China has since 2008 engaged in repeated rounds of debt-fueled stimulus policies to prop up economic growth–a pattern that has become so entrenched that many people have forgotten that China ever did anything else. Lots of people, including me, have been critical of these policy choices. Most of these criticisms are, at their base, arguing that China is making the wrong trade-off between the short term and the long term. By focusing too much on preventing short-term growth slowdowns, it is creating more longer-term problems.
There are many examples of such arguments, but a couple of the more recent and systematic ones are worth highlighting. In “Local Crowding Out in China,” by Yi Huang, Marco Pagano, and Ugo Panizza, the authors argue that local governments’ reliance on banks to fund the off-balance-sheet stimulus spending crowded out funds for private-sector investment:
In China, between 2006 and 2013 local government debt almost quadrupled from 5.8% to 22% of GDP. … Given China’s geographically segmented financial market, this increase in local debt created imbalances in local financial markets: to underwrite it, banks curtailed financing to private domestic firms, forcing them to cut down on investment. This local crowding-out was more pronounced in the cities that issued more public debt. Public firms were shielded from the funding scarcity, thanks to preferential access to bank credit and almost exclusive access to bond financing. So were foreign firms, which could turn to their home countries’ capital markets. … Given that private companies are the most dynamic component of the Chinese economy, our results suggest that the large-scale local public debt issuance in connection with massive fiscal stimulus may have sapped the country’s longer-term growth prospects.
A related argument is found in “The Long Shadow of China’s Fiscal Expansion,” by Chong-En Bai, Chang-Tai Hsieh, and Zeng Song, an excellent overview of the post-crisis economic environment. This piece focuses not on the constraints imposed on banks by the need to finance large local government programs, but on the power that this expanded spending gave local governments. They argue that political favoritism has increased, leading to worse investment decisions:
This stimulus was largely financed by the creation of off-balance-sheet companies that allowed local governments to circumvent financial controls. About three-quarters of the stimulus spending was done by these off-balance-sheet companies, on behalf of local governments, with only a small increase in the official budget deficit. After the stimulus spending ended, local governments continued to use their newfound power to obtain access to financial resources.
The result has been an increase in off-balance-sheet local government debt and an increase in investment spending. Local governments, which have long faced high-powered incentives to support favored local businesses, have used this newfound power to channel financial resources toward favored private firms. The effects on the efficiency of capital allocation may, in turn, have had important effects on aggregate productivity growth in recent years.
Personally I find both arguments pretty convincing, as they are well-founded in the realities of how China’s political economy functions. But these kind of criticisms are not new, and so far do not seem to be very convincing to the people actually making economic policy decisions in China. The feared long-term economic damage from the stimulus is difficult to quantify, while the short-term economic costs from a more severe downturn are much more obvious. And to be fair, it is usually not obvious how to make the right trade-offs between the short term and long term.
If I was going to defend the Chinese government’s side in this argument, it would be on the grounds that the long-term damage from deep short-term downturns is indeed fairly severe. And therefore that the best way to ensure incomes rise over the long term is to minimize recessions in the short term. Or, as Napoleon reportedly said: “the game is always with him who commits the fewest faults.”
Some of the strongest support for this view comes from ideas advanced by the economic historian John Joseph Wallis, a collaborator with the great Douglass North. Their wonderful 2009 book Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History argues that the change from slow pre-modern economic growth to fast modern economic growth, and the distinction between poor and rich countries, basically comes down to doing a better job of avoiding economic disasters. Here is a passage from the book:
Economic growth, measured as increases in per capita income, occurs when countries sustain positive growth rates in per capita income over the long term. Over the long stretch of human history before 1800, the evidence suggests that the long-run rate of growth of per capita income was very close to zero. A long-term growth rate of zero does not mean, however, that societies never experienced higher standards of material well-being in the past. A zero growth rate implies that every period of increasing per capita income was matched by a corresponding period of decreasing income. Modern societies that made the transition to open access, and subsequently became wealthier than any other society in human history, did so because they greatly reduced the episodes of negative growth.
The historical pattern of offsetting periods of positive and negative growth episodes is easier to see in the modern world, where we have better data… Strikingly, the richest countries are not distinguished by higher positive growth rates when they do grow. In fact, the richest countries have the lowest average positive growth rates by a substantial amount. …When they grow, poor countries grow faster than rich countries. They are poor because they experience more frequent episodes of shrinking income and more negative growth during the episodes.
Recently Wallis has, in collaboration with Stephen Broadberry, restated and extended this argument using more comprehensive historical data. The idea is being dubbed “shrink theory,” and as one commentator has already noted, its implications are on the face of it very negative for “any kind of theory that holds that economic recessions are purifying, ultimately beneficial to the economy, and even good for the national character.”
So if the Chinese government wanted to make an economically literate defense of its stimulus policies, it could do worse than to embrace the shrink theory of Wallis and Broadberry. Perhaps there is no hard tradeoff between the short term and the long term: keeping growth going in the short term is also the best way to maximize income gains over the long term. Officials could argue they do not need to spend time worrying about measures that might damage long-term productivity growth, since no one really knows what causes long-term productivity growth anyway, and are right to focus on preventing deep and damaging cyclical downturns.
Yet I think it is unlikely that Wallis and Broadberry will be speaking at a Politburo study session anytime soon, as the their main argument is not really about how to do counter-cyclical economic policy, but about the relationship between political systems and economic growth. They argue some societies are better at avoiding damaging economic downturns because they have more open and flexible political systems–ones that are better at decision-making and avoiding instability and violence in power transitions. I don’t know if they have articulated a specific view on China, but it seems likely that they would view China’s political system as still being at risk of generating damaging instability and an associated economic downturn in the future.