Launched amid much worldwide rejoicing when the financial crisis struck last year, China’s Rmb 4 trillion ($585 billion) stimulus package is given much of the credit for China’s continued strong economic performance this year. China’s GDP growth is likely to exceed 8%, and the domestic stock market is up by over 70% since the start of the year.
A Keynesian miracle? To read a lot of the financial commentary on China, you might well conclude this is so, that government spending has single-handedly kept the economy jaunty, while both firms and consumers sank into a deep funk. It’s a great story, and provides a simple explanation for how China dodged the bullets that struck all other major economies. Other countries looked on enviously, and urged China to continue the fiscal pump-priming to help out the overall world economy.
Problem is, the analysis is flawed. China’s stimulus plan is not all it’s cracked up to be. While the additional government spending has clearly played a part, it is not the only reason why China’s economy has remained so sound this year. The unsung heroes of China’s economic success this year are its ordinary consumers. It’s their continued confidence and increased spending that have really made the difference.
Economic statistics are notoriously iffy in China. The further one gets from the economic lever-pullers in Beijing, the harder it becomes to track economic activity. That’s another reason why the stimulus plan was so often singled out as the main spur to China’s growth. It’s easier to calculate how much additional the Chinese government is spending building expressways than it is to see how many pairs of socks or bowls of noodles Chinese are buying.
Another reason: a lot of the economic commentary comes from folks who believe that governments really are responsible for what happens, good and bad, in an economy. Again, it’s just so much simpler to view things this way, that powerful government men can pull out their checkbooks and spend their way to national prosperity. These are often the same people who will tell you, wrongly, that Roosevelt’s New Deal spending lifted the US out of Depression.
China’s supporters and detractors both give the government too much credit. There are those who are convinced China’s economic growth is all some kind of fraud, cooked up by the central government, and that once the extra government spending is dialed down, the economy is certain to crash.
Again, pure hogwash.
In China, the government rightly deserves credit for excellent economic management, for creating the circumstances, both marco and micro, that allow the Chinese economy to continue to thrive. I’ve said it frequently, including in public forums: China is the best-managed major economy in the world.
But, again, let’s also commend the country’s one-billion-plus consumers, too often seem as miserly skinflints, saving up all their money for their great-grandchildren’s rainy days. It just ain’t so. China’s consumers, with an ever-increasing choice of products, services and shops, are spending ever-increasing sums on improving the quality of their lives. Newer and better housing. New cars. Holidays. New wardrobes. You name it.
I see it every day here, the untethered exuberance of the Chinese consumer. It’s true that in the early part of this year, there was a relative lull. Back then, shops were working harder to attract customers, by putting a lot of their goods on sale at steep discounts. About four months ago, the situation began to change markedly. No more major knockdowns. Prices now all seem to carry list price, and the prices for many common consumer products are as high, or higher, than in the US.
Not much of this, it goes without saying, gets noticed by the world’s financial commentariat. Car sales in China are at an all-time high, and China is now the world’s largest car market. But, listen to the commentators, and they’ll tell you it’s the result of some small government tax breaks on new car purchases. Helpful, yes. The main spur? No. Car prices in China are still, in dollar terms, generally much higher than in the US. Based on a percentage of average disposable income, car prices in China are probably among the most expensive in the world. Same goes for property prices. Yet, Chinese keep buying.
They will keep buying, at or near this record pace, long after any tax breaks phase out. Chinese want the new cars to drive on the new expressways to carry them to the new shopping malls to buy the new furniture for their new apartments.
Of all the economic statistics I’ve seen lately, the one that best captures what is going on now in China is this: revenues in China’s restaurant industry were up 18% during the first half of 2009, to over $120 billion. That’s not due to stimulus, or bank loans, or tax concessions, or a government mandate to entertain more. It’s largely because Chinese are out having a good time, more often, and spending a lot more doing so than they did a year ago.
It’s one of the best barometers of a nation’s mood, restaurant spending. In China, the mood is buoyant, the outlook bright, and the woks are working overtime.