China’s Volatile Growth

MILAN – Uncertainty about China’s economic prospects is roiling global markets – not least because so many questions are so difficult to answer. In fact, China’s trajectory has become almost impossible to anticipate, owing to the confusing – if not conflicting – signals being sent by policymakers.

In the real economy, the export-driven tradable sector is contracting, owing to weak foreign demand. Faced with slow growth in Europe and Japan, moderate growth in the United States, and serious challenges in developing countries (with the exception of India), the Chinese trade engine has lost much of its steam.

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At the same time, however, rising domestic demand has kept China’s growth rate relatively high – a feat that has been achieved without a substantial increase in household indebtedness. As private consumption has expanded, services have proliferated, generating employment for many. This is clear evidence of a healthy economic rebalancing.

The situation in the corporate sector is mixed. On one hand, highly innovative and dynamic private firms are driving growth. Indeed, as a forthcoming book by George S. Yip and Bruce McKern documents, these innovations are occurring in a wide range of areas, from biotechnology to renewable energy. The most visible progress has come in the information technology sector, thanks to firms like Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Lenovo, Huawei, and Xiaomi.

On the other hand, the corporate sector remains subject to serious vulnerabilities. The rapid expansion of credit in 2009 led to huge over-investment and excess capacity in commodity sectors, basic industries like steel, and especially real estate. The now-struggling pillars of China’s old economic-growth model bear considerable responsibility for the current growth slowdown.

Despite these challenges, the reality is that China’s transition to a more innovative, consumer-driven economy is well underway. This suggests that the economy is experiencing a bumpy deceleration, not a meltdown, and that moderate growth can reasonably be expected in the medium term – that is, unless the financial system’s problems intensify.


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