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Deflation and debt

On Monday CPI and PPI numbers for February came out. CPI was down 1.6% year on year and PPI was down 4.5%, in line with or slightly below expectations and, according to Bloomberg, the highest rate of deflation among the 78 countries they follow. Some of this may be caused by one-off factors, especially declining food prices, and most of the press and analyst commentary suggested as much, but the figures are still too hazy to say with any certainty whether or not deflation is likely to become a problem. Qi Jingmi, an economist with the State Information Centre, a government think-tank, was quoted in an article in the South China Morning Post as saying “I worry about PPI. The sharp fall in PPI shows that the financial crisis is gradually spreading to the real economy.”

The PBoC’s Governor Zhou has already promised that China will do whatever it takes to prevent deflation, although at this point it is hard to find anyone who believes in the 4% target inflation for 2009. According to an article Friday in Bloomberg
he said that “We would rather be faster and heavy-handed if it can prevent confidence slumping during the financial crisis.” The article goes on:

Chinese central bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan pledged “fast and heavy-handed” policies to restore confidence and prevent the global financial crisis from deepening the nation’s economic slump. “If we act slowly and less decisively, we’re likely to see what happened in other countries: a slide in confidence,” Zhou said at briefing in Beijing. The central bank has “ample room” to fine-tune monetary policy after a record surge in lending in January, he said.

I continue to be very skeptical about the actual amount of control the PBoC has over monetary policy. Until last summer despite PBoC intentions to run “prudent” or “tight” monetary policies all the evidence suggested out-of-control money growth, and since then their promises to expand aggressively have been at least somewhat undermined by evidence of monetary contraction. I am convinced that given the currency regime, net foreign inflows or outflows more than other factors determine underlying money in the system, and since the PBoC has very little control over the net flows, and so little control over the rate at which it is forced to monetize those flows, monetary conditions are at least as likely to reflect external conditions as domestic policy.

That is why what interests me most about the inflation numbers is what they suggest about monetary conditions — a subject on which it is very hard to get complete data and for which we often need to draw inferences from other parts of the economy. In that light, it is worth noting that the money-versus-pork debate seems to have died down since last summer with the decline of inflation at year-end, but I suspect it is going to revive soon enough, as I discussed in one of my entries in December. For example, a Bloomberg article on Monday had this to say:

China isn’t yet facing “typical” deflation, where falling prices are accompanied by shrinking loans and money supply and an economic recession, central bank vice governor Yi Gang said, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. The central bank has “sufficient” policy tools to combat deflation, Yi said, without elaborating.

Maybe it is indeed true that falling prices are not accompanied by shrinking loans and money supply, but it seems to me that we can’t really say for sure. We think we know that loans aren’t shrinking because loan growth numbers in the official banking sector pretty clearly show rapid loan growth, but as I have written many times before, much of January’s loan growth represented either balance sheet rearrangements or other forms of loan growth that don’t represent real credit growth to the economy (and by now that is a pretty widely accepted interpretation of the January numbers, although many bank analysts continue to talk up the loan growth as effective).

In addition, there is still anecdotal evidence that the informal banking sector is having difficulty expanding and even that their balance sheets may actually be shrinking. Real credit in China, in other words, is expanding much more slowly than the headline numbers suggest and may even be contracting. We don’t really know. For those who care, the current issue of Forbes has a very interesting article by Gady Epstein on one part of the shadowy credit market in China.

By the way I assume that Vice Governor Yi is indirectly referring to Irving Fischer’s debt-deflation thesis. But in my opinion, and if I read Fischer correctly, the risk for China is not a financial collapse induced by excess and unstable leverage. In spite of the haziness of the debt accounts I really don’t think China has the amount and kind of leverage that is likely to lead to a collapse in asset prices (although my one caveat is that we don’t really know the relationship between asset collateral and debt in the informal banking sector). The risk instead — and a highly probable risk although the timing is a little hazy — is that China will see many years of sub-par growth as it works off its addiction to excess capacity and makes the tough and slow transition to a domestic-led economy. I think Nick Lardy’s warning of a “long landing” rather than a “hard landing” is what we should expect. I am only guessing here, and haven’t really worked it out, but perhaps monetary reflation, which I think would have been Fischer’s proposal for the US today, is not likely to be of much help to China.

