China’s Fading Recovery Reveals Deeper Economic Struggles | Kanebridge News
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China’s Fading Recovery Reveals Deeper Economic Struggles

Ballooning debt, tepid consumption and worsening relations with the West to weigh on growth, economists say

Wed, May 31, 2023 9:39amGrey Clock 6 min

China’s era of rapid growth is over. Its recovery from zero-Covid is stalling. And now the country is facing deep, structural problems in its economy.

The outlook was better just a few months ago, after Beijing lifted its draconian Covid-19 controls, setting off a flurry of spending as people ate out and splurged on travel.

But as the sugar high of the reopening wears off, underlying problems in China’s economy that have been building for years are reasserting themselves.

The property boom and government over investment that fuelled growth for more than a decade have ended. Enormous debts are crippling households and local governments. Some families, worried about the future, are hoarding cash.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s crackdowns on private enterprise have discouraged risk-taking, while deteriorating relations with the West—exemplified by a new campaign against international due-diligence and consulting firms—are stifling foreign investment.

Economists say these worsening structural problems are hobbling China’s chances of extending the growth miracle that transformed it into a rival to the U.S. for global power and influence.

Instead of expanding at 6% to 8% a year as was common in the past, China might soon be heading toward growth of 2% or 3%, some economists say. An ageing population and shrinking workforce compound its difficulties.

China could drive less global growth this year and beyond than many business leaders expected, making the country less important for some foreign companies, and less likely to significantly surpass the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy.

“The disappointing recovery today really suggests that some of the structural drags are already in play,” said Frederic Neumann, chief Asia economist at HSBC.

China’s economy expanded at an annual rate of 4.5% in the first quarter, boosted by the end of Covid-era restrictions.

Yet more recent signals suggest the revival is ebbing. Retail sales rose 0.5% in April compared with March. A bundle of data on factory output, exports and investment came in much weaker than economists were expecting.

More than a fifth of Chinese youths aged 16 to 24 were unemployed in April. E-commerce companies Alibaba and reported lacklustre first-quarter earnings. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index, dominated by Chinese companies, is down 5.2% year to date, and the yuan has weakened against the U.S. dollar.

Most economists don’t expect China’s problems to lead to recession, or derail the government’s growth target of around 5% this year, which is widely seen as easily achievable given how weak the economy was last year.

McDonald’s and Starbucks have said they are opening hundreds of new restaurants in China, while retailers including Ralph Lauren are launching new stores.

A boom in electric-vehicle production allowed China to surpass Japan as the world’s largest exporter of vehicles in the first quarter. Beijing’s industrial policies and China’s manufacturing prowess mean it is still finding ways to succeed in some major industries.

“We still have confidence in the long-term growth story of China,” said Phillip Wool, head of research at Rayliant Global Advisors, an asset manager with $17 billion under management. He said the country’s transition to one that relies more on domestic consumption instead of exports will help keep it on track.

Still, many economists are growing more worried about China’s future.

The big hope for this year was that Chinese consumers would step up spending, as the main drivers of China’s past growth—investment and exports—languish.

But while people are spending somewhat more after almost three years of tough Covid-19 controls, China isn’t experiencing the kind of surge other economies enjoyed when they emerged from the pandemic.

Consumer confidence is low. More important, some economists say, is that Beijing hasn’t been able to meaningfully change Chinese consumers’ long-running propensity to save rather than spend—a response to a threadbare social-safety net that means families must sock away more for medical bills and other emergencies.

Chinese household consumption accounts for around 38% of annual gross domestic product, according to United Nations data, compared with 68% in the U.S.

“Consumer-led growth has always been a bit of an aspirational target” for China, said Louise Loo, China lead economist in Singapore at Oxford Economics, a consulting firm. Now, it might be even harder to achieve, she said, given how cautious Chinese consumers are coming out of the pandemic.

Although Beijing is trying to make it easier to borrow this year, lending data indicate households prefer to pay down debt than take on new loans.

