Is China’s Economic Predicament as Bad as Japan’s? It Could Be Worse
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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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Booming demand for wellness tourism shows no slowing, with travel related to health and well-being projected to have reached $1 trillion last year and to hit $1.3 trillion by 2025, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit based in Miami.

Curated wellness travel programs are especially sought-after, specifically holistic treatments focused on longevity. Affluent travellers not only are making time to hit the gym while gallivanting across the globe, they’re also seeking destinations that specifically cater to their wellness goals, including treatments aimed at living longer.

“I believe Covid did put a spotlight on self-care and well-being,” says Penny Kriel, corporate director of spa and wellness at Salamander Collection, a group of luxury properties in places like Washington, D.C., and Charleston, South Carolina. But Kriel says today’s spas are more holistic, encouraging folks to understand the wellness concept and incorporate it into their lifestyle more frequently.

“With the evolution of treatment products and technology, spas have been able to enhance their offerings and appeal to more travellers,” Kriel says.

While some growth is connected to the variety of treatments available, results and the digital world are also contributing to the wellness boom.

“The efficacy and benefits of these treatments continue to drive bookings and interest, especially with the support of social media, influencers, and celebrity endorsements,” Kriel says.

While genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices such as regular exercise, a diet free of processed foods, sufficient sleep, and human connection play essential roles in living well and longer, experts believe in holistic therapies to help manage stress, boost immunity, and ultimately influence length and quality of life.

Anti Ageing and Beyond

“For years, people have been coming to spas, booking treatments, and gaining advice on how to turn the clock back with anti ageing and corrective skin treatments,” Kriel says. However, today’s treatments are far more innovative.

On Marinella Beach in Porto Rotondo, on the Italian island of Sardinia, guests at the five-star Abi d’Oru Hotel & Spa can experience the resort’s one-of-a-kind “longevity treatment,” a unique antiaging facial using one of the island’s native grapes: Cannonau. The world’s first declared “Blue Zone”—one of five designated areas where people live longer than average, some into their 100s—Sardinia produces this robust red wine varietal, the most widely planted on the island.

Known as Garnacha in Spain and Grenache in France, Cannonau supposedly contains two to three times more antioxidants than other red-wine grapes. By incorporating Cannonau, Abi Spa says its unique 50-minute longevity session increases collagen production for firmer, younger-looking skin.

Maintaining a youthful appearance is just one facet of longevity treatments, which range from stress-reduction sessions like massage to nutritional support and sleep programs, Kriel says. Some retreats also offer medical services such as IV infusions and joint injections.

Keeping with the trend, Kriel is expanding Salamander Collection’s existing spa services, such as detox wraps and lymphatic drainage, to include dedicated “Wellness Rooms,” new vegan and vegetarian menu items, and well-being workshops. “Sleep, nutrition, and mindfulness will be a big focus for integration in 2024,” she says.

Data-Driven Wellness

Skyler Stillings, an exercise physiologist at Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort—an adults-only wellness centre in Lanai, Hawaii—says guests were drawn to the social aspect when the spa opened in November 2021.

“We saw a huge need for human connection,” she recalls. But over the past few years, what’s paramount has shifted. “Longevity is trending much more right now.”

Human connection is a central draw for guests at Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Billionaire co-founder of tech company Oracle Larry Ellison and physician and scientist Dr. David Angus co-founded Sensei. After the death of a mutual close friend, the duo teamed up to create longevity-based wellness retreats to nurture preventative care and a healthy lifestyle. In addition to the Lanai location, the brand established Sensei Porcupine Creek in Greater Palm Springs, California, in November 2022.

Sensei has a data-driven approach. The team performs a series of assessments to obtain a clearer picture of a guest’s health, making wellness recommendations based on the findings. While Sensei analyses that data to curate a personalised plan, Stillings says it’s up to the guests which path they choose.

Sensei’s core three-day retreat is a “Guided Wellness Experience.” For spa treatments, each guest checks into their own “Spa Hale,” a private 1,000-square-foot bungalow furnished with an infrared sauna, a steam shower, a soaking tub, and plunge pools. The latest therapies include Sarga Bodywalking—a barefoot myofascial release massage, and “Four Hands in Harmony,” a massage with two therapists working in tandem. Sensei Guides provide take-home plans so guests can continue their wellness journeys after the spa.

Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Sanctuaries for Longevity

Headquartered in Switzerland with hotels and on-site spas across the globe, Aman Resorts features an integrative approach, combining traditional remedies with modern medicine’s advanced technologies. Tucked behind the doors of the storied Crown Building in Midtown Manhattan, Banya Spa House at Aman New York—the brand’s flagship spa in the Western Hemisphere—is a 25,000-square-foot, three-floor urban oasis.

Yuki Kiyono, global head of health and wellness development at Aman, says the centre provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being. Aman’s customisable “Immersion Programs” consist of a three- or five-day immersion. “The programs encompass treatments and experiences that touch every significant aspect to create a path for longevity, from meditation and mindfulness to nutrition and movement,” Kiyono explains.

Banya Spa House at Aman New York.
Robert Rieger

The spa’s “Tei-An Wellness Solution” features 90- to 150-minute sessions using massage, cryotherapy, and Vitamin IV infusions. Acupuncture is also on offer.

“With its rich history of Chinese Medicine, modern research, and the introduction of sophisticated electro-acupuncture medicine, acupuncture has been proven to assist with problems and increase performance,” Kiyono says.

Resetting the Mind and Body

Beyond longevity, “healthspan”—the number of years a person can live in good health free of chronic disease—is the cornerstone of Mountain Trek Health Reset Retreat’s program in British Columbia, Canada.

Kirk Shave, president and program director, and his team employ a holistic approach, using lifestyles in long-living Blue Zones as a point of reference.

“We improve our daily lifestyle habits, so we live vitally as long as we’re meant to live,” Shave says of the retreat. He built the program from an anthropological stance, referencing humans as farmers, hunters, and gatherers based on their eating and sleeping patterns. Food includes vegetable-centric meals sans alcohol, sugar, bread, or dairy.

Guests wake at dawn each day and have access to sunrise yoga, several hours of “flow” or slow hiking, spa treatments, forest bathing, calming crystal singing-bowl and sound therapy sessions, and classes on stress reduction—one of Mountain Trek’s primary goals. The program motivates people to spend much of their time in nature because it’s been proven to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that can lead to inflammation and disease when elevated for extended periods.

While most guests aren’t aware of how immersive Mountain Trek’s program is when they arrive, they leave the resort revitalized after the structured, one-week program. Set in the Kootenays overlooking its eponymous river, the resort and adventure promise what Shave calls a “visceral experience of transformation.”

“They’re interested in coming to be in nature,” Shave says of the guests. “They hit a wall in their life and slipped backwards, so they know they need a reset.”

Banya Spa House at Aman New York provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being.
Robert Rieger

This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury.


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