Feb 25th 2020

When China Sneezes 

by Stephen S. Roach

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

 

NEW HAVEN – The world economy has clearly caught a cold. The outbreak of COVID-19 came at a particularly vulnerable point in the global business cycle. World output expanded by just 2.9% in 2019 – the slowest pace since the 2008-09 global financial crisis and just 0.4 percentage points above the 2.5% threshold typically associated with global recession.

Moreover, vulnerability increased in most major economies over the course of last year, making prospects for early 2020 all the more uncertain. In Japan, the world’s fourth-largest economy, growth contracted at a 6.3% annual rate in the fourth quarter – much sharper than expected following another consumption-tax hike. Industrial output fell sharply in December in both Germany (-3.5%) and France (-2.6%), the world’s fifth- and tenth-largest economies respectively. The United States, the world’s second-largest economy, appeared relatively resilient by comparison, but 2.1% real (inflation-adjusted) GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2019 hardly qualifies as a boom. And in China – now the world’s largest economy in purchasing-power-parity terms – growth slowed to a 27-year low of 6% in the last quarter of 2019.

In other words, there was no margin for an accident at the beginning of this year. Yet there has been a big accident: China’s COVID-19 shock. Over the past month, the combination of an unprecedented quarantine on Hubei Province (population 58.5 million) and draconian restrictions on inter-city (and international) travel has brought the Chinese economy to a virtual standstill. Daily activity trackers compiled by Morgan Stanley’s China team underscore the nationwide impact of this disruption. As of February 20, coal consumption (still 60% of China’s total energy consumption) remained down 38% from the year-earlier pace, and nationwide transportation comparisons were even weaker, making it extremely difficult for China’s nearly 300 million migrant workers to return to factories after the annual Lunar New Year holiday.

The disruptions to supply are especially acute. Not only is China the world’s largest exporter by a wide margin; it also plays a critical role at the center of global value chains. Recent research shows that GVCs account for nearly 75% of growth in world trade, with China the most important source of this expansion. Apple’s recent earnings alert says it all: the China shock is a major bottleneck to global supply.

But demand-side effects are also very important. After all, China is now the largest source of external demand for most Asian economies. Unsurprisingly, trade data for both Japan and Korea in early 2020 show unmistakable signs of weakness. As a result, it is virtually certain that Japan will record two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, which would make it three for three in experiencing recessions each time it has raised its consumption tax (1997, 2014, and 2019).

The shortfall of Chinese demand is also likely to hit an already weakening European economy very hard – especially Germany – and could even take a toll on a Teflon-like US economy, where China plays an important role as America’s third-largest and most rapidly growing export market. The sharp plunge in a preliminary tally of US purchasing managers’ sentiment for February hints at just such a possibility and underscores the time-honored adage that no country is an oasis in a faltering global economy.

In the end, the epidemiologists will have the final word on the endgame for COVID-19 and its economic impact. While that science is well beyond my expertise, I take the point that the current strain of coronavirus seems to be more contagious but less lethal than SARS was in early 2003. I was in Beijing during that outbreak 17 years ago and remember well the fear and uncertainty that gripped China back then. The good news is that the disruption was brief – a one-quarter shortfall of two percentage points in nominal GDP growth – followed by a vigorous rebound over the next four quarters. But circumstances were very different back then. In 2003, China was booming – with real GDP surging by 10% – and the world economy was growing by 4.3%. For China and the world, a SARS-related disruption barely made a dent.

Again, that is far from being the case today. COVID-19 hit at a time of much greater economic vulnerability. Significantly, the shock is concentrated on the world’s most important growth engine. The International Monetary Fund puts China’s share of global output at 19.7% this year, more than double its 8.5% share in 2003, during the SARS outbreak. Moreover, with China having accounted for fully 37% of the cumulative growth in world GDP since 2008 and no other economy stepping up to fill the void, the risk of outright global recession in the first half of 2020 seems like a distinct possibility.

Yes, this, too, will pass. While vaccine production will take time – 6-12 months at the very least, the experts say – the combination of warmer weather in the northern hemisphere and unprecedented containment measures could mean that the infection rate peaks at some point in the next few months. But the economic response will undoubtedly lag the virus infection curve, as a premature relaxation of quarantines and travel restrictions could spur a new and more widespread wave of COVID-19. That implies, at a minimum, a two-quarter growth shortfall for China, double the duration of the shortfall during SARS, suggesting that China could miss its 6% annual growth target for 2020 by as much as one percentage point. China’s recent stimulus measures, aimed largely at the post-quarantine rebound, will not offset the draconian restrictions currently in place.

This matters little to the optimistic consensus of investors. After all, by definition shocks are merely temporary disruptions of an underlying trend. While it is tempting to dismiss this shock for that very reason, the key is to heed the implications of the underlying trend. The world economy was weak, and getting weaker, when COVID-19 struck. The V-shaped recovery trajectory of a SARS-like episode will thus be much tougher to replicate – especially with monetary and fiscal authorities in the US, Japan, and Europe having such little ammunition at their disposal. That, of course, was the big risk all along. In these days of dip-buying froth, China’s sneeze may prove to be especially vexing for long-complacent financial markets.


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, 2020.

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "