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  • Lawrence Bailey

Should we worry about broken China?

I’ll admit it’s not everyone’s idea of a good time, but sitting in on one of those traditional Christmas lectures by a respected economist seemed a good way of slipping gently into the new working year.

I’d blagged a late invitation to a private event, enjoying some seasonal hospitality as I settled down to what was expected to be a good humoured address.

That’s went it all that went south when he kicked off with, “I know you’re expecting me to talk about Brexit. Well, forget Brexit. Brexit is something we can handle. The real problem is China.”

OK, let’s put that it in perspective. As we feverishly stockpile medicines and stress-test customs borders in readiness for a March showdown, China's central bank has been bunging money into its economy both in cash and kind.

It may sound like some fiscal tinkering but it’s apparently the fifth occasion in a year that the People's Bank of China has found it necessary to lever in resources. This time will see about 800 billion yuan ($116 billion) pumped into the world's second largest economy.

As the guest speaker explained, the need for state intervention stems from weakening demand from domestic consumers and businesses. It’s a situation made even trickier by a looming trade war with the United States following tariffs instigated by Donald Trump.

Anyone who thinks China is no big deal in market terms clearly missed how Wall Street had serious palpitations over lower than expected sales by Apple in the recent quarter.

The tech giant isn’t alone in experiencing sales fatigue. Other global outfits all report weakened consumer interest.

What makes equally gloomy reading is that China's stock market was the world's worst performer last year, ending with a loss of 28% overall.

Our speaker had some scary graphics to highlight how China's one-time runaway economic growth has been slowing in recent years. It’s presently around 6.5% annually, which way ahead of economies elsewhere in the so-called developed world. Even so, it’s halved in the last seven years.

This is partly down to several chickens coming home to roost over a lack of regulation that gives Chinese firms a rotten overseas reputation. Western firms who once welcomed investment are closing their boardrooms doors as practices involving "shadow banking" and cyber espionage surface on a daily basis.

So what does all this mean to us over here? Well, given that China accounts for just under 20% of the global economic activity, the answer could be very bad news indeed.

It’s not just that Chinese industry is integral to international supply chains. As someone in the audience pointed out, it’s hard to find a major capital project or conglomerate where Chinese funding isn’t either directly or indirectly involved.

If a proportion of these interests goes belly-up then the impact on trade could make Brexit look like a minor economic blip by comparison.

I can’t make my mind up if I’m better off for knowing all this. But one thing I’ve decided is that my new year’s resolution is to avoid seminars for a while.

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