The continuing relevance of Kornai for China

It’s feeling like something of a Kornai moment to me: not long after finishing a nice book covering Kornai’s influence on China of the 1980s, I have stumbled across an excellent discussion of Kornai’s ideas apply to China today.

In the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Literature, Xu Chenggang reviews János Kornai’s Dynamism, Rivalry, and the Surplus Economy. Kornai calls the 2013 book a sequel of sorts to his 1992 classic The Socialist System, as it lays out a conceptual framework for understanding capitalism in contrast to socialism. But Xu also uses the review to think through China’s current situation in the context of Kornai’s framework, especially the key concept of the soft budget constraint:

Two pairs of concepts highlight the analytical framework for contrasting capitalism to socialism: shortage economy versus surplus economy and soft budget constraint (SBC) versus hard budget constraint (HBC). Compared with the distinctive feature of socialism called chronological shortage, which was first pointed out by the author in the 1970s, capitalism is characterized as chronological surplus, which means excess supply, including excess capacity and excess inventories, and labor unemployment. …

One of the major challenges beyond understanding “pure” systems is the hybrid system, which covers most of the economies in the world. China presents an interesting case of such a challenge. The pre-reform socialist China was a shortage economy, which is exactly consistent with Kornai’s predictions. Since the reform, China transformed into a particular type of hybrid system, that is, state capitalism, similar to that in Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy. …

The Chinese economy is a super-surplus economy featured by massive over-capacity, which exceeds the over-capacity problem in all leading capitalist economies in the world. Such an extraordinary over-capacity problem is concentrated in the state sector with SBC. The SBC syndrome and the “forced growth” behavior of the SOEs create shortage under the socialist system. This phenomenon raises the issue of why SBC under state capitalism is associated with surplus. …

In contrast to private firms in capitalism, state firms under state capitalism continually produce and expand unwanted and obsolete products because they are protected by SBC (i.e., no “destruction” policy). The monopolistic power and government protection provide SOEs with the privilege of heavily subsidized capital. They imitate other innovations at extremely low costs because of favorable technology transfer deals from advanced multinational firms that are supported by the government and the monopolized super-large scale of the market (e.g., high-speed train technology). …

In socialism, SBC and lack of competition create shortage. Moreover, SBC is a mechanism that hampers competition. Indeed, market competition was weak in the Central and Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Union (CEE–FSU) reformed economies when central planning was replaced by market mechanisms. Different from CEE–FSU reforms, the large-scale entry of nonstate firms, particularly private firms, makes market competition the norm in the Chinese economy. Even SOEs, which are subject to SBC, are driven to fierce market competition and regional competition.

When high-powered incentives associated with these competitions are given to the CEOs of SOEs for market share or for profits and when SBC serves as insurance against insolvency, SOEs are induced to take bold risks in competition for market shares. This situation seems to be the force that produces extraordinary surplus. Thus, the coexistence of fierce product market competition and severe SBC could trigger more drastic over-capacity problems.

This phenomenon in which SBC under fierce competition may exacerbate surplus can also be observed in leading capitalist economies. Examples include the bad loan problems in Japan and the sub-prime mortgage problem in the United States. If the essential mechanism of SBC is the moral-hazard problem created by the removal of bankruptcy threat (broader than bailing out by an ex ante identifiable agent), the sub-prime mortgage scheme in the United States can be regarded as a sophisticated variation of SBC in advanced capitalism.

Like most of Xu’s work, the whole review is worth a read. I also happen to think that Xu’s 2011 article “The Fundamental Institutions of China’s Reforms and Development” is one of the single best things ever written about the Chinese economy; it and other pieces are at Xu’s profile and bibliography page.

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