The Global Economy’s Chinese Headwinds

BEIJING – Last year, the global economy was supposed to start returning to normal. Interest rates would begin rising in the United States and the United Kingdom; quantitative easing would deliver increased inflation in Japan; and restored confidence in banks would enable a credit-led recovery in the eurozone. Twelve months later, normality seems as distant as ever – and economic headwinds from China are a major cause.

To spur economic growth and achieve prosperity, China has sought to follow the path forged by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, but with one key difference: size. With populations of 127 million, 50 million, and 23 million, respectively, these model Asian economies could rely on export-led growth to lift them to high-income levels. But the world market is simply not big enough to support high incomes for China's 1.3 billion citizens.

To be sure, the export-led model did work in China for some time, with the trade surplus rising to 10% of GDP in 2007, and manufacturing jobs absorbing surplus rural labor. But the flip side of China's surplus was huge credit-fueled deficits elsewhere, particularly in the US. When the credit bubble collapsed in 2008, China's export markets suffered.

In order to stave off job losses and sustain economic growth, China stimulated domestic demand by unleashing a wave of credit-fueled construction. As commodity imports soared, the current-account surplus fell below 2% of GDP.