NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Prepare for meltdown if the dragon runs out of steam

A soft landing for China may still feel hard for commodity exporters. Photo / Kenny Rodger
A soft landing for China may still feel hard for commodity exporters. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Let's be blunt about this. From a historical perspective - considering capitalism's track record over the past 500 years - what is more likely: that China gently eases back its economic growth to a sustainable level, smoothing the path of economic recovery for the rest of the world?

Or that the boom continues at breakneck speed until a property or stock market bubble brings it all crashing down in a wild panic?

Anyone with a passing knowledge of economic history is probably going to pick the latter.

The good news is that it doesn't look like it will happen this year.

Current debate about the immediate prospects of the European crisis flowing though to a hard or soft landing for China seems to be settling on the likelihood that it will be soft.

China's Government has pared this year's expansion target to 7.5 per cent from an 8 per cent goal - but that now looks unlikely.

ANZ chief economist Paul Gruenwald is still picking growth of 9 per cent for 2012.

Economist at Deutsche Bank, Nomura Holdings and Daiwa Capital have all raised forecasts this month and are picking growth of up to 8.6 per cent.

Last year the economy grew at 9.2 per cent so it seems there may not be much of a landing at all.

Latest manufacturing figures out of China show it is gaining momentum again.

The purchasing managers index, or PMI, rose 2.1 points to 53.1 in March, up from February's 51.0 and January's 50.5.

A reading above 50 signifies expansion. So perhaps the immediate cause for concern has eased.

That's just as well for the global economy, given Europe is still in the midst of an economic crisis and the US is only just showing the first signs of meaningful recovery.

If and when this era of rapid Chinese economic expansion comes to a sudden halt we will need the rest of the world to be in much stronger shape.

But there are still risks in the short term. One of those was identified in a Bloomberg News article last week which cited economists picking a soft landing for China may still feel hard for commodity exporters.

That's a little worrying. The concern seems to be focused on the construction sector.

The implication is that hard commodity exporters, like Australia, may feel a slowdown more than other parts of the Western world. By association the New Zealand economy would feel that too.

China's Government has been trying to reverse a surge in home prices, boost consumption and move away from exports and capital spending without causing a sharp reduction in growth.

It has introduced tough new measures to stymie growth.

New Zealand's endless debate about a capital gains tax seems quaint when compared to measures like increased down-payments for home buyers, banning lending for third home purchases, and temporary taxes.

The curbs had an immediate impact and now there is talk that China's Government will ease them as early as mid-year.

It has also been suggested that there may be some upside for soft commodities like dairy as the Government tries to shift the economy towards more consumption instead of investment speculation.

It is going to be a fascinating experiment, testing the power of the state against unbridled capitalism.

The Chinese boom is so dramatic that we don't have much to compare it to unless we go back to the dramatic "gilded age" of the US in the late 19th century.

At that time the US economy probably grew at a similar pace although there was not the same quality of statistics available.

One thing that is different is the extent of central control that the Chinese Government has over its economy. This is a Government that is not afraid to impose caps on lending or introduce temporary taxes to dampen both investment supply and demand.

Still for all the extra levers the Chinese Government has to pull they haven't slowed the rate of growth much in the past few years.

Even the biggest global financial crisis since the Great Depression has failed to pull the nation's growth rate much below 10 per cent.

New Zealand has positioned itself well to tap into China's growth and should continue to do so.

But as long as the dragon nation continues to grow at such an astonishing rate the risk of a major meltdown remains with us.

Without missing the opportunity in front of us now, we need to be prepared to deal with that.

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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