Skip to main content

Will China's economy crash?

By Michael Pettis, Special to CNN
July 29, 2013 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Pettis: Some experts think that China's economy is in big trouble
  • Pettis: Most likely, China's growth rate will decline in the coming years
  • He says the country needs to shift from investment to consumption model
  • Pettis: If China recalibrates its economy in the right way, everyone will benefit

Editor's note: Michael Pettis is a professor of finance at Peking University, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "The Great Rebalancing" (Princeton University Press).

(CNN) -- After many years of euphoria over China's rapid growth and the country's apparently inevitable rise to global economic dominance, the China story has taken a serious turn for the worse. China, it now seems, is about to collapse, and along the way it may well bring the world economy down with it.

Fortunately, the new story may be as muddled as the old one.

China's economic model has relied heavily on investment and debt. It shouldn't be a surprise that after many years of tremendous growth driven at first by badly needed investments, Chinese spending on infrastructure and manufacturing capacity is slowing down.

During the same period, debt levels surged as borrowed money poured into more highways, airports, steel mills, shipyards, high-speed railways, and apartment and office buildings than the country could productively use.

Michael Pettis
Michael Pettis

A few economists predicted as far back as 2006 that China would face a serious debt problem. By 2010, it became obvious even to the most excited of China bulls that this was indeed happening.

To protect itself from the risk of a debt crisis, China must bring spending to a halt. Beijing now wants to rebalance the economy away from its excessive reliance on investment and debt, and to increase the role of consumption as a driver of growth.

But this cannot happen except at lower growth rates.

China debt
Fareed's Take: China's slowing growth

So what happens next -- will China collapse? Probably not. A financial collapse is effectively a kind of bank run, and as long as government credibility remains high, banks are guaranteed and capital controls are maintained, it is unlikely that China will experience anything like a bank run.

What is far more likely is that in the coming years, China's gross domestic product growth rate will continue to decline as the country focuses on stimulating consumption.

Growth rates during the administration of President Xi Jinping are unlikely to exceed 3% to 4% on average if the economic rebalancing is managed well.

Will the slower growth rate be a disaster for China? Certainly, it would be huge departure from the growth rate of roughly 10% a year for nearly three decades. Would much lower growth rates create high unemployment and huge dislocations for the economy? Some are worried about such scenarios. But the Chinese economy has so far shown a lot of resilience despite passing storms such as the global financial crisis.

Beijing has huge challenges ahead. China's growth has been a boon to large businesses, the state, the powerful and the wealthy elite. What the Chinese government needs to do is recalibrate growth so that average household incomes can rise and consumers have more money to spend.

This will not be easy to pull off, but there are positive signs. Xi's government seems determined to make the necessary changes, even at the expense of much slower growth.

Even if GDP growth declines but average Chinese household income grows at 5% to 6% a year, it would put China in the right direction.

As for the rest of the world, there's no reason to panic over China's economic slowdown. Contrary to popular beliefs, China is not the global engine of growth; it is merely the largest arithmetic component of global growth. What drives global growth is demand. China, with a large trade surplus, is not a net provider of demand to the world.

What matters to the world, in other words, is not how fast China grows but rather, how its trade with foreign partners evolves. If China rebalances in an orderly way, its imports of manufactured goods and services should rise faster than its exports. This will be good for the world.

What's more, manufacturing industries around the world that lost out to China in the export business will benefit. When wages rise for Chinese workers -- so that they have more money to buy goods and services at home -- it means other developing countries will have a chance to compete for exports if they offer lower labor wages.

There is no doubt that Beijing has a long road ahead in terms of managing a huge economy, but as of now there should be nothing surprising or unexpected about the slowing growth of China. It will probably benefit the Chinese people and the global economy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Pettis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT