Sunday, February 15, 2009

China - Big Problems

From 2000 to about 2006 many experts expressed concern over the current accounts deficit and the negative savings rate in the US. Additionally, folks have pointed to the over $1.0 trillion dollars of US debt that China holds on its books as a concern for the future. With the current downturn in full effect - China is bracing to get hit even harder than the US. Here are two worthwhile articles from Asia Times (bold emphasis is mine)
China On the Brink
The ripples emanating from the global recession may have seemed tiny at first as they traveled across the Pacific, but they are about to hit China with the full force of a tsunami. And there is real concern among the Chinese leadership that the impact may well surpass anything we've seen in the US or Europe. That's because the economic crisis in China is taking on a fundamentally different shape than in the countries where it originated.

The crisis in Western markets began at the top and worked its way down. When the US property bubble burst, it hurt some homeowners, but the real damage it inflicted was to undermine confidence in complex financial instruments and the banks that owned them. It was essentially a financial panic, and the first people to be laid off were Wall Street MBAs working at investment banks and hedge funds.

The effect on the real economy only came later. As big-name banks failed, consumer confidence took a nosedive, and as surviving banks retrenched, credit to consumers and business dried up. Only in the fourth quarter of last year - six to nine months after the first big bank, Bear Stearns, collapsed - did these factors result in significant working-class job losses.

The process unfolding in China is precisely the opposite. The threat comes not from the commanding heights of the economy, but from the grassroots. All along the coast, thousands of small factories that rely entirely on US and European export markets are cutting back production or shutting down. Their margins were thin to begin with, and now their orders are being slashed. The first to be affected aren't the global professionals that populate China's big cities, but the migrant workers that made those factories hum.

The Coming Fury
The collapse of Asia's key market has banished all talk of decoupling. The image of decoupled locomotives - one coming to a halt, the other chugging along on a separate track - no longer applies, if it ever had. Rather, US-East Asia economic relations today resemble a chain-gang linking not only China and the United States but a host of other satellite economies. They are all linked to debt-financed, middle-class spending in the United States, which has collapsed.

China's growth in 2008 fell to 9%, from 11% a year earlier. Japan is now in deep recession, its mighty export-oriented consumer goods industries reeling from plummeting sales.The sudden end of the export era is going to have some ugly consequences. In the past three decades, rapid growth reduced the number of people living below the poverty line in many countries. In practically all countries, however, income and wealth inequality increased. But the expansion of consumer purchasing power took much of the edge off social conflicts. Now, with the era of growth coming to an end, increasing poverty amid great inequalities will be a combustible combination.

In China, about 20 million workers have lost their jobs in the last few months, many of them heading back to the countryside, where they will find little work. The authorities are rightly worried that what they label "mass group incidents", which have been increasing in the last decade, might spin out of control.

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