China’s housing crisis is an institutional crisis

There’s a tendency among economic and financial analysts to treat all housing crises as essentially the same. Housing is a long-lived asset purchased with leverage, therefore it’s not surprising to see a common pattern of a buildup of leverage leading to higher prices leading to excess construction, which at some gets out of hand and then is followed by collapsing prices, construction and leverage. Yet the details of housing markets do matter, and vary quite a lot between countries. As with Tolstoy’s line about unhappy families, every housing crisis is a bit different and exposes a different set of institutional flaws.

The housing crisis that China is now experiencing centers on its peculiar institutions for selling housing before it is built. Housing sales are plunging, not precisely because households can’t get mortgages or fear falling prices, but because they no longer trust that developers will actually complete and deliver housing bought in advance. There is good reason for that, as some of the nation’s largest developers have become so financially stressed that they have stopped construction on projects, including those that have already been paid for. Households that own units in the affected projects have tried to draw attention to their plight with online protests and threats to stop paying their mortgages.

It is a bit complicated to explain how this extraordinary sequence of events happened, but I have not yet seen a better explanation of the issues in English than in this piece from Caixin, which is worth quoting at length:

Although developers in many countries are allowed to sell homes before they finish building them, the practice in China is special in two ways.

First, homebuyers have to pay in full when they decide to buy. Usually, they produce a downpayment for a mortgage and the bank covers the rest. But in other countries like the UK, buyers of presale homes only need to come up with a deposit to reserve a property. They don’t need to pay off a mortgage until their homes are delivered. This full-payment requirement has helped developers raise cash quickly.

Second, until recently, Chinese developers had been allowed to use the bulk of their presale revenue for whatever they wanted. Although China has laws and regulations requiring developers to set aside enough money to finish construction on their housing projects, local governments and banks had allowed them to sidestep some of the rules, including the requirement that presale funds must be deposited into government-supervised escrow accounts. Instead, a vast amount of presale funds ended up in developers’ own accounts.

It didn’t really matter that developers hadn’t socked away as much money in escrow as they were supposed to. They were still able to finish their projects because they could always get their hands on more money, either through loans from banks and trust companies and issuing bonds, or by starting new projects. New homes were usually easy to sell. But when this changed, and it became harder to get financing and sell new homes, the business model fell apart.

The two issues here are that 1) China’s system for financing the construction of new housing put an unusual amount of risk onto households, 2) the legal safeguards in place to protect households from those risks were in practice routinely ignored. A recent post by Ren Zeping, a celebrity economist who used to work for China Evergrande, the giant developer whose troubles precipitated the current crisis, explains more of the background to both issues. Why does China have such a peculiar system?

The simple story is that the advance sale of commercial housing originated from Hong Kong, as a way for developers to put on leverage. In the mainland, the 1998 housing reform borrowed from Hong Kong’s experience and introduced the presales system due to the shortage of commercial housing and the shortage of funds at developers. In fact, a presales system currently exists in many countries around the world.

But here is the important point! Developed countries generally have very strict regulatory safeguards. Developers can start selling only after the project has been approved by the government, and buyers do not, as in China, pay the full amount of the purchase price at once with a bank loan after paying a deposit, but pay in installments according to the developer’s construction progress before delivery is completed. Therefore, the presales system requires strict supervision of funds with installment payments and penalties for default as safeguards.

The first cause of the current loss of faith in China’s housing institutions is thus that those institutions were poorly designed at the outset. In the early stages of the creation of a commercial housing market, when the priority was financing new construction to replace the dilapidated Maoist-era housing stock, it probably made sense to prioritize the interests of developers over those of urban households. That initial decision, however, created a path dependency, so that developers were permitted to keep transferring risk to households long after there was a reasonable justification for it.

The second cause, as the Caixin article clearly demonstrates, is the failure to enforce the rules that actually existed. When homebuyers paid in full for a housing unit that they would not take possession of for years, their interests were supposed to be protected by requirements to use those funds to actually complete the project. It was an open secret in the industry that these requirements were not enforced. Caixin quotes an executive at a property developer saying they could actually do whatever they wanted with 90% of the presales revenue they received.

Ren Zeping describes a couple of ways in which developers could get access to the funds. The property developer and the contractor could collude, with the contractor requesting more money for construction than was actually needed, and then sending the excess to the developer (which could then use it to start more projects). Or the developer could convince the local government and the bank that are supervising the funds to approve the release of money from the account, for instance by exaggerating the actual progress on construction.

There are undoubtedly many other such dodges and schemes. But the general point is that the institutions that were supposed to be protecting the interests of Chinese households in the housing market did not, and instead were corrupted by developers. It’s no wonder people are protesting. The authorities who were tasked ensuring developers met their obligations to households failed to do so until it was far too late (local governments have reportedly tightened supervision of presales funds over the past year). The current housing crisis is thus not simply a failure of technical regulation, but also a failure of ethics and the rule of law. Proposals for institutional fixes will have to reckon with this demonstrated difficulty in ensuring even-handed enforcement of rules around real estate, an area where corporate and local government interests are so strong.

The strange case of China’s self-employment statistics

It is a well-known habit of Chinese government officials to pepper their public remarks with statistics. Very occasionally, this habit leads to the disclosure of some new information. At a press conference early this year, a deputy director of the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), which among other responsibilities handles the legal registration of businesses, waxed enthusiastic about the rapid growth in small businesses–specifically getihu, meaning individual businesses or sole proprietorships. In the process, he dropped some big numbers:

The Party Central Committee and the State Council attach great importance to the development of individual businesses. By the end of 2021, the number of registered individual businesses nationwide had reached 103 million, accounting for two-thirds of the total number of market entities. Passing 100 million is a historic breakthrough. Among them, 90% are concentrated in the service industry, mainly in wholesale and retail, accommodation and catering and residential services.

According to a survey, the average number of people employed by individual businesses is 2.68 people. Based on this survey, it is estimated that individual businesses nationwide provide employment for 276 million people in our country. This is very impressive.

The last two figures cited by Pu Chun are indeed very impressive: 276 million people is 37% of the nationwide employed population, an extraordinary figure. Employment by sole proprietorships, which basically means self-employment, is the most internationally comparable way of measuring informal employment. It is, for instance, the measure adopted in a recent World Bank report, The Long Shadow of Informality, which collates and compares worldwide data on the informal economy. If the SAMR figures are correct, they would indicate that self-employment and thus informal employment in China are much more prevalent than previously thought.

Prior to SAMR’s announcement, the government had not published a figure for the number of people employed by sole proprietorships for the past two years. The last published estimate by the National Bureau of Statistics was that sole proprietorships employed 177 million people as of 2019, equivalent to 23.4% of the employed population. As SAMR reported 83 million registered getihu that year, those figures imply that sole proprietorships employ an average of 2.14 people each. The most accurate estimate is probably from the 2018 economic census, a massive effort to enumerate all businesses in China conducted every five years, which counted 149 million people employed by getihu, or 21.2% of the workforce; the census figure of 63 million getihu works out to an average of 2.37 people each.

The SAMR survey cited by Pu Chun, about which no other information was disclosed, therefore implies that either roughly 100 million people moved from formal employment to self-employment in two years; or that all previous estimates of self-employment had somehow missed around 100 million people and that SAMR, an agency with no previous experience in collating employment statistics, had gotten it right. Neither of these possibilities is very likely.

SAMR itself holds the administrative records for business registrations, so there is no reason to doubt its count of the number of sole proprietorships. But its survey showing average employment of 2.68 people, 25% more than the historical data, is hard to believe. Given the recent increase in gig workers such as delivery drivers, many of whom are independent contractors registered as sole proprietorships, it’s more likely that the average number of employees per getihu is falling not rising. China’s 103 million sole proprietorships do probably employ well over 200 million people, but the 276 million figure is implausible.

What is somewhat mysterious is why SAMR officials would wish to exaggerate the extent of self-employment in China in this way. A high degree of self-employment is usually considered a sign of a less developed economy; to quote the World Bank report, “countries with larger informal sectors have lower per capita incomes, greater poverty, less developed financial sectors, and weaker growth in output, investment, and productivity.” The World Bank uses the economic census figure of 21.2% of China’s workforce being self-employed; that puts China right along the trend line of a cross-country comparison (see the chart below reproduced from the report). If instead 37% of China’s workforce is self-employed, as SAMR effectively claims, then China would actually be an international outlier with an unusually high level of informality for its level of income. Having a very high level of self-employment doesn’t actually make China look better in a global context.

The best explanation is domestic political incentives. Over the past several years, Premier Li Keqiang has waged a campaign to improve the environment for small businesses, and he never misses a chance to talk about how important they are to the Chinese economy. Li has also implemented several measures that have lowered the costs and simplified the procedure for registering businesses. Their most dramatic effect has been in new registrations of getihu, which have surged to 9-10 million per year from 5-6 million previously (see my previous post, What’s behind China’s boom in company formation?).

Since SAMR, as the agency in charge of business registrations, can take credit for this increase, it has some incentive to claim that its efforts are benefiting the economy by creating jobs. As the National Bureau of Statistics has, for whatever reason, stopped publishing the standard data on self-employment, SAMR has an open field to put its own numbers out there. The size of self-employment has thus become a figure by which SAMR can advertise its administrative accomplishments rather than an objective tool for analyzing the structure of the labor market.

It’s a pity that the it is becoming harder to understand the evolution of China’s labor market, as the changes in recent years have been dramatic. The rise in self-employment is part of a trend of polarization: there has been relatively low growth in high-paying manufacturing and service jobs and lots of growth in worse-paid labor-intensive service jobs. The key text documenting this shift is an open-access paper by Scott Rozelle and several co-authors: “Moving Beyond Lewis: Employment and Wage Trends in China’s High- and Low-Skilled Industries and the Emergence of an Era of Polarization,” much of which is also summarized in a useful CSIS briefing.

Even if the share of self-employment is not as high as SAMR claims, it has still been rising over time. Based on available data, I estimate it was about 29% in 2021, up sharply from just 17% in 2016; however, there’s a lot of uncertainty about this estimate because much of the recent surge in registered sole proprietorships could be an administrative rather than real phenomenon. Nonetheless, the trend is clearly the opposite of what one would normally expect to happen as China, already an upper-middle-income country, gets closer to high-income status.

State capacity and the income tax

State capacity is a difficult concept to make concrete: a government’s ability to do stuff is obviously important, but how to tell if it is high or low? As a useful overview over at the Broadstreet blog shows, the most common way to measure state capacity in general is to measure fiscal capacity: the government’s ability to extract revenue from the economy. This makes sense historically, as the growth over the last few centuries of governments’ ability to do things like wage wars and provide social benefits went hand-in-hand with the development of tax systems and debt markets.

For the 20th century onward, the authors suggest a more precise metric: “To measure the fiscal capacity of the modern state, we use the share of income tax revenue in total tax revenue, as the collection of the income tax calls for high administrative capacity to ensure compliance.” This is an interesting choice, as on this measure China is a real edge case. Taking a quick look at the OECD Global Revenue Statistics Database, which covers over 100 nations, here is a list of the dozen countries with the lowest share of individual income tax revenue (for China only a 2019 figure is available, the others are the average of 2015-19):

CountryIndividual income tax,
share of tax revenue
Côte d’Ivoire0.3%
Bolivia0.8%
Paraguay1.7%
Antigua and Barbuda1.8%
Guatemala3.4%
China4.8%
Costa Rica5.7%
Colombia6.2%
Nicaragua6.3%
Togo7.0%
Cameroon7.0%
Mali7.3%
Source: OECD Global Revenue Statistics Database

A measure of state capacity on which China underperforms Nicaragua and Mali is probably a measure that is not capturing some important dimensions of actual state capacity. To take just some of the most obvious physical manifestations of administrative and technical ability, the governments of the other countries on this list are not operating their own rovers on Mars, or managing massive numbers of infrastructure construction projects both domestically and across borders. And whatever you think of China’s zero-Covid policies, it is unquestionable that local governments are displaying extraordinary logistical capabilities in organizing the mass testing of millions of people on short notice. The common claim that these policies demonstrate “China’s strong capacity for resource mobilization” is certainly correct (whether resources are being mobilized in the best way is another question).

