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Balancing growth with structural reform

By Yu Yongding | China Daily | Updated: 2019-05-09 06:43

After a disappointing performance in 2018, China's economy appears to be stabilizing. In the first quarter of 2019, GDP growth, at 6.4 percent year-on-year, matched that of the previous quarter. But growth in industrial production exceeded expectations, expanding by 6.5 percent year-on-year (and by 8.5 percent in March). Even exports growth was positive, albeit weak, despite the ongoing trade frictions with the United States.

Moreover, fixed-asset investment (FAI) grew by 6.3 percent-0.2 percentage points higher than in the previous quarter. Investment in real estate grew the fastest (11.8 percent), followed by manufacturing (4.6 percent) and infrastructure (4.4 percent). The growth of investment both in real estate and infrastructure was stronger not only sequentially, but also year-on-year. As usual, consumption growth was stable.

All of this has inspired confidence that the Chinese economy can reach its indicative growth target of 6-6.5 percent in 2019.

Lower growth rate may mean more room for adjustment

Most Chinese economists seem quite comfortable with this targeted range. One explanation is that China's potential growth rate is 6-6.5 percent, and a target should be set accordingly. Another is that a lower growth rate would give the economy more room for structural adjustment.

From 1978 to 2008, China averaged an impressive 9.5 percent annual growth rate. Then the global financial crisis struck, causing growth to plummet from 9.7 percent in the third quarter of 2008 to 6.6 percent in the second quarter of 2009. A 4-trillion-yuan ($640 billion) stimulus package, introduced in November 2008, soon brought about a powerful rebound, with GDP growth reaching 12.1 percent in the first quarter of 2010. But since then China's economic growth has been declining, partly because the government withdrew its stimulus. Last year, China's GDP grew by 6.6 percent.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to separate cyclical elements and external shocks from the long-term trend and to conclude that China's potential growth rate really is 6-6.5 percent.

Many Chinese economists cite long-term supply-side structural factors-such as demographic aging, environmental degradation, and a lack of progress on reform-to argue that China has simply entered a new stage of development, characterized by significantly lower potential growth rates.

Structural factors don't explain falling growth rate

While this may be true-everyone in China agrees that 9-10 percent annual growth rates are a thing of the past-there is no clear indication of how much China's growth potential has actually declined. Long-term supply-side structural factors do not explain, for example, why the growth rate fell from 12.1 percent in the first quarter of 2010 to 7.4 percent in the third quarter of 2013.

Not only are there missing links on the causality chain between long-term structural factors and actual economic performance, it is also unclear how long those factors would take to constrain GDP growth to a particular level. In fact, 20 years ago, the same long-term factors were used to warn of a possible fall in Chinese GDP growth.

Because of the complexity of China's growth trajectory, many economists seem to base their assessments of potential on performance. After every drop in China's GDP growth since the second quarter of 2012-when growth fell below 8 percent-economists have emerged to declare that performance was in line with potential.

Difficult to determine potential growth rate

To be sure, there are various estimates of China's potential growth rate, ranging from 5 percent to 8 percent. But it is difficult to determine which is reliable. For one thing, there is reason to believe that most estimates fail to discount cyclical factors adequately when calculating the long-term trend.

The danger here lies in the fact that excessively low growth targets, based on excessively low estimates of potential growth, lead to lower actual growth. For an economy the size of China's, a difference of even 1 percentage point has a huge impact on welfare.

Many economists would counter that a conservative growth target is useful-or even necessary-to create space for structural adjustment. But this claim is unconvincing. Reducing China's excessive reliance on investment in real estate-one of the economy's most serious structural problems-does not necessarily require a reduction in FAI growth, let alone GDP growth. Nor is slower GDP growth a prerequisite for improving financial stability.

China must pursue as high a growth rate as possible

In my view, because no one is sure what exactly China's potential growth rate is, the best strategy is to try to achieve as high a growth rate as possible, so long as it doesn't worsen inflation and hinder structural adjustment.

True, the first quarter of 2019 yielded better-than-expected results. But the higher rate of FAI growth was to a large extent driven by a strong increase in investment in real estate, which is likely to weaken sooner or later owing to the government's commitment to cooling China's "real-estate fever". And, given the trade frictions with the US, China's export performance for the rest of 2019 is highly uncertain.

To compensate for declining investment in real estate and weakening exports, China must maintain reasonable growth in infrastructure investment. To that end, the government should pursue higher spending (taking advantage of a strong fiscal position), supported by accommodative monetary policy (amid very low inflation).

Fiscal and monetary expansion may be out of fashion among China's mainstream economists, who insist that structural adjustment must be the priority. But it could go a long way toward bolstering China's economic performance in 2019, without impeding structural reform. The challenge is to strike the right balance.

The author, a former president of the China Society of World Economics and director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, served on the Monetary Policy Committee of the People's Bank of China from 2004 to 2006. Project Syndicate The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.


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