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The G20’s China Bet

The G20’s China Bet

People walk in front of a construction site at Beijing's Xidan shopping district June 18, 2010. China's economy will keep up its robust pace of growth despite the euro zone debt crisis and may exceed the United States to become the world's largest economy in 2020, an academic adviser to the central bank said in remarks published on Friday. REUTERS/Bobby Yip  (CHINA - Tags: BUSINESS CONSTRUCTION SOCIETY)

Courtesy of Simon Johnson at Baseline Scenario

The G20 communiqué, released after the Toronto summit on Sunday, made it quite clear that most industrialized countries now have budget deficit reduction fever (see this version, with line-by-line comments by me, Marc Chandler and Arvind Subramanian).  The US resisted the pressure to cut government spending and/or raise taxes in a precipitate manner, but the sense of the meeting was clear – cut now to some extent and cut more tomorrow.

This makes some sense if you think that the global economy is in robust health and likely to grow at a rapid clip – say close to 5 percent per annum – for the foreseeable future.  With high global growth, it will matter less that governments are cutting back and unemployment will come down regardless.  Taking this into account, the IMF is actually predicting (as cited prominently by the G20) that budget “consolidation” actually raise growth over a five-year horizon.

There is no question that some weaker European countries, such as Greece, Portugal, and Ireland, had budget deficits that were out of control.  Particularly if they are to pay back all their foreign borrowing – a controversial idea that remains the conventional wisdom – these countries need some austerity.  But what about those larger countries, which remain creditworthy, such as Germany, France, the UK, and the US?  If these economies all decide to reduce their budget deficits, what will drive global growth?The answer in Toronto was obvious: China.  China is only about 6 percent of the world economy, measured using prevailing exchange rates, but it has a disproportionate influence on other emerging markets due to its seemingly insatiable demand for commodities.  It also has a relatively healthy fiscal balance – and its fiscal stimulus, working mostly through infrastructure investment, did a great job in terms of buffering the real economy in the face of declining world trade in 2008-09.

Now, however, the Chinese government is trying to slow the economy down – there is fear of “overheating”, which could mean inflation or rising real wages (depending on who you talk to).  Chinese economic statistics are notoriously unreliable, so reading the tea leaves is harder than for some other economies, but most of the leading indicators suggest that some sort of slowdown is now underway. 

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