Why does this measure get China wrong? To some extent, the focus on income taxes overly privileges a particular set of institutions as representing capacity. The actual structure of taxation reflects more than just administrative ability: which taxes are levied is a political decision. In recent decades, China’s government has consistently made the political decision to exempt most of the lower classes from income taxes, and to tolerate plenty of tax evasion by the upper classes.

It would indeed be difficult for China to build the administrative systems to levy a more broad-based income tax, but probably not impossible. China has, for instance, successfully administered a broad-based value-added tax for more than two decades. If you were to rank countries instead by the share of value-added taxes in total taxation, then China’s share of 30.2% would put it comfortably above the OECD average of 20.3% (and the US, of course, would be at the bottom with zero, as it has consistently made the political decision not to levy a VAT).

Nonetheless, there is still some useful information in the fact that China is an outlier in terms of this particular measure of state capacity. It suggests that the nature of China’s state capacity is different from that of your common or garden-variety Western social welfare state. The Chinese government’s ability to extract and mobilize resources does not work primarily through formal fiscal channels. It is well known that off-budget instruments like local-government land sales and the operations of state-owned enterprises are extremely important in the economy.

More broadly, both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Chinese state are tied up with its peculiar institutional structure and political heritage. China is a Leninist party-state that penetrates the private sector and civil society, operates more through political directives than formal legal instruments, and regularly undertakes mobilizational campaigns to achieve society-wide transformation. The capacity of its Leninist institutions is hard to measure precisely because they often hide behind conventional state forms, but is no less real for that.

What’s behind China’s boom in company formation?

Here is an interesting empirical fact about the Chinese economy that does not easily fit into the usual narratives: under Xi Jinping, more new private-sector companies are being created every year than at any period in its modern history. This of course is exactly the kind of factoid China’s government regularly trots out to demonstrate the vitality of its private sector. In March, the People’s Daily published a front-page article extolling the fact that the number of private companies had quadrupled from 10.9 million in 2012, when Xi took office, to 44.6 million in 2021. (I don’t actually read the People’s Daily every day, but I do subscribe to Manoj Kewalramani’s invaluable Tracking People’s Daily newsletter). Company formation is one of the ways of tracking what is usually called business dynamism: how much entrepreneurial activity is happening in an economy.

The figures are even more interesting than the propagandists seemed to realize. While the official publication of company registration data has been intermittent at best, the People’s Daily article and accompanying chart allow some of the holes in that published data to be filled in. The combined data provide a picture of private-company formation in China over roughly the past two decades. Before 2012, the population of private local companies was increasing by around 1 million or less every year (this is the net increase; there is even less data available on the gross number of new company registrations). Net company formation accelerated over 2013-15, and since 2016 has been running steadily around 4 million or more per year. There’s been an even more dramatic acceleration in the formation of new sole proprietorships (getihu: not companies with a separate legal existence, but businesses run as part of a household): the net increase was over 10 million in both 2020 and 2021, up from around 3 million in 2021.

That is a pretty dramatic change in the trend. The cause is well-documented: a systematic official effort, beginning around 2014 and continuing through the present day, to lower the costs and simplify the process of forming new companies (I wrote a piece about it back in 2014). The OECD is one of the few organizations that have attempted to systematically evaluate the effects of these changes (the much-maligned Doing Business survey of the World Bank was another). Here is some commentary from its just-published 2022 Economic Survey of China, which quantifies the administrative burdens on start-ups relative to other countries:

Enterprises in China are subject to somewhat lighter burden than in the average OECD country, though higher than in Japan, Germany or Italy. In some major non-OECD economies, such as Brazil or South Africa, the burden is much higher than in China. … Only one institution needs to be contacted to start a business in China, compared with the OECD average of around four. This is the same as in the frontrunner countries of Australia, Canada, Greece, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania or New Zealand, where to set up a new firm it is also enough to contact a single institution. There is neither minimum capital requirement nor monetary costs for registering a limited liability firm in China, which is in line with the best practice in OECD countries.

Substantially reducing the barriers to company formation to close to rich-country levels is a pretty decent accomplishment. It’s not a bad legacy for Premier Li Keqiang, whose signature initiative this has been and who is finishing his last year in office. What’s curious, though, is that the enormous boom in private-company formation in recent years has not had very visible macroeconomic effects. Economic growth is not any faster: growth in labor productivity has averaged 6.6% annually in the seven years since 2015, compared to 8.4% in the prior seven years. Of course, a lot of factors have combined to slow China’s economic growth recently, so growth might have slowed even more without this boom in company formation.

But there also hasn’t been any noticeable change in the structure of national income. Since barriers to company formation have fallen, and the pace of company formation has increased, we might reasonably think that a greater share of economic activity is now taking place inside legal corporate entities rather than in the informal economy. Yet the share of corporate profits in national income (technically, gross operating surplus in the fund of flows) has remained basically unchanged around 26% since 2015. Business profits generated by households rather than companies (through sole proprietorships, getihu), have also been stable around 5% of GDP. (The chart below uses the OECD’s presentation of China’s flow of funds, which is more standardized and easier to interpret than the one published by the National Bureau of Statistics; thanks to Bert Hofman for the pointer).

In other words, although the population of private companies in China has gotten much larger, the share of economic activity generated by those companies has not. Some of the increase in private company formation could thus be because it is now easier for people to create multiple corporate legal entities, rather than because there has been a true increase in the rate of entrepreneurship.

The flow of funds data goes only to 2019, and so doesn’t show what happened during the two pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. By all accounts, these were horrible periods for small businesses in consumer-facing services like restaurants and tourism. They lost huge revenues during the initial lockdown of 2020, enjoyed a few months of rebound in the latter half of 2020, and then settled in for months of disappointment in 2021 as waves of intermittent Covid restrictions discouraged travel and recreation. Things have obviously gotten even worse in 2022. Data from OECD countries show that new firm creation generally fell substantially in 2020, so the fact that in China net company formation actually picked up is surprising. Of course, China’s pandemic economic trajectory in 2020 was quite different from the OECD countries. But it’s also possible that the well-documented mass closures of small business during lockdowns are not fully showing up in the company registration data: companies could stop operating without canceling their registration. (Friends who have companies in China tell me that canceling your registration is difficult and time-consuming and often not worth the bother.)

