The Global Impact of a Chinese Recession

Most economic forecasts suggest that a recession in China will hurt everyone, but that the pain would be more regionally confined than would be the case for a deep recession in the United States. Unfortunately, that may be wishful thinking.

CAMBRIDGE – When China finally has its inevitable growth recession – which will almost surely be amplified by a financial crisis, given the economy’s massive leverage – how will the rest of world be affected? With US President Donald Trump’s trade war hitting China just as growth was already slowing, this is no idle question.

.. First, the effect on international capital markets could be vastly greater than Chinese capital market linkages would suggest. However jittery global investors may be about prospects for profit growth, a hit to Chinese growth would make things a lot worse. Although it is true that the US is still by far the biggest importer of final consumption goods (a large share of Chinese manufacturing imports are intermediate goods that end up being embodied in exports to the US and Europe), foreign firms nonetheless still enjoy huge profits on sales in China.

Investors today are also concerned about rising interest rates, which not only put a damper on consumption and investment, but also reduce the market value of companies (particularly tech firms) whose valuations depend heavily on profit growth far in the future. A Chinese recession could again make the situation worse.

.. High Asian saving rates over the past two decades have been a significant factor in the low overall level of real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates in both the United States and Europe, thanks to the fact that underdeveloped Asian capital markets simply cannot constructively absorb the surplus savings.

.. instead of leading to lower global real interest rates, a Chinese slowdown that spreads across Asia could paradoxically lead to higher interest rates elsewhere – especially if a second Asian financial crisis leads to a sharp draw-down of central bank reserves. Thus, for global capital markets, a Chinese recession could easily prove to be a double whammy.

.. a significant rise in global interest rates would be much worse. Eurozone leaders, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, get less credit than they deserve for holding together the politically and economically fragile single currency against steep economic and political odds. But their task would have been well-nigh impossible but for the ultra-low global interest rates

.. Today, however, debt levels have risen significantly, and a sharp rise in global real interest rates would almost certainly extend today’s brewing crises beyond the handful of countries (including Argentina and Turkey) that have already been hit.

.. Nor is the US immune. For the moment, the US can finance its trillion-dollar deficits at relatively low cost. But the relatively short-term duration of its borrowing – under four years if one integrates the Treasury and Federal Reserve balance sheets – means that a rise in interest rates would soon cause debt service to crowd out needed expenditures in other areas. At the same time, Trump’s trade war also threatens to undermine the US economy’s dynamism.

.. Its somewhat arbitrary and politically driven nature makes it at least as harmful to US growth as the regulations Trump has so proudly eliminated. Those who assumed that Trump’s stance on trade was mostly campaign bluster should be worried.

.. A recession in China, amplified by a financial crisis, would constitute the third leg of the debt supercycle that began in the US in 2008 and moved to Europe in 2010. Up to this point, the Chinese authorities have done a remarkable job in postponing the inevitable slowdown. Unfortunately, when the downturn arrives, the world is likely to discover that China’s economy matters even more than most people thought.

Geopolitics Trumps the Markets

America led a 30-year hiatus from history. It was nice while it lasted, but it’s over.

That crashing sound you heard in world markets last week wasn’t just a correction. It was the sound of the end of an age.

During the long era of relatively stable international relations that succeeded the Cold War, markets enjoyed an environment uniquely conducive to economic growth.

.. The results were extraordinary. Between 1990 and 2017, world-wide gross domestic product rose from $23.4 trillion to $80.1 trillion, the value of world trade grew even faster, more than a billion people escaped poverty, and infant-mortality rates decreased by more than 50%. The number of people with telephone service grew roughly 10-fold.

This hiatus from history was, by most measures of human flourishing, a glorious era. Now it has come to an end, or at least a pause, and the world is beginning to see what that means.

.. the basic elements of economic globalization appeared firmly in place.

  • Russia, the most obvious challenger to the geopolitical order, was an insignificant and diminishing player economically.
  • And China, notwithstanding its rapid economic growth and its anxiety about American military power, was unlikely to challenge the economic basis of its own success. Geopolitics might have been back, but that wasn’t an issue for markets.

That complacency was misplaced. The return of geopolitics means the basic framework for economic policy has changed. In periods of great-power rivalry, national leaders must often put geopolitical goals ahead of economic ones. Bismarck’s Germany could have saved money buying armaments from Britain, but building a domestic arms industry was worth the cost. If the U.S. is in a serious strategic competition with China, an American president might well be willing to sacrifice some economic growth to banish China from important supply chains.

