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Why China’s economic rebound has fallen short of expectations

Sabri Ben-Achour Aug 7, 2023
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Consumers saddled with debt after China's housing bubble burst are less inclined to go on spending sprees. Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images

Why China’s economic rebound has fallen short of expectations

Sabri Ben-Achour Aug 7, 2023
Heard on:
Consumers saddled with debt after China's housing bubble burst are less inclined to go on spending sprees. Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Following the end of China’s zero-COVID whiplash almost exactly seven months ago, a lot of economists and analysts assumed the full might of the second-largest economy in the world would be unleashed. That hasn’t quite happened.

“You’d have roughly 5% to 6% growth,” said Logan Wright, a partner at Rhodium Group, of initial expectations. “That would be driven by a rebound in household consumption based on savings that had been accumulated during the pandemic.”

The comeback was expected to be so intense, he said, that it would add to global demand for a lot of products and maybe contribute more to inflation here in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“None of those trends have materialized,” Wright said.

There has been a rebound, but he added that it’s been weaker than expected — even below typical pre-pandemic levels. Prices are flat or even falling; households aren’t spending. However, the main reason, Wright said, is that the property sector is in trouble.

“The basic story is that supply, in terms of new construction, just ran well ahead of fundamental demand for housing in China,” he explained.

A lot of consumers got caught up in what amounted to a housing bubble, which saddled many with debts for homes that never materialized. Consumers dealing with that are not about to go on wild shopping sprees.

There may be bigger issues at play too, according to Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“China is sitting on a mountain of debt,” he said — particularly at the local government level. “And a demographic transition graying of the population together making it difficult for any type of stimulus they provide to actually bite.”

In the past, Beijing has lit a fire under its economy through investment, often debt-driven, in infrastructure and manufacturing.

“That couldn’t go on forever,” said Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics at Princeton University. “There’s only so much infrastructure you can build and only so many Chinese exports that other countries can absorb.”

He questions whether a government used to tight control will let its economy be innovative and productive enough to spur high growth. On the other hand, China has defied expectations in the past.

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