The biggest surge in registrations has not been for private companies but for sole proprietors/getihu: the pace in 2020-21 was roughly double that of 2015-16. Because sole proprietorships have inherent limitations to scale (they can’t hire more than a few people) and no limited liability, they are usually more of a vehicle for self-employment. The desire to be an entrepreneur can be a reason to choose self-employment, but in developing countries like China, self-employment is often the result of a lack of more stable job opportunities. It can also be the channel for more modern forms of unstable employment: drivers for delivery and ride-hailing services often register as sole proprietors, which makes them contractors not employees. The increase in sole proprietorships does appear to be part of a broader structural change in China’s employment patterns: an important 2020 article by Scott Rozelle and colleagues documents a sustained rise in the share of employment in informal, low-wage service sectors.

It’s certainly not a bad thing that it has become easier for Chinese people to establish companies. But the rather ambiguous economic evidence suggests that the surge in private-company formation over the last several years is not a simple story of rising business dynamism.

The consensus on centralization

Dylan Levi King has a nice essay out in Palladium on the history of decentralization in China, opening with the assertion that “the most significant reform carried out in China after 1978 was one of systematic decentralization.” It is difficult to disagree with this. As the best China scholarship of the last few decades has made clear, local initiative played a central role in the country’s growth miracle–see for instance Jean Oi’s book on local state corporatism, or Xu Chenggang’s classic article on “regionally decentralized authoritarianism”.

Decentralization was one of Deng Xiaoping’s most important policies, but King’s piece is good on its pre-1978 history. Deng justified his experiments with reference to a principle that Mao articulated in a famous 1956 speech: “Our territory is so vast, our population is so large and the conditions are so complex that it is far better to have the initiative come from both the central and the local authorities than from one source alone.” Mao distrusted bureaucrats and central planning, and in fact economic planning in China of the 1950s and 1960s was error-prone and often incompetent. Mao instead celebrated bottom-up initiative and self-reliance, which were important themes of the alternative economic model he tried to implement in the Cultural Revolution. As a result the organizational structure of China’s state-owned enterprises became significantly more decentralized than in the Soviet Union and its European satellites.

Yet while Maoist decentralization was good at tearing down rational bureaucratic structures, it was bad at actually encouraging autonomy and local initiative. Local factories and agricultural communes may have been told they had authority to make their own decisions, but in reality they lived in an oppressive environment of repeated political campaigns in which the only safe thing to do was to parrot the slogan of the moment. Mao’s China rhetorically celebrated local self-reliance while harshly punishing political deviance–an incoherent combination. As a result local initiative remained a rhetorical trope rather than a concrete reality: there was for instance hardly any local economic specialization during the 1970s. After 1978, Deng made decentralization real by officially calling a halt to the endless rounds of political purges and telling cadres instead to focus on economic development.

The reason to review all this history now, of course, is that Xi Jinping seems to be pushing to revise this pattern of decentralization and implement more effective top-down control by the central government. King’s piece points out that “local experimentation has slowed” under Xi as he has formalized the legal boundaries of local government authority. (One recent example of this trend is how the National People’s Congress recently issued an authorization for local authorities to conduct trials of a property tax, a legal nicety that was not thought necessary when such trials were first launched in 2011.) Xi is also using the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to investigate and punish not just corrupt officials but those who fail to carry out central instructions sufficiently expeditiously.

These are extremely important changes in China’s political economy that deserve attention. But the drive to recentralize authority in Beijing did not start with Xi: the reaction to the excesses and problems of decentralization had already begun while Deng was still alive. In the roughly two decades between Deng’s retreat from active decision-making and Xi’s ascent to the top job, the top leadership consistently pursued a centralizing agenda that sought to increase the share of administrative power and financial resources controlled by the central government. This trend began around 1993, shortly after Deng’s revival of market reforms in his 1992 southern tour. According to an account by Pieter Bottelier, the idea of re-centralization crystallized at a conference held in Dalian in June 1993 with participation from World Bank and Chinese officials:

The conference marked a turning point in the national debate on two major issues: (a) the appropriate degree of economic centralization for China and (b) the management of aggregate demand in China’s semi-reformed economy. Many reports on China’s reforms since 1978 rightly emphasize the importance and benefits of economic decentralization. Few focused on the partial re-centralization of 1993/94 which followed the Dalian conference.

In the early 1990s some central government leaders began to think that China’s irregular, stop-go pattern economic performance of the 1980s – with spikes of high investment and high inflation – was due to excessive administrative decentralization. By delegating fiscal and financial powers to lower-level governments, while at the same time transferring ownership of most state-owned enterprises to those governments, Deng Xiaoping had been very successful in stimulating growth, as was his intention. But the system had also led to a loss of control by the central government over investment planning by lower level governments and local financing. …To correct this problem, a partial re-centralization of administrative controls was thought to be needed, but it was recognized that this would be politically very unpopular in the provinces.

The debates at the conference were followed by a package of fiscal reforms that reversed the sharp decline in the central government’s share of tax revenue and gave it more authority to redistribute resources around the country. The debate over fiscal decentralization in the mid-1990s tied into the increasing discussion of widening regional inequalities; influential scholars argued for more vigorous central government action to spread the benefits of prosperity more widely. That line of thinking ultimately resulted in the launch of the Great Western Development program under Jiang Zemin, which was only the first in a wide range of regional aid policies that have been successively rolled out by the central government.

Since then, the argument over centralization has moved onto different issues but the general drift often remains the same. In 2007, when I was working at The Wall Street Journal, I wrote a piece about the Hu Jintao administration’s attempts to reassert central authority over local governments, focusing mainly on regulatory issues and real estate rather than tax revenue. Re-reading that piece now, it’s striking how essentially all the talking heads I interviewed saw this as a good and necessary thing: re-centralization was endorsed as the correct technocratic move, just as it was in the 1990s.

