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China economy

China has stumbled in its financial reforms, but it’s still on the right path

Stephen Roach says Beijing’s recent financial sector setbacks – particularly the stock-market and exchange-rate policy fiascos – are certainly a matter for concern, but this is no crisis

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 5:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 5:23pm

The prospect of an economic meltdown in China has been sending tremors through global financial markets at the start of 2016. Yet such fears are overblown. While turmoil in Chinese equity and currency markets should not be taken lightly, the country continues to make encouraging headway on structural adjustments in its real economy. This mismatch between progress in economic rebalancing and setbacks in financial reforms must ultimately be resolved as China now enters a critical phase in its transition to a new growth model. But it does not spell imminent crisis.

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Consistent with China’s long experience in central planning, it continues to excel at industrial re-engineering. Trends in 2015 were a case in point: The 8.3 per cent expansion in the services sector outstripped that of the once-dominant manufacturing and construction sectors, which together grew by just 6 per cent last year. The so-called tertiary sector rose to 50.5 per cent of GDP, well in excess of the 47 per cent share targeted in 2011, when the 12th five-year plan was adopted, and fully 10 percentage points bigger than the 40.5 per cent share of secondary-sector activities (manufacturing and construction).

This significant shift in China’s economic structure is vitally important to the country’s consumer-led rebalancing strategy. Services development underpins urban employment opportunities, a key building block of personal income generation. With Chinese services requiring about 30 per cent more jobs per unit of output than manufacturing and construction combined, the tertiary sector’s relative strength has played an important role in limiting unemployment and preventing social instability – long China’s greatest fear. On the contrary, even in the face of decelerating GDP growth, urban job creation hit 11 million in 2015, above the government’s target of 10 million and a slight rise from 10.7 million in 2014.

The bad news is that China’s impressive headway on restructuring its real economy has been accompanied by significant setbacks for its financial agenda – namely, the bursting of an equity bubble, a poorly handled shift in currency policy and an exodus of capital. These are not inconsequential developments, especially for a country that must eventually align its financial infrastructure with a market-based consumer society. China will never succeed if it does not bring its financial reforms into closer sync with its rebalancing strategy for the real economy. Capital-market reforms – especially the development of more robust equity and bond markets – are critical for this. Yet, in the aftermath of the stock market bubble, the equity-funding alternative is all but dead for the foreseeable future. For that reason alone, China’s recent financial-sector setbacks are especially disappointing.

But setbacks and crises are not the same thing. The good news is that China’s massive reservoir of foreign-exchange reserves provides it with an important buffer against a classic currency and liquidity crisis. To be sure, China’s reserves have fallen hugely – by US$700 billion – in the past 19 months. Given China’s recent build-up of dollar-denominated liabilities, which the Bank for International Settlements places at around US$1 trillion (for short- and long-term debt, combined), external vulnerability cannot be ignored. But, at US$3.3 trillion in December, China’s reserves are still enough to cover more than four times its short-term external debt – well in excess of the rule of thumb that a country should be able to fund all of its short-term foreign liabilities in the event that it is unable to borrow in international markets.

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Of course, this cushion would effectively vanish in six years if foreign reserves were to continue falling at the same US$500 billion annual rate recorded in 2015. This was the greatest fear during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, when China was widely expected to follow other so-called East Asian miracle economies that had run out of reserves in the midst of a contagious attack on their currencies. But if it didn’t happen then, it certainly won’t happen now: China’s foreign-exchange reserves today are 23 times higher than the US$140 billion held in 1997-98. Moreover, China continues to run a large current-account surplus, in contrast to the outsize external deficits that proved so problematic for other Asian economies in the late 1990s.

Still, fear persists that if capital flight were to intensify, China would be powerless to stop it. Nothing could be further from the truth. China’s institutional memory runs deep when it comes to crises and their consequences. That is especially the case concerning the late 1990s, when Chinese leaders saw firsthand how a run on reserves and a related currency collapse can wreak havoc on seemingly invincible economies. It was that realisation, coupled with a steadfast fixation on stability, that prompted China to focus urgently on amassing the largest reservoir of foreign-exchange reserves in modern history. While the authorities have no desire to close the capital account after having taken several important steps to open it in recent years, they would most certainly rethink this position if capital flight were to become a more serious threat.

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Yes, China has stumbled in the recent implementation of many of its financial reforms. The equity-market fiasco is glaring in this regard, as was the failure to clarify official intentions regarding the August shift in exchange-rate policy. These missteps should not be taken lightly. But they are a far cry from the crisis that many believe is now at hand.

Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China. Copyright: Project Syndicate