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The G20 is supposed to be the primary forum for governing the global economy, and the world’s biggest economic problem right now is the chronic lack of demand in China.
It is therefore more than regrettable that President Xi Jinping has decided not to attend the summit in New Delhi this weekend, instead sending Prime Minister Li Qiang, highlighting how few options other countries will have if China tries to to solve its economic challenges by tapping into demand from the rest of the world. Since Xi will not be on hand to address the issue, other world leaders should carefully consider how they would deal with this scenario in his absence.
As Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, China’s economic weakness has little direct impact on other advanced economies because China earns so much for itself and buys so little from others. Only a tiny fraction of U.S. output reflects the manufacture of goods and their export to the world’s other economic giants.
Rather than causing a slowdown elsewhere, the issue is what would happen if China tried to export its way to growth, as it did in the 1990s and 2000s. China’s current account surplus is already 2 percent of its huge economy. If Beijing tried to increase this value it would be problematic, but especially if it did so through measures aimed at keeping the value of the renminbi exchange rate low.
The benefit of such a policy for China is questionable today. With the economy now so large and the manufacturing trade surplus already so large, it is hard to see how foreign demand can make a large enough contribution to offset the weakening real estate market.
But a focus on exports fits with Xi’s goal of expanding China’s strength in high-tech industries and his aversion to incentives aimed at domestic consumption. Encouraging Chinese citizens to travel at home instead of going abroad is an example of how policies can divert demand from other countries.
Even if the shift in demand to China would not be enough to generate strong domestic growth, it could still cause disruption in the global economy. Most obvious is that as China makes its goods more competitive, it will displace production elsewhere.
More specifically, a current account surplus must be offset by capital flows. The recycling of China’s surpluses contributed to loose financial conditions worldwide before the 2007-2008 financial crash, just as the export of German savings to countries such as Greece contributed to the Eurozone crisis in 2011. Such imbalances in the global economy are not a phenomenon that should be rushed to think about again.
What then can the rest of the G20 do about it, other than press China to generate more demand of its own? There are few easy answers.
Note that a growing Chinese surplus would have superficial appeal. The economic environment of the mid-2000s was popular: it enabled Western consumers to live beyond their means, even as it accelerated the decline of their manufacturing industries. Currently, a deflationary stimulus from China would help address the rise in the cost of living. For many Western politicians, this would ease a source of pain.
However, there should be greater international consensus against a large Chinese surplus today than there was 20 years ago. China’s economy is much larger and richer than it was back then. Japan and Germany, which have long thrived by exporting luxury cars and capital goods to China, are now facing the country’s rapid rise as an automobile exporter. The rest of Asia competes with China in export markets, so most countries, except pure commodity exporters, have something at stake.
If the US had not withdrawn from economic cooperation itself, as it did by abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, it would have more influence in making these points. Because American diplomacy has become so focused on military and security competition with Beijing, any objections it raises to Chinese economic policies are viewed with suspicion by many other countries.
The question of tools still remains. A major achievement of the G20 is its agreement to avoid currency devaluation for competitive reasons, and maintaining this consensus in New Delhi is crucial. However, there is no enforcement mechanism even against overt currency manipulation, let alone more nuanced measures that drive up a current account surplus but are difficult to detect or even challenge.
This is a fundamental flaw in the global economic system, dating back to its emergence in Bretton Woods after World War II: countries running persistent current account deficits will eventually be forced to adjust by a currency crisis, but there is no mechanism to discipline countries, that generate a sustained surplus. But one country’s surplus must be another’s deficit.
To achieve deep reforms and joint management of the global economy, the US and China would have to work together – something that now seems further away than ever before. What world leaders can do at the G20 summit is signal to everyone, not just China, their opposition to policies that aim to stabilize domestic economies based on the demand of others.
Source : www.ft.com