Provided geopolitical movement doesn’t derail his best laid predictions, Gordon Orr sees a year of slowing economic growth, headaches for multinationals, demographic anxiety, and buyer’s remorse for soccer tycoons.
My base case for China’s outlook this year assumes increased trade friction with the United States, with tariffs raised on specific product categories (such as steel and some agricultural goods), and, while I don’t expect across-the-board disruptions, a few high-profile companies will be forced to choose between accommodating the demands of the Chinese or US government.
Of course, if recent statements from US politicians translate into sweeping action on trade, 2017 could develop very differently. Tit-for-tat moves on specific companies and sectors could easily escalate, with many multinationals’ global supply chains caught in the middle and consumers around the world facing product shortages and, when products are available, material price increases. China’s government could implement sweeping actions to sustain employment, restrict further capital outflows, and stimulate the domestic economy. Market-oriented restructuring and reform would be off the table. Economic nationalism, food and energy security, and social stability would be paramount.
But if globally we continue with something recognizably close to current trade arrangements, how will China fare this year? And, most important for a country that regards economic growth as of paramount importance (the centerpiece of China’s 13th five-year plan remains to double GDP and household income in the decade to 2020), can 2016’s GDP growth in the ballpark of 6.5 percent be replicated?
Matching 2016’s economic growth will be a struggle
Where will China’s growth come from this year? It is unlikely to come from exports—even ignoring potential protectionist moves in major export markets, there’s nothing that would significantly increase the world’s demand for Chinese goods. What about currency depreciation to make exports more competitive? That will be quickly offset by rising wages. Could growth come from consumers? Will they feel good enough to increase spending another 8 to 10 percent this year? They will likely spend a lot less on buying property and fitting it out (because of government action to restrain prices and restrict access to mortgage financing) and less on cars if the current tax break expires. Moreover, real salary increases are likely to be the lowest since the Lehman crisis, and with house prices expected to be flat, there won’t be a repeat of last year’s wealth effect. The stimulation of e-commerce making goods available in smaller cities for the first time may help, but technology displacing jobs in services, not just manufacturing, certainly won’t. In fact, its impact is becoming more and more visible, leading more and more consumers to not only worry about losing their jobs but also actually see them eliminated. The impact of technology on creating jobs in fields such as medical and education services will benefit the privileged few with the skills to take advantage, but it will not offset the near-term job losses.