Friday, January 30, 2009
Jan 29th 2009 From The Economist print edition The slump in East Asia was made at home as well as in the West CHINA’s lunar new year sees the world’s largest migration, as tens of millions of workers flock home. Deserting for a few days the factories that make the goods that fill the world’s shops, they surge back to their native villages. This week, however, as they feasted to the deafening rattle of the firecrackers lit to greet the Year of the Ox, their celebrations had an anxious tinge (see article). Many will not have jobs to go back to. China’s breakneck growth has stalled. The rest of East Asia, too, which had hoped that it was somehow “decoupled” from the economic trauma of the West, has found itself hit as hard as anywhere in the world—and in some cases harder. The temptation is to see this as a plague visited on the region from outside, which its governments are powerless to resist or cure. In truth, their policy errors have played their part in the downturn, so the remedies are partly in their hands. The scale and speed of that downturn is breathtaking (see article), and broader in scope than in the financial crisis of 1997-98. China’s GDP, which expanded by 13% in 2007, scarcely grew at all in the last quarter of 2008 on a seasonally adjusted basis. In the same quarter Japan’s GDP is estimated to have fallen at an annualised rate of 10%, Singapore’s at 17% and South Korea’s at 21%. Industrial-production numbers have fallen even more dramatically, plummeting in Taiwan, for example, by 32% in the year to December. Nobody’s buying it The immediate causes are plain enough: destocking on a huge scale and a collapse in exports. Even in China, exports are spluttering, down by 2.8% in December compared with the previous year. That month Japan’s fell by 35% and Singapore’s by 20%. Falls in imports are often even starker: China’s were down by 21% in December; Vietnam’s by 45% in January. Some had suggested that soaring intra-regional trade would protect Asia against a downturn in the West. But that’s not happening, because trade within Asia is part of a globalised supply chain which is ultimately linked to demand in the rich world. Some Asians are blaming the West. The Western consensus in favour of globalisation lured them, they say, into opening their economies and pursuing export-led growth to satisfy the bottomless pit of Western consumer demand. They have been betrayed. Western financial incompetence has trashed the value of their investments and consumer demand has dried up. This explanation, which absolves Asian governments of responsibility for economic suffering, has an obvious appeal across the region. Awkwardly, however, it tells only one part of the story. Most of the slowdown in regional economic growth so far stems not from a fall in net exports but from weaker domestic demand. Even in China, the region’s top exporter, imports are falling faster than exports. Domestic demand has been weak not just because of the gloomy global outlook, but also because of government policies. After the crisis a decade ago, many countries fixed their broken financial systems, but left their economies skewed towards exports. Savings remained high and domestic consumption was suppressed. Partly out of fright at the balance-of-payments pressures faced then, countries have run large trade surpluses and built up huge foreign-exchange reserves. Thus the savings of poor Asian farmers have financed the habits of spendthrift Westerners. That’s not all bad. One consequence is that Asian governments have plenty of scope for boosting domestic demand and thus spurring economic recovery. China, in particular, has the wherewithal to make good on its promises of massive economic stimulus. A big public-works programme is the way to go, because it needs the investment anyway. When Japan spent heavily on infrastructure to boost its economy in the early 1990s, much of the money was wasted, because it was not short of the stuff. China, by contrast, could still do with more and better bridges, roads and railways. Safety in numbers Yet infrastructure spending alone is not a long-term solution. This sort of stimulus will sooner or later become unaffordable, and growth based on it will run out of steam. To get onto a sustainable long-term growth path—and to help pull the rest of the world out of recession—Asia’s economies need to become less dependent on exports in other ways. Asian governments must introduce structural reforms that encourage people to spend and reduce the need for them to save. In China, farmers must be given reliable title to their land so that they can borrow money against it or sell it. In many countries, including China, governments need to establish safety-nets that ease worries about the cost of children’s education and of health care. And across Asia, economies need to shift away from increasingly capital-intensive manufacturing towards labour-intensive services, so that a bigger share of national income goes to households. For Asian governments trying to fix their countries’ problems, the temptation is to reach for familiar tools—mercantilist currency policies to boost exports. But the region’s leaders seem to realise that a round of competitive devaluation will help no one. China has responded to American accusations of currency “manipulation” by denying it has any intention of devaluing the yuan to boost exports. Structural reforms to boost demand would not only help cushion the blow to Asia’s poor and thus help avert an explosion of social unrest that governments such as China’s fear; they would also help counter the relentless rise in protectionist pressure in the West. If emerging Asia needs a warning of the dangers of relying on exports, it need look no further than Japan. Japan’s decade-long stagnation ended in 2002, thanks to a boom in exports, especially to China. Now, largely because of its failure to tackle the root causes of weak domestic demand, it is taking more of an economic hiding than any other rich country. Japan used to see itself as the lead goose in a regional flight formation, showing the way to export-led prosperity. It is time for the other geese to break ranks.