Debt is rising more quickly in the United States than most people would prefer. This is happening in part because the U.S. current account deficit and the country’s high level of income inequality distort the structure and amount of American savings.
Analysts are increasingly skeptical that China’s very high reported GDP growth rate provides a meaningful picture of the economy’s health. There are, however, at least three very different ways that reported GDP can fail to reflect the underlying economy.
November 11, known in China as Singles’ Day, started out as a wry, tongue-in-cheek holiday. It has since become a major draw for online shopping, a profoundly Chinese celebration, and an expression of the country’s modern urban youth. But the rampant commercialization of Singles’ Day may one day come to be seen as a symbol of the era of China’s bubble economy.
China’s debt problems have emerged so much more rapidly and severely this year than in the past that a growing number of analysts believe that this may be the year that China’s economy breaks. There is no question that China will have a difficult adjustment, but it is likely to take the form of a long process rather than a sudden crisis.
A recent article by Joseph Stiglitz suggests that the United States runs a current account deficit because its people save too little to fund domestic investment. In fact, he may have it backwards: Americans may save too little precisely because the United States runs a current account deficit.
Most of the discussions among economists about the impacts of tariffs and trade intervention are more ideological than logical. While tariffs may cause households to pay more for tradable goods, there are many other ways households, and the overall economy, are affected, positively and negatively. What matters are the conditions under which trade intervention policies are made.
Democracies will increasingly have to choose between raising wages and redistributing income or maintaining free trade and capital flows. Because they are likely to choose the former, the world may face a long-term reversal of globalization.
In most economies, GDP growth is a measure of economic output generated by the performance of the underlying economy. In China, however, Beijing sets annual GDP growth targets it expects to meet. Turning GDP growth into an economic input, rather than an output, radically changes its meaning and interpretation.
A January 2018 Bloomberg article suggests that Chinese officials may reduce their purchases of U.S. government bonds. It is very unlikely that China can do so in any meaningful way because doing so would almost certainly be costly for Beijing. And even if China took this step, it would have either no impact or a positive impact on the U.S. economy.
Michael Pettis will be joined by Carnegie’s vice president for studies Douglas H. Paal to address economic factors challenging China and the new leadership that will emerge from the congress. Watch live on Monday, October 2.
If local governments and state-owned enterprises in China systematically invest in projects that are not economically justified, to the extent that these projects are not correctly marked to market, China’s reported GDP will be overstated by that amount, as will its total wealth.
Policies that increase income inequality can in some cases lead to higher savings, higher investment, and greater long-term growth. But, in other cases, such policies either reduce growth and increase unemployment or force up the debt burden. What determines which of these outcomes takes place is whether or not savings are scarce and have constrained investment.
A number of Chinese companies are trying to shore up their stock prices with programs that encourage employees to buy shares and ensuring them against losses. These programs have implications about leverage in China and about the way losses may be distributed within the banking system.
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.