This consistency over three different decades suggests a long-standing elite consensus on the need for the central government to re-centralize authority and manage the country in a consistent and considered fashion. Hu attempted to act on that consensus, but his attempts to claw back more authority for the central government did not get that far. The ultimate reason for this is probably that Hu was never able to consolidate his own political power and centralize authority in his person, in part because Jiang Zemin kept hanging around to prevent it. Xi, of course, has consolidated political power with extraordinary efficacy, which means that his efforts at re-centralization are likely to more effective. He has also been able to take advantage of the US-China trade war and Covid-19 pandemic to create an atmosphere of national emergency. As the economic historian Charles Kindleberger once observed, societies are more amenable to centralization of authority during times of crisis.

Nonetheless I suspect that, given the elite consensus on centralization, any other moderately competent Chinese politician would be trying to do something similar in Xi’s place (though perhaps using different methods). China’s real-estate boom has acted as a powerful centrifugal force in the economy over the years, increasing the resources under the control or influence of local governments. As a result, more than two decades after Zhu Rongji’s fiscal reforms, China remains a highly fiscally decentralized nation. It’s worth pointing out, as the chart above shows, that the central government’s share of total government revenues, once local land sales are included, is now as low as it was during the fiscal emergency of the early 1990s. Xi’s efforts to discipline property developers and stamp out housing speculation, which are currently causing great financial stress, can thus be seen as part of this long-running struggle against the fissiparous tendencies in the Chinese economy.

Food security and structural transformation

There is a new working paper out from the Bank of Japan, written by four authors from its international department, considering the prospects for China’s productivity growth over the long term. It’s pretty interesting and not just the usual stuff. One of the novel aspects is its analysis of food security. While that’s not a traditional topic for a productivity analysis, the logic is pretty straightforward.

Part of the growth in China’s labor productivity is coming not just from improving the productivity of specific industries, but from the shift of workers across industries (since China’s workforce stopped growing about a decade ago, labor productivity growth accounts for virtually all of its GDP growth: GDP growth = growth in output per worker + growth in number of workers). The structural transformation of the economy–moving workers from sectors where they produce less value-added, like agriculture, to those where they produce more value-added, like manufacturing–is one of the fundamental motors of economic development.

The authors estimate that out of China’s 10.7% average annual productivity growth from 2006-10, moving workers across sectors accounted for about 2 percentage points, and about 1.5 percentage points of the 7.6% growth from 2011-15 (these numbers are not given in the text, so I estimated them from a chart; apologies for any inaccuracy). But the reallocation of labor across sectors contributed less than 0.5 percentage points of the 6.9% growth over 2016-19, so a slowdown in structural change does seem to a factor in China’s overall growth slowdown.

The authors suggest that if the government’s concerns for food security lead it to try to keep workers in agriculture, that could impede structural transformation and therefore slow growth. They model a future growth trajectory for China that suggests that if its industries continue on the same path of productivity convergence and structural change as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, it can grow by an average of about 4.8% until 2035. But that trajectory of structural transformation would mean a continued sharp decline in the agricultural share of employment, and thus (since labor productivity growth in agriculture is slow) in agricultural output. So a continued rapid pace of structural transformation may not be compatible with food security. Here’s the relevant passage from the paper and the supporting charts:

The first issue concerns the balance between food security on the one hand and the shift of labor from agriculture to other industries on the other. In China, agriculture at present accounts for a larger share of GDP than in the East Asian 4 when they were at a similar per capita GDP level, reflecting the Chinese government’s policy of achieving a rate of food self-sufficiency of 95% or higher. However, in the baseline estimate, the employment share of agriculture and the share of agriculture in GDP will decrease significantly in the future due to a combination of the movement of labor across sectors and the effects of the aging of the population. As a result, real output in agriculture would drop to less than 40% of the current level, which means that China would have to effectively abandon food self-sufficiency.

However, in practice, it is unlikely that the Chinese government will tolerate such a change in industrial structure from the perspective of food security. Therefore, to consider a more realistic path, we assume that the shift of labor from agriculture will be limited to an extent that maintains the current level of real output in agriculture. In this case, GDP in 2035 would be about 10% lower than in the baseline estimate and only 1.87 times the current level.

It is possible to quibble with some of the details in this analysis. The Chinese government does not actually have a target of 95% self-sufficiency in all food supply. In the past, there had been an official target of 95% self-sufficiency of staple crops (liangshi 粮食, which is usually translated as grain but also includes beans and tubers). But this was difficult to enforce, and in practice large imports of soybeans have been tolerated. Xi Jinping proposed adjusting this policy early in his tenure to have a more realistic target (see my previous post from 2015 on the food security policy debate).

The white paper on food security published in 2019 mentions 95% self-sufficiency in cereals (rice, wheat, corn), but as an achievement rather than a strict target. The white paper does articulate an overall goal of self-sufficiency–“China makes sure it relies on itself for food supply”–but this is not given a strict quantitative definition, which allows the government flexibility (see this analysis from the excellent Dim Sums blog on Chinese agriculture). The government’s actual goal is probably to maintain certain levels of output of staple grains rather than to limit all food imports. It’s likely that could be accomplished even as the shares of agricultural employment and value-added continue to decline.

Nonetheless, I think the paper’s point that official food security concerns can act as a brake on structural change is correct. China’s actual agricultural policy has been fairly conservative, in the literal sense of trying to conserve an existing order. The trade war with the US reinforced the risks of relying on imported food, and Xi urged more focus on domestic production. While there may not be hard target on the acceptable level of food imports, there is a general push to maintain a large population of agricultural workers and slow rather than accelerate their shift into other sectors. Xi’s government for instance is encouraging rural residents who migrated to the cities for nonagricultural work to return to rural villages. The government has been clear that it wants to preserve the collective system of rural land ownership, which prevents farmers from being dispossessed of their land but also limits their freedom to leave it (for more on this point, see this Dim Sums post from March).

