The Chinese test the limits of a state managed economy

Political commentary on economic growth operates between two poles. On the one side the right argues that the state should get out of the way, and allow entrepreneurial businesses full scope to do their thing. On the other, the left says that growth is driven by investment, much of which must be directed by the state to be effective. Both are right, of course, and the balance depends on the circumstances. But China offers a fascinating case study in this discourse.

Until the rise of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China offered a good example of a failed, state-led economy, alongside the Soviet Bloc amongst others. The economy was made up of state owned enterprises (SOEs) and state directed cooperatives, operating according to production quotas, all part of a state plan. But the economy took off as the shackles of state control were released.

This seems to follow the right’s playbook, but what happened was in fact much more subtle. The state quotas and SOEs remained in being, but a private sector economy was allowed to flourish alongside it. This contrasts with what happened in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. There, following the advice of right-wing US economists, the state system was dismantled, with SOEs sold off and production quotas abolished. You can’t be half-pregnant, these advisers suggested. That was disastrous, of course. The SOEs were acquired by well connected crooks, who formed a governing oligarchy. Essential state support systems collapsed. A flourishing economy did not emerge until a natural resources boom saved things.

Meanwhile, China’s pragmatic approach delivered spectacular growth, which led to a rapid diminution of poverty. After a first phase in which private enterprise transformed agriculture, a growing private sector flourished in producing manufactured goods for export. It was one of the most brilliant acts of economic government the world has ever seen. They took no advice from westerners. But the Chinese governing elite was left with some difficult questions. Sooner or later the SOEs and political structures would present limits to growth, and would have to be reformed. Commentators, inside and outside the country, confidently predicted that the Communist Party would have to release its grip. But that is not how things have played out.  The Party did reform SOEs to make them more responsive to market economics, but they did nothing that would threaten its own monopoly of political power.

Instead, as the 21st Century has progressed, a new model of growth has emerged. Alongside a vigorously competitive private sector, a massive programme of state-directed investment has sustained growth. That meant growth rates of 10% or so, even through the world recession of 2008/09. Something like 35% of Chinese national income is directed towards investment, much of it through SOEs. This has now swung towards the left-wing model, and those suspicious of capitalism and democracy have taken inspiration. A wise government, unconstrained by the petty-corruptions of democracy, has led the way to continued spectacular advance – and throwing out all that austerity nonsense too.

But, as Martin Wolf writes in the FT this is all coming into question.  The Chinese economy is slowing down. To an outsider this might look like an orderly transition. Growth rates of 7% are still high by almost anybody’s standards; the government’s aim of moving to an economy led by consumption rather than investment looks natural enough – this will improve the wellbeing of the Chinese people. And yet deep flaws in the Chinese model are being exposed. China has rather little to show for years of massive investment – at least in terms of economic returns, rather than monuments in steel and concrete. And behind the investment lurks piles of debt – representing the savings Chinese people. Chinese productivity has been static.

And slowing the growth rate from 10% to 7% may sound easy, but it creates real strains on financial systems, with all the time lags built into it. It implies a much larger dislocation. But with a stock of useless investments, SOEs who are not used to making themselves more efficient and effective, and a financial system threatened by excessive debt, doubts are growing about how feasible even 7% is as a growth figure. And since China plays such a big part in the world economy, it is no wonder that financiers across the globe are getting jittery.

This has some resonance in domestic politics in the developed world. The left’s criticism of austerity policies since 2008 has been virulent, and joined by many respectable macro-economists. Surely, they suggest, the state should have shored up demand with a programme of investment. Labour leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn’s economic proposals are thick with this sort of thinking. But this only works in two circumstances. First is that the pre-crash economy was sustainable, and can be revived quickly, so all that is needed is to cover a temporary lapse in demand. In this event it hardly matters if the investment itself is useless (digging holes and then filling them in, and so on). But in Britain at least there was good reason to question the sustainability of the pre-crash economy: a large current account deficit, a structural deficit on state finances, a bloated finance sector, a declining oil and gas sector. Besides it is all now a bit late.

The second way in which investment can shore up an economy is if that investment produces decent economic returns in due course, allowing debts to be repaid. The unfolding problems in China are showing what happens if investment is badly directed. There are plenty of other examples (Japan is another good one). The trouble is that the more you try and turn investment on and off like a tap, to regulate the macro-economy or in an explicit drive for growth, the more likely investment is to be wasted. The money is directed according to political imperatives, not economic ones. This is something that macro-economists, who don’t like to look behind their beloved aggregated and averaged statistics, often miss. In the UK the criticism that the government did not invest enough after the crisis remains a valid one – but it would not have been easy to pump in the sort of funds that the wider economy needed to keep on an even keel.

Time will tell on China. Its leaders are not to be underestimated. But they are demonstrating that you can have too much state direction for a healthy economy.