that China experiences a long, but orderly, growth deceleration as it grinds away at its debt burden, but under easily specified conditions each of the three is possible.
Rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership should not mean the rejection altogether by Washington of the very idea of a stable, rules-based trading system. The world is better off with such a regime.
China’s success will depend Beijing’s ability to centralize power, to begin to sell off government assets, to rein in credit growth, and to accept much lower GDP growth rates.
China’s rebalancing can only occur in a limited number of ways, and each of these has a fairly predictable impact. The path Beijing chooses to follow will likely be based on political decision-making.
China’s problem is excessive debt in the economy, not a banking system facing insolvency. Beijing’s reform strategy should reduce the debt burden as quickly as possible to minimize the economic costs.