,, by invoking “national security,” the Trump administration has found a legal basis, with roots in the Cold War and even earlier, to assert sweeping powers over the nation’s commerce. It has upended a generation of U.S. trade policy in a dramatically short period of time.

.. The new era of geopolitics is unlikely to be an era of small government.

.. The Trump administration is

  • reversing some of the regulatory excesses of the Obama era, and
  • the president’s judicial appointees are prepared to rein in the administrative state.

.. A recalibration of the U.S.-China relationship was likely inevitable as the world’s oldest civilization became an economic superpower.

Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state clashed with Mr. Obama over the need for a tougher approach to China, would not be a popular figure in Beijing if she had won the 2016 election.

Under Trump, the jobs boom has finally reached blue-collar workers. Will it last?

Growth in this sector is occurring at the fastest rate since 1984.

Blue-collar jobs, long a small and shrinking part of the U.S. economy, are now growing at a faster clip than those in the nation’s much larger service economy. Many factors collided to produce the blue-collar boom. Some are linked to short-term boom-and-bust cycles, but others may endure.

The rapid hiring in blue-collar sectors is delivering benefits to areas that turned out heavily for Trump in the 2016 election, according to the Brookings Institution, a shift from earlier in this expansion, when large and midsize cities experienced most of the gains.

The biggest drivers of the blue-collar hiring surge are the rebound in oil prices, the need to rebuild after disasters such as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, and rising demand generated by a growing economy.

.. The economy has added fewer jobs per month, on average, than it did during President Barack Obama’s second term.

.. Coal mining added about a thousand jobs in the year ending in July, according to the Labor Department. Steel and aluminum production have gained only a couple thousand, while businesses that use these metals are warning of heavy layoffs if Trump’s tariffs stay in place.

.. The real drivers of the blue-collar boom are construction and manufacturing, which have added hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Trump era. These industries benefit most from a strong global economy.

.. Only 13.9 percent of workers are employed in blue-collar professions, vs, 15 percent in government and 71.1 percent in the service sector. But “muscle jobs” still play an outsize role in some communities.

.. “In places like Ohio and Wisconsin, manufacturing is part of the DNA. Voters there know what was lost and they see who is hiring now,”

.. “There are manufacturing jobs available right now, but young people have moved on. An entire generation of Americans has forgotten about manufacturing as a career path,” Paul said.

For Whom the Economy Grows

If Jeff Bezos walks into a bar, the average wealth of the bar’s patrons suddenly shoots up to several billion dollars — but none of the non-Bezos drinkers have gotten any richer.

.. Since the 1970s, however, the link between overall growth and individual incomes seems to have been broken for many Americans. On one side, wages have stagnated for many; adjusted for inflation, the median male worker earns less now than he did in 1979. On the other side, some have seen their incomes grow much faster than the income of the nation as a whole. Thus C.E.O.s at the largest companies now make 270 times as much as the average worker, up from 27 times as much in 1980.

.. similar disconnect between overall growth and individual experience seems to lie behind the public’s lack of enthusiasm for the current state of the economy and its disdain for the 2017 tax cut. G.D.P. numbers have been good in recent quarters, but much of the growth has gone to soaring corporate profits, while median real wages have gone nowhere
.. But how do facts like these fit into the overall story of economic growth? To answer this question, we need “distributional national accounts” that track how growth is allocated among different segments of the population.

.. Producing such accounts is hard but not impossible. In fact, the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have already produced estimated accounts with considerable detail over the past half century. The main message is one of growth going disproportionately to the top and not shared with the bottom half of the population, but there are also some surprises in the other direction. For example, the middle class, while still lagging, has done better than some common measures indicated thanks to fringe benefits.

.. In a reasonable world, then, something like the Schumer-Heinrich bill would become law in the near future. In the real world, of course, the proposal will go nowhere for the time being — because Republicans don’t want anyone to know what distributional national accounts might reveal.

.. By now everyone knows that conservatives routinely yell “socialist!” whenever anyone proposes doing something to help less fortunate members of our society — which is a key reason so many Americans now think favorably of socialism: If guaranteed health care is socialism, bring it on. But the right doesn’t just cry foul at any attempt to limit inequality; it does the same thing whenever anyone tries to talk about economic class, or measure how different classes are faring.

.. My favorite example here is still former senator Rick Santorum, who denounced the term “middle class” as “Marxism talk.” But that was just an especially ludicrous version of a general attempt on the right to suppress talk about and research into where the economy’s money goes. The G.O.P.’s basic position is that what you don’t know can’t hurt it.

And to be fair, progressives like the idea of distributional accounts in part because they believe that more knowledge in this area would help their own cause.