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Can China Create Consumers?

Although the worst of the global economic crisis seems to be receding into the distance of the past, and there are signs, here and there, of a rebound, controversy still rages as to how long the resulting slump will drag on, and about what it may take to return us (speaking globally, rather than the US specifically) to some sembalance of the of the prosperity that was enjoyed not all that long ago.

It seems to me, that there are 2 schools of thought on the topic. One camp feels it'll be Asia, and China, in particular, that'll be the "engine" that will drive the resumption of global economic growth. It could be said that this group is reviving the concept of de-coupling, which took a severe hit when ALL of the world's markets and economies went over the cliff, en masse. The other camp feels that it'll once again fall to the US to drag the world from its current malaise.

The folks who argue that China isn't capable of such a challenge, point out the fact that China's economy is pretty much purely export-oriented and geared towards the manufacture and export of relatively inexpensive consumer goods and relatively low value-added industrial products. The flurry of various commodities purchases from all over the globe is viewed as short term stockpiling to take advantage of the depressed prices that followed the meltdown, and to ensure adequate supplies for the manufactured export sector. They point out (quite correctly) that the portion of GDP that arises from consumer activity is miniscule compared to that of the US. and other developed nations. They point out that the high savings rate for which Asians, in general, are noted for, precludes any sort of meaningful growth in consumer spending.

Its been pointed out that the high rate of savings is, at least in large part, fueled by the fact that there's little, if any sort of social "safety net" available to the average Chinese citizen. Any sort of health insurance is is not very widely available, so any sort of medical attention, from a trip to the emergency room for a broken bone to a major hospital stay is paid for by the patient (and their extended family, in many cases). Hence the need for what is considered an abnormally high savings (roughly 40%) rate in the West.

Whatever adjectives one may chose to apply to the Chinese government, stupid shouldn't be one of them. Beijing seems to recognize that to continue to develop into a true, world-class power, the Chinese economy needs to be more balanced. A less well known part of the current Chinese stimulus plan is being directed to healthcare for the consumer. Over the next two years (by 2011), China plans on spending $124 billion to provide some sort of health insurance to 90% of the population. By way of comparison, the draft of the health care bill being worked on in the US Congress carries an estimated price tag of $856 billion over ten years. The relative closeness on an annual basis ($61B for China vs. $85.6B for the US) is pretty remarkable to my way of thinking, considering the disparity in the size of the respective economies. According to the CIA World Factbook, the US GDP for 2008 was an estimated $14.3 trillion, while China's was $4.4 trillion, based on official exchange rates, or $7 trillion on a purchasing power parity basis. Along with proposed health insurance, money is to be spent on more clinics in rural areas, as well as reforms of public hospitals.

Over time, the Chinese will feel more comfortable with saving a bit less, and spending a bit more.