Today the Peoples Bank of China cut the benchmark interest rate by .25% and lowered banks’ reserve requirements by .5%. The measure is supposed to spur growth and make life a little easier on debt-ridden Chinese companies. In the immediate term it may give a slight boost to the economy, but there is no chance this measure, or others like it, will keep the Chinese economy from slowing much further in the years ahead. Let us explain.
The continued and dramatic slowing of the Chinese economy in the years ahead is baked in the cake. For the last decade Chinese growth has been fueled by investment in infrastructure (AKA fixed capital formation). In an effort to sustain a high level of growth massive and unprecedented investment in fixed capital was carried out and fixed investment has now become close to 50% of the Chinese economy. On the flip side, consumption as a percent of GDP has shrunk from about 46% of GDP to only 38% of GDP. Most emerging market countries run with fixed investment of around 30-35% of GDP and with consumption accounting for about 40-50% of GDP – exactly the opposite dynamic of the Chinese economy. China has run into a ceiling in terms of the percent of the economy accounted for by fixed investment and now fixed investment must shrink to levels more appropriate for China’s stage of economic development. This necessarily implies a slowing of the Chinese economy from what the government says is near 7% to something closer to 2-4%, and that is in the optimistic scenario in which consumption growth picks up the pace to mitigate the slowdown in investment.
This is why cuts in rates mean practically nothing for China’s long-term economic prospects. In the short-term rate cuts may postpone corporate bankruptcies by allowing companies to refinance debt at lower rates. Rate cuts may also make housing more affordable, on the margin. But these are cyclical boosts that act as tailwinds to China’s economic train. No amount of wind, save a hurricane, is going to keep the train from slowing.