Trade figures are out

Meanwhile, and back to the real world, February trade numbers were released Wednesday. As I guess pretty much anyone who reads my blog would know, the export numbers were terrible. Exports plunged 25.7% in February year on year, even though this year February did not include the Spring Festival holidays, and so was substantially longer than February 2008. The foreign press seems mostly to think that the sharp decline in exports came as a huge surprise to most experts, while the Chinese press seems to think it was largely expected (the SSE Composite declined on the news, but only by 0.9%). I have always believed that the fact exports were dropping much more rapidly in the rest of Asia than in China was clearly not sustainable, and that it was just a question of (very little) time before we began to see Chinese exports hit much more sharply. I do not believe the process is over.

According to an article in today’s Xinhua:

China’s exports plummeted 25.7 percent year-on-year in February, the fourth straight monthly decline, as global demand shrank, the General Administration of Customs said Wednesday. Exports contracted to 64.90 billion U.S. dollars, while imports slumped 24.1 percent to 60.05 billion U.S. dollars. The sharp declines reflected weakening external demand, which would persist throughout the year as the global recession deepened, said Zhang Junsheng, an economics professor at the University of International Business and Economics. “These huge falls were inevitable, given the global downturn,” he said.

…Exports of labor-intensive products contracted more moderately than total exports, reflecting the government’s moves to raise export rebates starting last July, the agency said. Garment and accessory exports fell 11 percent to 14.62 billion U.S. dollars, while those of toys sank 17.1 percent to 850 million U.S. dollars.

I have heard several times reference to the fact that the increase in export rebates has helped the textile sector, although I would have guessed that this wouldn’t be something policymakers would want to advertise to the outside world. Along that line I think we are going to see a lot more pressure on policymakers somehow to “deal” with the problems in the export sector. On Monday Commerce Minister Chen Deming announced a cut in export taxes. According to an article in Tuesday’s Financial Times:

China will reduce export taxes to zero and give more financial support to exporters as it tries to increase its share of global trade in the current crisis, the country’s commerce minister announced on Monday. China would “use all possible measures to ensure the stable growth of our exports and prevent a large drop in external demand”, Chen Deming said in an interview published by a Communist party newspaper. “We should increase our share of the global market… We must transform ourselves from a big export nation to a strong export nation,” he continued.

It’s probably not a good idea to announce a drive to increase China’s share of the global export market, especially since for the last several months, while the world has suffered a collapse in demand, China’s share of exports has risen dramatically, but this may have been said primarily for domestic consumption. Tuesday Chen spoke again about trade. According to an article in People’s Daily:

China’s foreign trade faces grim times in the coming months, Commerce Minister Chen Deming said yesterday even as the government tries to take steps to boost trade.

…Chen said the government would support exporters, in particular those of electronic goods and machines that account for 57 percent of the country’s exports. The government has raised export rebate rates and will expand the coverage of export credit insurance and encourage financial institutions to offer export credit services to boost exports, he said.

The pressure to fix the export sector is clearly rising. My friend Isaac Meng was quoted later on in the same People’s Daily article explaining why policymakers are taking a decision which is not likely to make already-difficult global trade relations much easier:

“Global trade and demand [are] collapsing and so are the currencies of many of China’s competitors and customers,” said Isaac Meng, an economist with BNP Paribas. “This is putting huge pressure on China’s export industries and the government to push all the buttons to boost the economy.”

At a press conference on Friday Zhou Xiaochuan, the central bank governor, refused to rule out a devaluation in China’s currency, the renminbi. “If you can tell us clearly what is going to happen [in the countries where the financial crisis started], it would be easier for us to tell you what measures we will take,” Mr Zhou said when asked directly whether he would rule out a devaluation of the renminbi.

In a sign of how contentious the debate has gotten within China, the trade worriers put in a counterclaim. This from a Bloomberg article:

China should let the yuan rise 3 percent against the dollar in 2009 to deter capital outflows and help the country make overseas acquisitions, said Wang Jian, a researcher affiliated with the nation’s top planning agency. China’s foreign-exchange reserves grew by the least in more than four years in the fourth quarter as sliding exports prompted traders to step up bets on yuan depreciation. People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan pledged last week to maintain yuan stability as investors pull money out of emerging- market assets because of slowing global economic growth.