In March, Zi Lu dipped into her dowry and paid off the remaining 1.2 million yuan, equivalent to about $170,000, on her mortgage for an apartment she bought in Shanghai two years ago. Working for an e-commerce retailer, she said sales have been underwhelming this year. Lu said she is anxious and wants to reduce her debt burden.

“I’m scared of getting laid off out of the blue,” she said.

Also looming over the economy is its massive debt pile.

Between 2012 and 2022, China’s debt grew by $37 trillion, while the U.S. added nearly $25 trillion. By June 2022, debt in China reached about $52 trillion, dwarfing outstanding debt in all other emerging markets combined, according to calculations by Nicholas Borst, director of China research at Seafarer Capital Partners.

As of last September, total debt as a share of GDP hit 295% in China, compared with 257% in the U.S., data from the Bank for International Settlements shows.

Viewing the debt buildup as a threat to financial stability, Xi has made deleveraging a centrepiece of his economic policy since 2016, weighing on growth.

To help deflate the country’s housing bubble, regulators imposed strict borrowing limits for property developers from late 2020. Property development investment fell 5.8% in the first quarter of this year despite policy efforts to stem the pace of the slide.

Two-thirds of local governments are now in danger of breaching unofficial debt thresholds set by Beijing to signify severe funding stress, according to S&P Global calculations. Cities across the country from Shenzhen to Zhengzhou have cut benefits for civil servants and delayed salary payments in some cases for teachers.

These problems are deepening when China’s appeal as a destination for foreign firms is waning, data show, as tensions rise with the U.S.-led West.

Foreign direct investment into China tumbled 48% in 2022 compared with a year earlier, to $180 billion, according to Chinese data, while FDI as a share of China’s GDP has slipped to less than 2%, from more than double that a decade ago.

Competition for investment with countries including India and Vietnam is heating up as firms seek to diversify supply chains, partly in response to the risk of disruption from conflict between the U.S. and China.

Jens Eskelund, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said uncertainty over China’s long-term economic prospects is another factor in companies’ investment decisions.

“Naturally, it dampens the willingness to go out and invest in additional capacity if you are not super optimistic about the economic outlook,” he said.

Reforms to foster more productive, private-sector activity have stalled under Xi, who is placing greater emphasis on security than economic growth. Beijing has tightened regulation of sectors including technology, private education and real estate, leaving many business owners unwilling to invest more.

In the first four months of this year, fixed-asset investment made by private firms grew 0.4% from a year earlier, compared with 5.5% growth in the same period in 2019.

Chinese leaders have dialled up rhetoric to reassure entrepreneurs and investors. Li Qiang, China’s No. 2 official and new premier, said in March that China will open further to foreign players, and told Communist Party officials to treat private entrepreneurs as “our own people.”

Economists are split over whether policy makers, who have held off on launching large-scale stimulus as they did in 2008 and 2015, will resort to more aggressive stimulus now. Some, including economists from Citigroup, expect China’s central bank to cut interest rates in the coming months to lift sentiment.

Others say that Beijing’s restraint stems from fear of compounding already-high debt levels, and that more stimulus might do little to trigger demand for credit anyway.

Jeff Bowman, chief executive of Cocona, which makes temperature-regulating materials used in apparel and bedding, said he is still optimistic about China. He said that during a recent two-week business trip to Taiwan and China, customers who were focused on China’s domestic market were far more upbeat than their counterparts exporting to the U.S. or Europe, who he said “are hurting for sure.”

He said that Cocona, based in Boulder, Colo., plans to set up a subsidiary in China to expand its business there.

But many analysts still wonder where the growth will come from.

“The big question is, have we reached the point where awareness of the structural slowdown is becoming a near-term issue for confidence? Then it’s a bit of a vicious cycle,” said Michael Hirson, head of China research at 22V Research, a New York-based consulting firm.


