With growth on track, China starts to
Its exit will offer a partial preview for others
Finance & economicsMar 6th 2021 edition
Mar 6th 2021
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This article has been updated
THE PHRASE “first in, first out” has become shorthand for China’s experience of
the covid-19 pandemic: it is both where the virus started spreading and the first
large country to control it. Its early failure and subsequent success will be
studied by epidemiologists for years to come. But for economists and investors,
it is another “first in, first out” that matters more at the moment. China was the
first country to open its lending and spending taps in the face of the coronavirus
downturn. Now, it is the first to start to close them, giving others a partial
preview of what the end of stimulus will look like.
Parallels between countries are, of course, imperfect. China, for one, required
less stimulus to begin with, because its workers went back to factories and
offices nearly a full year ago. But a few general conclusions can still be drawn
about its return to more normal monetary and fiscal policies. At the National
People’s Congress, an annual rubber-stamp parliament that began on March 5th,
China’s leaders laid out their basic roadmap.
The most notable aspect is its gradualism. At the opening of the congress, Li
Keqiang, China’s prime minister, announced that China would target a fiscal
deficit of 3.2% of GDP this year, down from last year’s 3.6%. Factoring in other
quasi-fiscal measures such as spending by government-linked companies,
China’s true fiscal deficit will be about 12% of GDP, compared with a record high
of 15% last year, according to Morgan Stanley, a bank. That is a retrenchment,
but still higher than its deficit in 2019, of roughly 10% of GDP.
The central bank has also been cautious. It has withdrawn liquidity to guide up
market interest rates and to slow the growth in bank lending. But both the price
and quantity of credit remain more generous than before the pandemic struck.
“They are aiming to avoid a sharp turn in the policy orientation,” says Zhu Ning
of the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance. With 2021 marking the start of a
new five-year plan for China, officials will be racing to launch infrastructure
projects. The new plan—an important part of the policy process in China—
promises big expansions of railways, power lines and more. That, Mr Zhu says,
should help offset the end of the coronavirus stimulus.
The tightening, however gradual, is bound to be bumpy. In the past couple of
weeks global markets have been roiled by the rise in Treasury yields in America.
China went through a similar squeeze in late January when the central bank was
far stingier in its open-market operations than expected, leading to a spike in
overnight borrowing rates. Stocks fell sharply, though recovered when the
central bank eased up. Officials may have wanted to put investors on notice.
They have also sounded warnings about asset prices. On March 2nd Guo
Shuqing, the top banking regulator, warned of bubbles in the Chinese property
market and global financial markets.
As well as China has done in taming covid-19, its policy normalisation still
depends on the course of the pandemic globally. Domestic travel remains limited
amid lingering concerns about the virus and international travel is largely
blocked. A slow roll-out of vaccines in China means there is no chance that it will
fling open its doors to the world soon.
Nevertheless, given how rough last year was, China’s rebound is likely to be
big—something else that other countries will also enjoy. Many analysts think
growth could be as high as 9% in 2021, up from last year’s 2.3%. But the
government is, publicly at least, setting its sights lower. In his address to the
congress, Mr Li said that China would aim for growth above 6% this year.
Barring any major setbacks, that should be easy to achieve. Even with quarteron-quarter growth of zero for the rest of this year, China would still reach 6%
year-on-year growth for 2021 as a whole. That is thanks to the combined effect
of its strong performance at the end of 2020 and a very low base of comparison
for the first half of the year (growth in the first quarter of 2021 is, for example,
expected to soar to nearly 20% compared with a year earlier, when the country
was in lockdown for part of the time). The target of 6% growth is thus
conservative. It leaves China plenty of wiggle room if the pandemic proves
stubborn, and plenty of scope to taper further if the economy heats up. After all
the troubles of the past year, it makes sense to be flexible.
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