“Pessimists have long viewed the Chinese economy as they view their own economies --a classic mistake that Yale historian Jonathan Spence’s seminal assessment warned of many years ago--. China’s recent binge of debt-intensive economic growth is expected to have the same consequences as such episodes elsewhere”.
The latest bout of pessimism over the Chinese economy has focused on the twin headwinds of deleveraging and a related tightening of the property market – in essence, a Japanese-like stagnation. Once more, the Western lens is out of focus. Like Japan, China is a high-saving economy that owes its mounting debt largely to itself. Yet, if anything, China has more of a cushion than Japan to avoid sustainability problems. China’s national savings will hit 45% of GDP in 2017, well above Japan’s 28% saving rate. Just as Japan, with its gross government debt at 239% of GDP, has been able to sidestep a sovereign debt crisis, China, with its far larger saving cushion and much smaller sovereign debt burden (49% of GDP), is in much better shape to avoid such an implosion. To be sure, there can be no mistaking China’s mounting corporate debt problem – with nonfinancial debt-to-GDP ratios hitting an estimated 157% of GDP in late 2016 (versus 102% in late 2008). This makes the imperatives of state-owned enterprise reform, where the bulk of rising indebtedness has been concentrated, all the more essential in the years ahead. Forecasters cannot resist superimposing the outcomes in major crisis-battered rich economies on China. That has been the wrong approach in the past; it is wrong again today.