In the Media | April 2014

China: The Bad Way and the Good Way to Burst Asset Bubbles

By Panos Mourdoukoutas

Forbes, April 14, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

For years, China has been enjoying robust economic growth that has turned it into the world’s second largest economy.

The problem is, however, that China’s growth is in part driven by over investment in construction and manufacturing sectors, fueling asset bubbles that parallel those of Japan in the late 1980s. With one major difference: China’s overinvestment is directed by the systematic efforts of local governments to preserve the old system of central planning, through massive construction and manufacturing projects for the purpose of employment creation rather than for addressing genuine consumer needs.

Major Chinese cities are filled with growing numbers of new vacant buildings. They were built under government mandates to provide jobs for the hundreds of thousands of people leaving the countryside for a better life in the cities, rather than to house genuine business tenants.

China’s real estate bubble is proliferating like an infectious disease from the eastern cities to the inner country. It has spread beyond real estate to other sectors of the economy, from the steel industry to electronics and toys industries.  Local governments rush and race to replicate each other’s policies, especially local governments of the inner regions, where corporate managers have no direct access to overseas markets, and end up copying the policies of their peers in the coastal areas.

We all know how the Japanese bubble ended. What should Chinese policy makers do? How can they burst their bubble?

There is  a bad way and a good way, according to L. Randall Wray and Xinhua Liu, writing in "Options for China in a Dollar Standard World: A Sovereign Currency Approach.” (Levy Economics Institute, Working Paper No 783, January 2014).

The bad way is to pursue European-style austerity, which reins in central government deficits.

We all know what that means–the Chinese economy is almost certain to be placed in a downward spiral that will jeopardize employment growth. Besides, as the authors observe, China’s fiscal imbalances aren’t with central government, but with local governments. In fact, China’s main imbalance “appears to be a result of loose local government budgets and overly tight central government budgets.”

That’s why the authors propose fiscal restructuring rather than austerity. Rein in local government spending, and expand central government spending.

That’s the good way to burst the bubble. But is it politically feasible? Can Beijing reign over local governments?

That remains to be seen. 

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