Although there is no reason to believe China´s economy is heading for a crash, the lack of real structural reforms still makes investors worried, writes economist Arthur Kroeber for the Brookings Institute and author of China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know? While the state sector was supposed to shrink, it continues to grow.
The crucial reforms all relate to increasing the role of markets, and decreasing the role of the state in economic activity. China has an unusually large state sector: OECD researchers have estimated that the value of state-owned enterprise assets is around 145 percent of GDP, more than double the figure for the next most state-dominated economy, India. This large state sector functioned well for most of the last two decades, since the main tasks were to mobilize as many resources as possible and build the infrastructure of a modern economy—tasks for which state firms, which are not bound by short-term profit constraints, are well suited.
Now, however, the infrastructure is mostly built and the main task is to make the most efficient use of resources, maximize productivity, and satisfy ever-shifting consumer demand. For this job, markets must take a leading role, and the government must wean itself off the habit of using state-owned firms to achieve its economic ends. And the big worry is that, despite the promises in the November 2013 Third Plenum reform agenda, Beijing does not seem all that willing to let markets have their way.
The concerns stem from the government’s recent interventions in the equity and currency markets. Last June, when a short-lived stock market bubble popped, the authorities forced various state-controlled firms and agencies to buy up shares to stop the rout. This stabilized the market for a while, but left people wondering what would happen when these agencies started selling down the shares they had been forced to buy. To enable these holdings to be sold without disrupting the market, the authorities instituted a “circuit breaker” which automatically suspended stock-exchange trading when prices fell by 5 percent in one day. Instead of calming the market, this induced panic selling, as traders rushed to dump their shares before the circuit breaker shut off trading. The government canceled the circuit breaker, and the market remains haunted by the risk of state-controlled shareholders dumping their shares en masse.
Similarly, Beijing got into trouble in August when it announced a new exchange-rate mechanism that would make the value of the renminbi more market determined. But because it paired this move with a small, unexpected devaluation, many traders assumed the real goal was to devalue the renminbi, and started pushing the currency down. So the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) intervened massively in the foreign exchange markets, spending down its foreign-currency reserves to prop up the value of the renminbi. This stabilized the currency, but brought into question the government’s commitment to a truly market-driven exchange rate.
Then, in December, PBOC made another change, by starting to manage the renminbi against a trade-weighted basket of 13 currencies, rather than against the dollar as in the past. Because the dollar has been strong lately, this in effect meant that PBOC was letting the renminbi devalue against the dollar. Again, PBOC argued that its intention was not to devalue, but simply to establish a more flexible exchange rate. And again, it undermined the credibility of this intention by intervening to prevent the currency from falling against the dollar.
One could argue that these episodes were merely potholes on the road to a greater reliance on markets. This may be so, but investors both inside and outside China are not convinced. The heavy-handed management of the equity and currency markets gives the impression that Beijing is not willing to tolerate market outcomes that conflict with the government’s idea of what prices should be. This runs against the government’s stated commitment in the Third Plenum decision to let market forces “play a decisive role in resource allocation.”
Another source of unease is the slow progress on state enterprise reform. Momentum seemed strong in 2014, when provinces were encouraged to publish “mixed ownership” plans to diversify the shareholding of their firms. This raised hopes that private investors would be brought in to improve the management of inefficient state companies. Yet to date only a handful of mixed-ownership deals have been completed, and many of them involve the transfer of shares to state-owned investment companies, with no private-sector participation. Plans to subject the big centrally controlled state enterprises to greater financial discipline by putting them under holding companies modeled on Singapore’s Temasek have been incessantly discussed, but not put into action. Meanwhile the number of state firms continues to grow, rising from a low of 110,000 in 2008 to around 160,000 in 2014.
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