“A weaker currency will prompt massive amounts of foreign capital to flee the country,” said Wang, secretary general of the China Society of Macroeconomics, a Beijing-based research institute under the National Development and Reform Commission that advises the government. “It won’t help exports. Foreign consumers still won’t have enough money to buy.” At least $1 trillion of “hot money” may have entered China, Wang estimated, as the yuan gained 21 percent against the dollar since the central bank ended a fixed exchange rate in July 2005. Depreciation would risk spurring a sudden exit of those funds, causing turmoil in the financial system, he said in an interview yesterday.

I think hot money flows are one of the potentially destabilizing factors we need most to worry about because the PBoC’s currency regime means that monetary conditions, as I discuss in the first half of this entry, are largely determined by net inflows or outflows. In that light it is worth noting that while imports in February were also very bad — they dropped 24.1% year on year — the February trade surplus was much, much lower than for any month in a long time. China’s trade surplus for February was $4.8 billion, lower than the $7 billion rumor I mentioned a few days ago and much lower than the roughly $34 billion average monthly surpluses of the past six months (and $39.1 billion for January).

This may be a very good thing for China as it goes into the G20 meeting, since it takes a little of the sting out of China’s growing export of overcapacity, but one month of “good” numbers after a long series of absolutely awful numbers won’t mean much, and we need to figure out more about the composition of imports. In particular I am interested in seeing whether imports include a lot of one-off rebuilding of commodity reserves. By the way with last month’s “low” trade surplus, some people are arguing that the era of massive monthly surpluses are over. This is from MarketWatch:

“The bigger shock figure was the decline in the trade surplus to $4.8 billion as exports fell faster than imports,” said [Royal Bank of Scotland's chief China economist, Ben] Simpfendorfer. “February’s trade surplus typically falls because of seasonally strong commodity imports and seasonally weak consumer exports,” he said. “So, the decline in the trade surplus will likely be reversed next month. Nonetheless, the surplus will not bounce back above a $20 billion monthly rate this year.”

Trade and industrial policies

I hope Simpfendorfer is right. The Washington Post seems very worried about the trade-policy outlook. In an article titled “US to Toughen its Stance on Trade,” it warns that US policy seems increasingly dissatisfied with global trade and says that “the Obama administration is aggressively reworking U.S. trade policy to more strongly emphasize domestic and social issues.” Today’s New York Times also had a worried editorial on President Obama’s trade agenda, which included the following:

Trade will play an important role in the world’s eventual recovery, transmitting economic growth from one country to the next. Protectionism leads to further protectionism, and yielding to its temptation could unleash destructive trade wars that would crush any chance of recovery. Unfortunately, few politicians are willing to tell their constituents that unpopular truth. Instead, governments are succumbing to protectionism’s dangerous lure. In recent months, Russia has jacked up import barriers on cars, farm machinery and other products. The European Union has reintroduced subsidies on dairy products. Europe, India and Brazil raised tariffs on imported steel.

Protectionism is also taking subtler forms, like Britain’s requirement that bailed-out banks favor domestic lending. The United States is not immune. The stimulus bill had a “Buy America” provision, and it made it more difficult for companies receiving stimulus dollars to hire foreign workers under the H-1B visa program. President Obama’s choice for United States trade representative, Ron Kirk, appears ambivalent about the value of free trade. As part of his confirmation hearings this week, Mr. Kirk testified that he would work to expand trade but also argued “that not all Americans are winning from it and that our trading partners are not always playing by the rules.”

…If ever there was a need for collective action — on fiscal stimuli, monetary policy, aid to the developing world, fighting protectionism — it is now. A place to start the rethinking is China and how to encourage increased domestic consumption and investment in China and other cash-rich Asian countries so they can start pulling the world out of recession.

