Is China’s Economic Predicament as Bad as Japan’s? It Could Be Worse | Kanebridge News
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Is China’s Economic Predicament as Bad as Japan’s? It Could Be Worse

From demographics to decoupling, China faces challenges Japan didn’t after its 1980s bubble

Tue, Sep 19, 2023 8:51amGrey Clock 4 min

HONG KONG—Starting in the 1990s Japan became synonymous with economic stagnation, as a boom gave way to lethargic growth, declining population and deflation.

Many economists say China today looks similar. The reality: In many ways its problems are more intractable than Japan’s. China’s public debt levels are higher by some measures than Japan’s were and its demographics are worse. The geopolitical tensions that China is dealing with go beyond the trade frictions Japan once faced with the U.S.

Another headwind: China’s government, which has been cracking down on the private sector in recent years, seems ideologically less inclined than Tokyo was then to support growth.

None of this means China is sure to repeat the years of economic stagnation that Japan is only now showing signs of exiting. It has some advantages that Japan didn’t. Its economic growth in coming years is likely to be well above Japan’s in the 1990s.

Even so, economists say the parallels are a warning for Communist Party leaders in Beijing: If they don’t act more forcefully, the country could get stuck in a protracted period of economic sluggishness similar to Japan’s. Despite piecemeal steps in recent weeks, including modest interest-rate cuts, Beijing has held back on major stimulus to revive growth.

“China’s policy responses so far could put it on track for ‘Japanification,’” said Johanna Chua, chief Asia economist at Citigroup. She believes China’s overall growth prospects could be slowing more sharply than Japan’s.

China today and Japan 30 years ago share many similarities, including high debt levels, an aging population and signs of deflation.

During a long postwar economic expansion, Japan became an export powerhouse that American politicians and corporate executives worried would be unstoppable. Then in the early 1990s, real estate and stock market bubbles burst and the economy hit the skids.

Policy makers cut interest rates to virtually zero, but growth failed to rebound as consumers and companies focused on repaying debt to repair their balance sheets instead of borrowing to finance new spending and investment.

Richard Koo, an economist at the research arm of Japanese investment bank Nomura Securities, famously coined the term “balance sheet recession” to describe the phenomenon.

China, too, has seen a property bubble pop after years of extraordinary economic growth. Chinese consumers are now paying off mortgages early, despite government efforts to get them to borrow and spend more.

Private firms are also reluctant to invest despite lower interest rates, stirring anxiety among economists that monetary easing might be losing its potency in China.

By some measures, China’s asset bubbles aren’t as big. Morgan Stanley estimates that China’s ratio of property value to gross domestic product peaked at 260% in 2020, up from 170% of GDP in 2014; home prices have only fallen slightly since the peak, according to official data. China’s equity markets hit a recent peak of 80% of GDP in 2021 and now sit at 67% of GDP.

In Japan, land values as a percentage of GDP reached 560% of GDP in 1990 before falling back to 394% by 1994, Morgan Stanley estimates. The Tokyo Stock Exchange’s market capitalisation rose to 142% of GDP in 1989 from 34% in 1982.

Also in China’s favour, its urbanisation rate is lower, standing at 65% in 2022, versus Japan’s, which was at 77% in 1988. That could give China more potential to raise productivity and growth as people move to cities and take on nonagricultural jobs.

China’s tighter control over its capital markets means the risk of a sharp appreciation of its currency, which would harm exports, is low. Japan had to deal with a sharp increase in its currency several times in recent decades, which at times added to its economic struggles.

“We believe worries on China being trapped in a balance sheet recession are overdone,” economists from Bank of America recently wrote.

Yet in other ways, China’s problems will be harder to tackle than Japan’s.

Its population is ageing faster; it began to decline in 2022. In Japan, that didn’t happen until 2008, nearly two decades after its bubble burst.

Worse, China appears to be entering a period of weaker long-term growth rates before reaching rich-world status, i.e. it is getting old before it gets rich: China’s per capita income was $12,850 in 2022, much lower than Japan in 1991 at $29,080, World Bank data shows.

Then there is the problem of debt. Once off-balance-sheet borrowing by local governments is factored in, total public debt in China reached 95% of GDP in 2022, compared with 62% of GDP in Japan in 1991, according to J.P. Morgan. That limits authorities’ ability to pursue fiscal stimulus.

External pressures also appear to be tougher for China. Japan faced a lot of heat from its trading partners, but as a military ally of the U.S., it never risked a “new Cold War”—as some analysts now describe the U.S.-China relationship. Efforts by the U.S. and its allies to block China’s access to advanced technologies and reduce reliance on Chinese supply chains have sparked a plunge in foreign direct investment into China this year, which could significantly slow growth in the long run.

Many analysts worry Beijing is underestimating the risk of long-term stagnation—and doing too little to avoid it. Moderate cuts to key interest rates, lowering down payment ratios for apartments and recent vocal support for the private sector have done little to revive sentiment so far. Economists including Xiaoqin Pi from Bank of America argue that more coordinated easing in fiscal, monetary and property policies will be needed to put China’s growth back on track.

But President Xi Jinping is ideologically opposed to increasing government support for households and consumers, which he derides as “welfarism.”


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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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