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First, the good news for office landlords: A post-Labor Day bump nudged return-to-office rates in mid-September to their highest level since the onset of the pandemic.

Now the bad: Office attendance in big cities is still barely half of what it was in 2019, and company get-tough measures are proving largely ineffective at boosting that rate much higher.

Indeed, a number of forces—from the prospect of more Covid-19 cases in the fall to a weakening economy—could push the return rate into reverse, property owners and city officials say.

More than before, chief executives at blue-chip companies are stepping up efforts to fill their workspace. Facebook parent Meta Platforms, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase are among the companies that have recently vowed to get tougher on employees who don’t show upIn August, Meta told employees they could face disciplinary action if they regularly violate new workplace rules.

But these actions haven’t yet moved the national return rate needle much, and a majority of companies remain content to allow employees to work at least part-time remotely despite the tough talk.

Most employees go into offices during the middle of the week, but floors are sparsely populated on Mondays and Fridays. In Chicago, some September days had a return rate of over 66%. But it was below 30% on Fridays. In New York, it ranges from about 25% to 65%, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks security-card swipes.

Overall, the average return rate in the 10 U.S. cities tracked by Kastle Systems matched the recent high of 50.4% of 2019 levels for the week ended Sept. 20, though it slid a little below half the following week.

The disappointing return rates are another blow to office owners who are struggling with vacancy rates near record highs. The national office average vacancy rose to 19.2% last quarter, just below the historical peak of 19.3% in 1991, according to Moody’s Analytics preliminary third-quarter data.

Business leaders in New York, Detroit, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they have seen only slight improvements in sidewalk activity and attendance in office buildings since Labor Day.

“It feels a little fuller but at the margins,” said Sandy Baruah, chief executive of the Detroit Regional Chamber, a business group.

Lax enforcement of return-to-office rules is one reason employees feel they can still work from home. At a roundtable business discussion in Houston last week, only one of the 12 companies that attended said it would enforce a return-to-office policy in performance reviews.

“It was clearly a minority opinion that the others shook their heads at,” said Kris Larson, chief executive of Central Houston Inc., a group that promotes business in the city and sponsored the meeting.

Making matters worse, business leaders and city officials say they see more forces at work that could slow the return to office than those that could accelerate it.

Covid-19 cases are up and will likely increase further in the fall and winter months. “If we have to go back to distancing and mask protocols, that really breaks the office culture,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the business group Partnership for New York City.

Many cities are contending with an increase in homelessness and crime. San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which are struggling with these problems, are among the lowest return-to-office cities in the Kastle System index.

About 90% of members surveyed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce said that the city couldn’t recover until homelessness and public safety problems were addressed, said Rachel Smith, chief executive. That is taken into account as companies make decisions about returning to the office and how much space they need, she added.

Cuts in government services and transportation are also taking a toll. Wait times for buses run by Houston’s Park & Ride system, one of the most widely used commuter services, have increased partly because of labor shortages, according to Larson of Central Houston.

The commute “is the remaining most significant barrier” to improving return to office, Larson said.

Some landlords say that businesses will have more leverage in enforcing return-to-office mandates if the economy weakens. There are already signs of such a shift in cities that depend heavily on the technology sector, which has been seeing slowing growth and layoffs.

But a full-fledged recession could hurt office returns if it results in widespread layoffs. “Maybe you get some relief in more employees coming back,” said Dylan Burzinski, an analyst with real-estate analytics firm Green Street. “But if there are fewer of those employees, it’s still a net negative for office.”

The sluggish return-to-office rate is leading many city and business leaders to ask the federal government for help. A group from the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition recently met with elected officials in Washington, D.C., lobbying for incentives for businesses that make commitments to U.S. downtowns.

Baruah, from the Detroit chamber, was among the group. He said the chances of such legislation being passed were low. “We might have to reach crisis proportions first,” he said. “But we’re trying to lay the groundwork now.”


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