China’s leaders, in particular, need to understand that export-led growth no longer works for them or for the world. The United States will have more influence if it stops beating on Beijing for its foreign-exchange policy and engages China’s leaders as partners, not rivals. Vigorous trade will help the world recover. For that to happen, the United States will have to provide strong leadership and a clear commitment to fighting protectionism. Any sign of ambivalence from Washington will only make things worse.

The whole debate over trade is going to be framed within US and European discussions about fiscal stimuli since it is not at all clear that Chinese policymakers are contributing much more than some fairly smug, and perhaps hypocritical, statements about how everyone must embrace free trade. But the US and European discussions don’t seem particularly positive right now. According to Wednesday’s Financial Times:

Disagreements between the European Union and the US over how to combat the global recession widened on Tuesday as EU governments made clear they had little appetite for piling up more debt to fight the collapse in output and jobs. Finance ministers from the 27-nation bloc insisted in Brussels that it was doing enough to support world demand and did not need at present to adopt another fiscal stimulus plan, as Washington is urging.

I hesitate to enter these very deep waters, but I think the Europeans, at least as described in this article, might be right. There is a real need for an adjustment in consumption in the US, and I don’t think it makes sense for the US to attempt to replace excess household consumption with excess government consumption. One way or the other the US, along with China and most other countries that have contributed to one side or the other of the global imbalances, is going to have to accept a demand contraction.

Trade friction is an issue that will not easily go away. Not all the information released this week was bad, however. Some was good and some was neutral — by which I mean it could be read either as bad or good depending on your economic model. According to an article in today’s Bloomberg:

China’s investment spending surged as the nation poured money into roads, railways and power grids to counter a plunge in exports, which a separate report showed fell by a record in February. Urban fixed-asset investment climbed a more-than-estimated 26.5 percent in January and February combined to 1.03 trillion yuan ($150 billion) from a year earlier, the statistics bureau said today in Beijing.

The fact that fixed asset investment surged might suggest that the fiscal stimulus plan is having an effect and will counteract to some extent the slowdown in other parts of the economy. A worrier (me) would be very nervous however that the stimulus ended up worsening the overcapacity problem, in which case any benefit would be more than paid for next year. More unambiguously good news involved February car sales, which are up substantially and suggest that some government policies are getting consumers to go back to buying cars, although this was accompanied by bad numbers on car exports.

The mainland’s sales of domestically made vehicles surged 25 per cent in February from a year earlier, as a tax cut for small cars and other measures helped revive the market, an industry group said on Wednesday. February’s sales totalled 827,600 units, up 12 per cent from the 735,000 sold in January, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers said in a report posted on its website. Production in February totalled 807,900 units, up about 23 per cent from the year before, it said.

…However, despite the apparent rebound in China’s own car market, a slump in demand is crimping sales overseas: exports in January fell 33.5 per cent from a year earlier, to US$2.66 billion, the group said. The impact was most severe for domestic-brand cars, with January exports falling 64 per cent from a year earlier to 16,300 units, it said. Imports of vehicles also took a hit amid the deepening economic downturn, falling 20.3 per cent from a year earlier in January to US$1.73 billion, it said.

Finally before closing, and for an indication of rationality that sometimes seems to be missing from foreign expectations about China, few analysts in China seem to buy the idea so popular in the West that somehow Chinese policies may be enough to pull the world out of its economic crisis. Tuesday’s People’s Daily had a long article on the subject. Among other things it said:

A China-driven recovery of world economy is “unrealistic”, economists said amid hope, after the world’s attention was drawn to China’s annual parliament session, that the country’s stimulus plan would help the whole world out of the recession.
…Economists said they believe China would be able to keep its growth at about 8 percent this year, a growth rate long believed to be minimum to create enough jobs and maintain social stability. However, they said it is wild wish to count on the country alone to fuel the global recovery, as China’s economy accounted for only five percent of the world’s total.

To pin hope of the global recovery only on China is similar to charging a colt with an overwhelmingly big carriage and hoping it to drag the cart along, they said. Beijing-based economist Wang Xiaoguang warned that actually China’s influence is very “limited.” He said China’s stimulus package might help store up some investors’ confidence in world economy, but “China alone could not revive the world.”

Source: China: Analyzing Trade, CPI Numbers