Opinion | China’s economic prospects are brighter than they appear

Opinion | China’s economic prospects are brighter than they appear

Opinion | China’s economic prospects are brighter than they appear

Such sales increased by 7.2 per cent last year, reflecting a recovery in consumer spending after a dip in 2022. But sustaining this growth momentum seems unlikely, and many Chinese economists expect a significant consumption slowdown in 2024.

Weighed down by weaker global demand, China’s net exports declined by 1.3 per cent in renminbi terms in 2023. Given that the global economic outlook is unlikely to improve in 2024, it is reasonable to expect that the contribution of net exports to China’s GDP growth will be minimal.


China GDP: Beijing’s long to-do list to boost its economy in 2024

China GDP: Beijing’s long to-do list to boost its economy in 2024

Consequently, to meet a 5 per cent GDP growth target, investment growth must increase significantly. China’s fixed asset investment, a proxy of capital formation, rose by only 3 per cent in 2023, however, compared to 5.1 per cent in 2022.

Fixed asset investment consists of three primary categories: manufacturing, real estate and infrastructure. Within the manufacturing sector, several industries experienced significant growth in 2023, as investments in electrical machinery and equipment, instruments and meters, automobiles and hi-tech industries surged in the first 11 months by 34.6 per cent, 21.5 per cent, 17.9 per cent, and 10.5 per cent, respectively. But the increase in manufacturing investment was just 6.3 per cent, compared to 9.1 per cent in 2022.

Meanwhile, real-estate investment fell by 9.1 per cent in the first 11 months of 2023 and, despite signs of improvement, is still expected to decline this year.

If manufacturing investment fails to rise significantly, and the recovery in real-estate investment remains underwhelming, a rough calculation – based on available and somewhat inconsistent data – indicates that infrastructure investment would need to grow by more than 10 per cent to compensate for the decline in consumption growth. Given that infrastructure investment increased by just 5.9 per cent in 2023, achieving double-digit growth poses a significant challenge.

China’s manufacturing activity rebounds slightly, but remains in contraction

Nevertheless, the fact that the Chinese economy is in a quasi-deflationary period, with both the consumer price index and the producer price index in negative territory, enables policymakers to introduce significant fiscal stimulus to boost economic growth without having to worry about inflation, at least in the short term.
Considering these deflationary pressures, the People’s Bank of China should ease its monetary policy and set its inflation target at 3-4 per cent. Acknowledging the endogeneity of the money supply, the PBOC should place greater emphasis on interest rates as a short-term macroeconomic tool, rather than directing financial resources towards specific industries and companies.
Infrastructure investment remains the government’s most effective instrument for stimulating the economy when demand is weak. Should the government encounter difficulties in financing infrastructure investment through the issuance of sovereign bonds, the PBOC could implement its own version of quantitative easing and purchase government debt on the open market.
Contrary to some economists’ claims, China is not grappling with excessive infrastructure investment. In fact, the country still has a large infrastructure gap that it must close, especially in critical areas such as health care, elderly care, education, scientific research, urban development and transport. Its public facilities fall short of those in developed countries and even lag behind some developing economies.

To be sure, infrastructure investment tends to be unprofitable and does not generate significant cash flows, which is why such investments should be financed directly through government budgets. But to ensure that China meets its infrastructure needs, policymakers must invest in efficient, high-quality projects.

Workers work at the construction site of Yulin North Railway Station in south China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region on November 22, 2023. China still has a large infrastructure gap it needs to close. Photo: Xinhua
China’s decision to issue an additional 1 trillion yuan (US$137 billion) in government bonds in 2023 marked a significant policy shift. By allowing the budget-deficit-to-GDP ratio to increase from 3 to 3.8 per cent, the Chinese government has signalled that it may no longer limit annual budget deficits and public debt to 3 per cent and 60 per cent of GDP respectively (on the model of the European Union’s Maastricht Treaty).
While the government’s top priority in 2024 is to boost economic growth and restore economic confidence, China must also grapple with high local government debt and an ongoing liquidity crisis in the real estate sector that, if left unaddressed, could escalate into a full-blown debt crisis.

Fortunately, the Chinese government has the financial resources it needs to confront these challenges head on. By implementing expansionary fiscal and monetary policies and pursuing meaningful reforms, China would be well-positioned to reverse its decade-long economic slowdown in 2024 and maintain robust growth for years to come.

Yu Yongding, a former president of the China Society of World Economics and director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, served on the Monetary Policy Committee of the People’s Bank of China from 2004 to 2006. Copyright: Project Syndicate

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