The paper is entitled “China’s Long-Term Growth Potential: Can Productivity Convergence Be Sustained?” and is worth a read.

Xi Jinping on a September 2018 tour of Heilongjiang province

The deep roots of China’s financial conservatism

A growing theme in China’s recent policy rhetoric is the forceful contrast between economic policymaking in China and “the West,” particularly the US. Not just in the old-school “our socialism is better than your capitalism” way, though there is some of that, but more in the vein of: “we do orthodox fiscal and monetary policymaking better than you do.” Central bank governor Yi Gang wrote an impressive article in 2019 in which he laid out China’s determination to avoid zero interest rates, quantitative easing, and all the rest of it. A more recent example of the genre was a speech this month by Guo Shuqing, China’s top financial regulator; here’s a couple of samples from the official English translation:

When fiscal spending has been largely supported by money printing, it is like an airplane getting stuck in a spinning vortex: it would be very hard for the airplane to get out easily on its own. Before 2008, the Fed balance sheet was less than about US$800 billion, but it has now expanded to almost $8 trillion. Meanwhile, the ratio of the US federal debt to its GDP has surged to a record high since the World War II. …

China didn’t flood the market with liquidity while strengthening its macro policy responses. Some countries criticize that China failed to implement adequate policy responses and make sufficient contribution to global economic recovery, which is evidently a bias or misconception. In fact, China has made quite strong policy efforts.

What I’ve only recently started to appreciate is just how deep the historical roots of this kind of thinking are in China. During the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, each side issued its own currency in areas they controlled, so there was competition between the different monetary and fiscal regimes. The Nationalists lost that battle: their money printing to finance fiscal obligations led to dramatic hyperinflation in the mid-1940s, with triple-digit increases in the money supply and price indexes (see for instance the 1954 article “Hyperinflation in China“). After the Communist victory in the war, one of the new government’s first great accomplishments was to stabilize the currency and end hyperinflation.

That seems to have been a formative experience for many of China’s economic thinkers. Even a couple of decades later, they were still touting the benefits of a stable currency and low government debt to Western visitors. There’s an interesting anecdote to this effect in John Kenneth Galbraith’s A China Passage, his diary of a 1972 visit to China in the company of Wassily Leontief and James Tobin (I did not know about this book before but recently stumbled across a copy at my favorite bookstore in Philadelphia). Here’s the relevant passage:

The government has no external or internal debt–a loan from the Soviets negotiated at the time of the Korean war was paid off ahead of schedule in 1968. The budget operates with a slight surplus. In our discussions in Peking information on Chinese finances was provided with great precision and competence by a member of the Institute of Economics of the Academy of Sciences. She notes that “The Chinese currency is one of the most stable in the world. In contrast with some capitalist countries, no borrowing, no inflation, no devaluation.” Being, like all our hosts, impeccably polite, she did not specify the capitalist country.

One of the more engaging moments of the visit was when James Tobin, who with Walter Heller was one of the men who made the New Economics legitimate under President Kennedy, undertook to explain in response to a question why it was often good for the United States to have a budget deficit and increase its debt. He might have had it easier with Andrew Mellon.

There seems to be a pretty direct line from Galbraith’s unnamed Chinese interlocutor in 1972 and the defiantly conservative posturing of today’s top economic policymakers. With the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Party’s founding in full swing, there’s even more attention than usual to this history. The Economic Daily newspaper has been running a series of articles on the Party’s pre-1949 economic policies: one focuses on Chen Yun’s success in containing inflation in 1943-44, while another highlights Xue Muqiao’s achievements in stabilizing currency in 1940-41. The message from such historical arcana is pretty straightforward: the Party’s track record of steady economic management goes back a very long way.

Skeptics will be quick to point out that this kind of rhetoric is a bit incongruous coming from the country that, in the decade after the 2008 global financial crisis, engaged in one of the largest and most expansions of debt in economic history. Yet the effects of the old conservative line of thinking were visible even then. Because the Ministry of Finance was obsessed with keeping its own debt and deficit metrics under control, it ended up tolerating excessive borrowing by local governments and SOEs.

A couple of further comments on the Galbraith book: I wish it had had more of the kind of anecdotes I quoted above. On the whole it is not very insightful: he is too obviously and easily swayed by the fact that his Chinese hosts fed him well and put him in nice accommodations. He modestly announces his lack of China expertise at the opening, but does nothing to compensate for how those gaps in his knowledge kept him from understanding the context of what he was seeing (a problem that is blindingly obvious now but was clear even to other contemporary non-specialists; see for instance Martin Bernal’s 1973 review). As a result, me makes some fairly cringeworthy comments.

Demographics might change everything for China–except the growth model

The working paper on demographics recently published by the People’s Bank of China is a pretty interesting document, and has gotten more than the usual amount of attention. It doesn’t read much like the cautious, dry and technical papers previously released by this august institution. There’s not much quantitative analysis or rigorous logical argument; it’s more like an extended op-ed, arguing vigorously that major demographic changes for China are coming and that the country needs to wake up to that fact and adapt quickly.

This call to arms is well-timed. It seems likely that the much-delayed figures for China’s 2020 population census will confirm what many demographers have been saying for a while: that China’s fertility rate has been overstated, and therefore that its demographic transition and the aging of its population are going to happen even faster than standard forecasts project. The authors (listed as Chen Hao, Xu Ruihui, Tang Tao, and Gao Hong) say that China’s government should lift all remaining policies that restrict births, and switch to strongly encouraging childbirth and reducing the financial burdens (like education) that discourage families from having more children. They even suggest that China could experiment with immigration–previously an almost taboo topic–to help replenish its shrinking and aging population.

But what is perhaps more interesting than all the things the authors think should change is what they think China should not change: an investment-focused growth model. They don’t actually hold out a lot of hope that pro-natalist policies will be able to turn the demographic tide; they acknowledge that the measures tried in the past by developed countries generally have not had dramatic effects (their point is more that China’s government government should at least stop actively discouraging childbirth). They argue that the only really successful adaptation to a shrinking and aging workforce has been to boost investment: substituting capital for increasingly scarce labor. The analysis of Japan is particularly interesting:

In response to declining labor and rising wages, developed countries have gradually replaced labor with capital, and in order to overcome diminishing marginal returns to capital, have conceived of using the abundant labor resources of developing countries to complement their excess capital. To this end, developed countries have used multinational corporations’ overseas expansion, deploying their output and capital exports to capture a higher return on capital. In fact, this strategy of developed countries has been extremely successful. Japan, for example, whose aging is severe, has created another Japan overseas during its supposedly lost two decades; the annual capital gains from overseas repatriation are about 3-4% of its GDP, and this money has become an important source of funding for its retirement.

An aging population poses a challenge to an investment-driven growth model, because it implies that the supply of household savings that can be mobilized for investment will shrink. This is pretty intuitive: as the population ages, a larger share of people become net consumers (retired people living off their savings) while a smaller share of people are net savers (working people at the peak of their earnings power). Therefore the average savings rate across households is lower. China’s data seem to support a strong role for demographics in both the rise of its household savings rate, and its decline since 2010 (see chart). As the population ages further, we should expect the savings rate to decline more.

For many economic observers outside China, the typical reaction to this prospect is something like relief: finally, China’s economy will normalize from its unbalanced, high-investment phase onto a trajectory more typical of other economies. This is decidedly not the reaction of the authors of this paper. They view the prospect of naturally lower savings rate with something like alarm. They do not see the transition to a lower share of investment and higher share of consumption as a normal process that unfolds as China becomes more developed, but something to be vigorously resisted. This section is worth quoting in full:

First of all, we should be highly vigilant and prevent the savings rate from declining too rapidly. We must be clear that our country not only bears the burden of development, but the burden of caring for the elderly. Understand this: without [capital] accumulation, there is no growth. Secondly, we must recognize that consumption is never a source of growth. We must understand that it is easy go from frugality from extravagance, but difficult to go from extravagance to frugality. The high consumption rate of developed economies has historical reasons; once you switch, there’s no going back, so we should not take them as an example to learn from. Thirdly, we should pay attention to investment. We must expand domestic investment in the central and western regions; although China’s marginal return on capital continues to decline, the potential for replacing workers with robots in the these regions is still promising. We must expand outward, and especially invest in Asia, Africa and Latin America, because these regions provide the only remaining large demographic dividend.

It’s remarkable how justifications for regional investment policies and the Belt and Road Initiative have worked their way into a paper on demographics. I don’t know if these prescriptions are wrong or right; certainly I cannot claim to have solved the problem of how to respond economically to an aging society. But I do find this paper a fascinating example of contemporary economic thinking in China, for the way in which it starts from different premises than we might expect, and comes to different conclusions. Many countries are already dealing with reality of an aging population, and as China starts to face up to the same problem, we should not assume that the solutions it reaches for will also be the same.

China’s fiscal policy and the new rhetoric of inequality

The Chinese Communist Party is now ideologically committed to reducing income inequality. That the previous sentence is not in fact a meaningless circular statement says a lot about the peculiar evolution of socialism in China since 1978. But after dodging around that part of its socialist ideological heritage for the last few decades, China’s leadership is now grappling with the issue of inequality more directly, at least in its rhetoric. The 14th Five-Year Plan adopted in March includes a section that calls for “proactively narrowing regional, urban-rural and income gaps.” And Xi Jinping himself has recently been highlighting the goal of “common prosperity,” a term that has deep political resonance in China because of its use by Deng Xiaoping.

This has not been a sudden shift of direction. Various elements of the bureaucracy have been working over the last couple of years to lay the ground for this new policy focus, a process that I described in a previous post. Attention to inequality is a natural sequel to, and development of, Xi’s now-concluded campaign to eliminate absolute poverty. But how this new rhetoric will translate into reality is far from clear. Officials have not yet put forward big ideas on how to actually narrow inequality, and it seems they could not reach agreement on the details in time for them to be included in the plan. The Five-Year Plan document itself includes only a general discussion of goals, and a pledge to draft a separate “action plan” on common prosperity.

In the US, those who want the government to do more to reduce inequality usually focus on major shifts in fiscal policy, like raising taxes on higher-income households and expanding benefits for lower-income ones. But China’s fiscal policy is peculiarly conservative in its spending priorities and its tax structure is actually regressive. It’s notable that, for instance, the government declined to offer any direct income support to households during the Covid-19 pandemic, which it could have done for a very modest fiscal cost. Rightly or wrongly, a bias toward supply-side policy is strongly entrenched among Chinese officials. Xi’s new political rhetoric about reducing inequality and achieving common prosperity thus sits rather awkwardly on top of a set of entrenched government policies that have long tolerated, or even encouraged, greater income inequality.

The signals so far do not suggest that a radical reordering of the government’s taxing and spending priorities is on the way. At a press conference last week, assistant minister of finance Ou Wenhan was asked about how fiscal policy would help advance “common prosperity,” and his response offered a few clues to official thinking. Importantly, he said that “it is necessary to maintain the overall stability of the macro tax burden” over the coming five years. That means there will not be a major increase, or decrease, in tax revenue’s ratio to GDP. In other words, the government is not preparing to raise revenue to finance a major expansion of the welfare state. Indeed, Ou indicated that it still wants to cut taxes at the margin for manufacturers and small businesses.

Any additional spending on redistributive programs will therefore have to come from moving around existing funding sources. While Ou did pledge to improve the social safety net, there were no promises of a generous New Deal for China’s citizens. Indeed he warned that protections must not go too far, or be too expensive. “We must strengthen our ability to evaluate the fiscal affordability of livelihood policies, and avoid the risk of over-promising and over-protecting,” he said.

Another indication of the government’s interest in keeping down the fiscal cost of addressing income inequality is its focus on the so-called “tertiary distribution.” In the jargon, the primary distribution of income is income directly received from labor and capital, while the secondary distribution of income results from the government redistributing that income through taxes and spending. The tertiary distribution of income refers to the additional redistribution achieved through private charities. Ou said the government will “support the role of charity and other forms of tertiary distribution, and give full play the role of charitable organizations” in supporting the poor, elderly and sick. That suggests a desire to keep some of the costs of political promises off the government’s books.

The finance ministry does sound as if it is getting ready to toughen enforcement of China’s rather lax personal income tax system, and bring many of the high-income individuals that now successfully evade taxes into the tax collection net. Ou spoke of establishing “personal income and property information systems,” and of the need to “appropriately regulate excessively high incomes, outlaw illegal income, and curb income obtained through monopoly and unfair competition.” It does sound like the new era of common prosperity will be one of tougher legal and political scrutiny of high-income and high-net-worth individuals.

The most substantive commitments to inequality-reducing policies were in Ou’s pledges to “Increase financial support to less developed regions and gradually achieve equalization of basic public services” and to “further tilt transfer payments to central and western regions and depressed regions.” China’s government has long preferred to treat poverty and inequality as problems of geography: if poor people tend to be in certain places, just give those places more money. Raising fiscal transfers to lower-income provinces could certainly help those areas, and given that it uses existing institutions, would also be a relatively easy policy to execute. But there has already been a lot of regional aid in China in recent decades, and using government-sponsored investment projects as a tool of regional development has at best a mixed track record.

Malthus reconsidered

The name of Malthus will forever be associated with the idea of resource constraints on human population growth– which is unfortunate, because his argument appears to have been completely wrong. But I feel a need to compensate a bit for my little essay on those mistakes after reading John Maynard Keynes’ delightful biographical sketch of Malthus. Keynes offers an alternative intellectual history of Malthus, in which the Essay on the Principle of Population appears as a youthful work that gave him much notoriety, but was far from his most significant intellectual accomplishment.

It is difficult to overstate just how good Keynes’ essay on Malthus is: it is wonderfully detailed yet short, warmly sympathetic yet intellectually sharp. (Among other tidbits, we learn the name of Malthus is derived from “Malthouse,” and should be pronounced similarly.) Tyler Cowen has called Keynes “one of the greatest biographical writers in the entire English language.” And indeed I found Keynes’ Essays in Biography to be very good, though the meat of it is really the biographical essay on Malthus and a more extended one on Alfred Marshall; the sketches of British politicians for me were less interesting and insightful.

Keynes claims Malthus as his intellectual forebear, “the first of the Cambridge economists,” on the strength of Malthus’ early attention to the demand side of the economy, and his invention of the concept of “effective demand,” a precursor to today’s “aggregate demand.” As far back as 1820, in his Principles of Political Economy, Malthus recommended “the employment of the poor in roads and public works” as a remedy to economic downturns. But the first appearance of this idea actually came in 1800, in an anonymous pamphlet called An Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Price of Provisions:

Malthus’s conception of “effective demand” is brilliantly illustrated in this early pamphlet by “an idea which struck him so strongly as he rode on horseback from Hastings to Town” that he stopped two days in his “garret in town,” “sitting up till two o’clock to finish it that it might come out before the meeting of parliament.” He was pondering why the price of provisions should have risen by so much more than could be accounted for by any deficiency in the harvest. He did not, like Ricardo a few years later, invoke the quantity of money. He found the cause in the increase in working-class incomes as a consequence of parish allowances being raised in proportion to the cost of living. …

The words and the ideas are simple. But here is the beginning of systematic economic thinking.

Keynes found that Malthus’ economic thinking was best developed in his long correspondence with David Ricardo, a relationship that managed to combine deep and sincere friendship with equally profound intellectual disagreement:

This friendship will live in history on account of its having given rise to the most important literary correspondence in the whole development of Political Economy. … Here, indeed, are to be found the seeds of economic theory, and also the divergent lines—so divergent at the outset that the destination can scarcely be recognised as the same until it is reached—along which the subject can be developed. …

The contrasts between the intellectual gifts of the two were obvious and delightful. In economic discussions Ricardo was the abstract and a priori theorist, Malthus the inductive and intuitive investigator who hated to stray too far from what he could test by reference to the facts and his own intuitions. …

One cannot rise from a perusal of this correspondence without a feeling that the almost total obliteration of Malthus’s line of approach and the complete domination of Ricardo’s for a period of a hundred years has been a disaster to the progress of economics. Time after time in these letters Malthus is talking plain sense, the force of which Ricardo with his head in the clouds wholly fails to comprehend. Time after time a crushing refutation by Malthus is met by a mind so completely closed that Ricardo does not even see what Malthus is saying.

Malthus’ strengths, on Keynes’ account, are his close attention to the realities of economic life and his detailed investigation into practicalities, which gave him insights that Ricardo’s abstractions could not. It’s interesting, therefore, that he characterizes Malthus’ first writings on population as “a priori and philosophical in method,” the precise terms in which he criticizes Ricardo’s arguments.

While Malthus added huge amounts of empirical material to the second edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population, it is clear that the inspiration for the first edition was not empirical. It was more of an abstract conviction, one that arose during a theological argument with his father. William Otter, a friend of Malthus, relates the story in his Memoir of Robert Malthus:

The mind of Mr. Malthus was certainly set to work upon the subject of population, in consequence of frequent discussions between his father and himself respecting another question, in which they differed entirely from each other. The former, a man of romantic and somewhat sanguine temper, had warmly adopted the opinions of Condorcet and Godwin respecting the perfectibility of man, to which the sound and practical sense of the latter was always opposed; and when the question had been often the subject of animated discussion between them, and the son had rested his cause, principally upon the obstacles which the tendency of population to increase faster than the means of subsistence, would always throw in the way; he was desired to put down in writing, for maturer consideration, the substance of his argument, the consequence of which was, the Essay on Population.  

Keynes does not discuss whether Malthus’ theory of population–that it would always grow exponentially while food production could only grow linearly–was actually correct, seeing it mainly as an early example of the power of his intellect. When the early work on population is considered along with the later work on political economy, the intellectual contrast with Ricardo is perhaps not as sharp as Keynes makes it out to be: Malthus too could be bullheaded in holding to his a priori theories in the face of contrary argument. But who among us has not been guilty of that?