Changing American Behavior Around Debt Likely to Slow Chinese Growth

Michael Pettis, a Peking University professor who I had the good fortune to meet as part of a college program in Beijing, writes in the Financial Times that it's time to get ready for lower Chinese growth. Pettis spells out the change that is likely to occur and hints at ramifications for policymaking in China and beyond:

For 20 years, and especially in the past decade, rapidly rising debt has allowed America’s consumption growth to exceed economic growth, with a concomitant rise in the country’s trade deficit. One consequence of this too-rapid growth in American consumption has been that the non-US global economy was able to grow faster than non-US global consumption. This was especially true for Asia, the main beneficiary of the US consumption boom, and for China in particular.

While Chinese consumption was growing at an impressive 9 per cent a year over the past few years, Chinese gross domestic product growth substantially outpaced it, clocking in at 10 per cent to 13 per cent annually. China was able to do this in large part because as it poured resources and cheap financing into manufacturing, and in so doing produced many more goods than Chinese households and businesses were able to consume, the balance was exported abroad, where much of it was absorbed by US consumers.

But everything has changed. Whether America likes it or not, US debt levels will decline over the next several years. As a result American consumption will grow substantially slower than the US economy, and so the trade deficit will decline. For the rest of the world, even ignoring the possibility of a decline in global investment, a contraction in the US trade deficit will bring with it a period in which economic growth will be less than consumption growth.

Over the next five years or more Chinese economic growth will necessarily be lower than growth in Chinese consumption. The massive but unsustainable investment in infrastructure and new production facilities that characterises the Chinese fiscal stimulus package will not be able to change this fact. From its dizzying heights during the past two decades, the world needs to prepare itself for a decade during which, if all goes well, China grows at a still respectable but much lower rate of 5-7 per cent. If the current fiscal stimulus package retards China’s adjustment process, as many analysts argue that it does, growth rates may be much lower.

The Council of Economic Advisors, the National Economic Council, and many others have told us that the American economic recovery will export driven. It seems that, for the sake of the economic future of both the U.S. and China, policymakers need to thing about getting as many of China's 1.3 billion people into the (low-carbon, sustainable) consumption game as possible. For more on China and the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, take a look at pieces from Michael Moynihan and Robert Shapiro this week.

Oh, and you should certainly buy the newly released, paperback version of Shapiro's Futurecast, which focuses a great deal on China.