The Coasian argument for duplicate investment

China’s car industry seems to defy the logic of specialization. The industry had its origins in two big state-owned facilities founded decades ago: First Automotive Works, based in Changchun, Jilin province, and Second Automotive Works, based in Wuhan, Hubei province. Now known as FAW Group Corp. and Dongfeng Motor Corp., their corporate successors are still among China’s leading automakers. But auto production has spread far from its original locations: Guangdong and Shanghai are now the leading producers, and in fact most of China’s 31 provinces produce at least some cars. Rather than clustering in a few specialized regions, auto production is spread across the whole country.

This pattern holds true for many other industries, from steel to solar panels, and has long been seen as a sign of how China’s peculiar institutions distort market forces. From the Maoist push for local self-sufficiency in the 1960-70s to local protectionism and the debt-driven drive for growth in later decades, political pressures are seen as having led to unnecessary and duplicate investments across regions. As Ronald Coase and Ning Wang write in their 2012 book How China Became Capitalist:

Through specialization and trade, any specific industry will be concentrated in a few areas and different areas will specialize in supplying different products in accordance with their particular advantages. As a result, the fact that many regions in China make duplicative investments in the same industry is taken as unambiguous evidence of the presence of policy distortions in the economy, contradicting the economic logic of specialization and trade.

There are many interesting things about their book, starting with its authorship: Coase was over 100 years old at the time of its publication, and it was his last major work before his death in 2013. Rather than a theoretical treatise, most of the book is a quite detailed historical account of Chinese economic policymaking based on primary sources in Chinese. It is distinguished from more standard accounts both by its factual narrative, which de-emphasizes the role of Deng Xiaoping and emphasizes the contributions of local figures and other leaders, and by how it places these those developments in a clear analytical framework.

Their discussion of the pattern of duplicative investment across regions is the occasion for one of the more interesting and unconventional arguments in the book: that these seemingly superfluous investments are actually a sign of regional competition, and that this regional competition is an important motor of China’s economic development. The fact that every locality in China seems to want a car plant and a steel plant is not, on their argument, a sign that Maoist self-sufficiency still holds sway in China, but an indication that every locality can now participate in a unified national market. The competition among regions may seem wasteful from the perspective of returns on capital invested, but it has benefits to human capital and overall development:

Without some degree of duplicative investment across regions, it would be impossible to allow regions to compete with each other head-on. If we view the development of a market economy as an open learning process, in which economic actors must figure out what to produce and how to organize the production, some “waste” in duplicative investment on the part of firms is inevitable.

While duplicative investment has led to the underutilization of physical capital, it has at the same time helped to spread manufacturing technologies and significantly improve workers’ skills all over China. The gains in human capital outweigh the losses from the underutilization of physical capital. From a different angle, the repetitive and duplicative investment across China can be seen as an effective mechanism of social learning: quickly spreading industrialization to a largely agrarian economy.

This is an interesting and persuasive argument. China does have many patterns that tend to look bad at the firm level but are good at driving overall economic development–a distinction that Coase and Wang refer to using Alfred Marshall’s distinction between “internal economies” (within the firm) and “external economies.”

But I wonder whether this is another example of an argument that works for one phase of China’s development, and not for all. The narrative of events in their book mostly ends in the late 1990s, and does not deal with post-2008 events at all. The patterns of local government-led investment in China has changed substantially with the explosion of debt-driven infrastructure projects since 2008. The dynamics of elite politics and policymaking are also quite different these days, and have lost many of the positive features that Coase and Wang highlight. It is not a given that gains to human capital will always outweigh losses on physical capital, and the balance may have shifted by now.

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