The big guns of the New Zealand economy would be hit hard if China were to slump. What if the global financial crisis isn't a two-parter - what if it's a trilogy?

Crisis 2 (just when you thought it was safe to go back to the bond market!) was widely anticipated in the wake of the 2008 United States blockbuster.

But as that plays out there are growing concerns that the global economy will not truly hit rock bottom until the fallout works its way through the Chinese economy as well.

A Bloomberg News poll of investors in September found most expect the 10 per cent growth rate China has enjoyed for the past three decades will fall to just 5 per cent by 2016.


That's probably a sensible, sustainable rate of growth. In the long run that will be better for China and the world. But in the short term that could be very bad news for New Zealand. We should be prepared.

Until now China has been almost immune to the direct impacts of the crisis. And - though it is commonplace to blame every poor piece of financial performance on the GFC - so too has New Zealand.

Our commodity prices remain high, interest rates remain low. Our banks have remained strong. Inflation has not spiked and unemployment is relatively low by global standards at 6 per cent.

Yes, confidence has been sapped from the property market and the retail sector. Exporters with big US exposure are hurting and economic growth is weak but the bitter truth is that the worst may be yet to come for the local economy.

If China's growth rate falls by half in the next four years then it is hardly likely to do so in a gentle, incremental fashion.

History suggests that at some point there will be a dramatic bit where markets go haywire. There will be something that causes a crisis of confidence and knocks 2 per cent or so off the growth rate in a short space of time.

China may be nowhere near an actual recession but a sharp deceleration of growth would feel like one.

It is not too hard to find points of risk in the Chinese economy - property prices, the high level of mum and dad investors in the Shanghai stock exchange.


Basically the whole economy is geared towards growth of near 10 per cent. And increasingly the New Zealand and Australian economies are also geared to that level of Chinese growth.

From where else does New Zealand expect to get any kind of transformational economic growth in the near future?

We'd all like to see local technology companies cracking the European and US markets. That may happen but it would have to be on an unprecedented scale if it was to come close the the kind of gains that a 10 per cent boost to Fonterra's revenue or our tourist receipts would generate.

New Fonterra boss Theo Spierings this week said Fonterra was planning to double its dairy sales to China by 2020. Demand for dairy was growing in the double digits, he said.

But the big guns of the New Zealand economy - agriculture and tourism - would be hit hard if China were to have an economic slump that caused its emerging middle class to put their wallets away in the manner that the Americans and Europeans are doing now.

Our biggest trading partner, Australia, is even more dependent on Chinese demand for commodities and that's where New Zealand would feel an even bigger squeeze if China slowed quickly.

Already there are signs of a slowdown.

China's growth in the last quarter came in at an annualised rate of just 9.1 per cent.

An HSBC Holdings and Markit Economics survey of Chinese manufacturing this week concluded that it is set for its biggest contraction in three years.

Europe's woes can't be underestimated - though they seldom are these days. The news flow out of the region has the world on edge waiting for a cataclysmic event which will bring it all crashing down.

But it might never come to that. The Europeans (well, most of them) are an orderly bunch. The point is that the European crisis has happened already. The austerity, the lack of confidence, are already taking their toll on the global economy.

The spread across the globe to China may be an inevitability. China needs markets if its seemingly endless exponential manufacturing growth is to continue. With the US stagnant and Europe likely in recession something has to give.

China has accounted for more than 40 per cent of global growth since 2008, according to Bloomberg data. It holds 31 per cent of all foreign reserves. It won't have sovereign debt issues - not of its own anyway.

It is extremely well-equipped financially and politically to handle a financial crisis. Unlike the United States or Europe, the Chinese Government is unlikely to have any problem taking decisive action if it so chooses.

But China will look after China in the event that something melts down. It is not buckling to US pressure to adjust its exchange rate now and it certainly can't be expected to buckle to pressure to save the rest of the world if its own system faces a crisis.

The long-term trend of rising Chinese economic power won't be threatened by the current economic mire. New Zealand is right to look to China as a key market for the 21st century. But we need to be ready for China's first taste of Western-style financial meltdown for, sooner or later, it will come.