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China’s big fiscal package may be starting to work


China''s stimulus

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Mar 12th 2009 | HONG KONG

From The Economist print edition

China's big fiscal package may be starting to work

“ONLY when all contribute their firewood can they build up a strong fire,” says a Chinese proverb. With the world economy in its worst crisis in 70 years, every country needs to do its bit to rekindle global demand. The American government, which plans to run a budget deficit of 12% of GDP this year, has called on its Group of 20 partners to do more. Is China one of the misers? Its budget, published last week, showed that it plans to run a deficit of only 3% of GDP. Was the 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) infrastructure package unveiled last November, worth 14% of GDP, a sham?

Beijing's stimulus is smaller than the number announced last year, but it is still the biggest in the world. The fact that America is set to run a budget deficit four times the size of China's as a share of GDP does not mean its demand stimulus is bigger; America started this year with a much bigger deficit. America's deficit will increase by more than China's this year, largely because it is suffering a deeper recession which will depress tax revenue. The correct measure of a fiscal stimulus is the change in the budget deficit adjusted for the impact of the economic cycle.

In China, however, even this would understate the true stimulus, because some public-infrastructure investment will be done by state-owned firms or local governments and financed by banks. Tao Wang of UBS estimates that new infrastructure investment, tax cuts, consumer subsidies and increased spending on health care will amount to a stimulus by the central government of about 3% of GDP in 2009. Adding in bank-financed infrastructure spending might lift the total to 4% of GDP.

Chinese investment in railways, roads and power grids is already booming. In the first two months of this year, total fixed investment was 30% higher in real terms than a year earlier, and investment in railways tripled. China has been much criticised for focusing its stimulus on investment, rather than consumption, but in China in the short term this is the quickest way to boost domestic demand.

What about the other tool for boosting domestic spending, namely monetary policy? Since the start of last year, China has cut its interest rates by only half as much as America's Federal Reserve has. New figures showing that consumer prices fell by 1.6% in the year to February have brought the first whiff of deflation, suggesting that China has not done enough to boost demand. But this is not true deflation, where falling prices are accompanied by shrinking money supply and credit. Bank lending grew by 24% over the past year. The true gauge of monetary easing is not the cut in interest rates, but whether it succeeds in spurring new lending. China is one of the few countries in the world where credit has accelerated since the start of the global credit crunch—though some of the lending is of the state-directed sort.

China has not only accomplished considerable fiscal and monetary easing. By allowing the yuan to rise by 18% in trade-weighted terms over the past 12 months, Beijing is passing on some of that boost to the rest of the world.

The real question is whether China's stimulus is big enough? Exports fell by a sharper-than-expected 26% in the year to February and may yet drop further. The 12-month rate of growth in industrial production also dropped to only 3.8% in the first two months of 2009, and retail-sales growth slowed to 15%. But there are some tentative signs of a recovery in domestic demand. As well as the increases in investment and bank lending, car sales and electricity consumption have picked up. Mingchun Sun of Nomura reckons that the stimulus will be enough to achieve 8% growth this year. But the government has made it clear that if the economy remains feeble, it will supply another fiscal boost.

Such injections may be able to drag growth back to 8% this year, but they cannot keep the economy running at this pace if global demand remains depressed. The need for China to shift the mix of growth from exports to consumption has become more urgent. Chinese officials are right to say that it will take years for higher public spending on health care and a social safety net to reduce household saving—all the more reason to speed up such policies. If not, even China's fire could burn out.