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Preparing for Peak Peasant

A lot has been said of China’s profoundly imbalanced, investment-driven growth strategy. Paul Krugman thinks that China’s eaten its free lunch and will face its “Minsky Moment” anytime now. Stephen Roach dissents that “doubters in the West have misread the Chinese economy’s vital signs once again”. In fact, while Krugman’s borderline-Austrian language is too harsh, he’s far closer to reality than Roach. And both of them are off mark.

The best way to think about China is an economy that’s about to exit the (in this case very long) Keynesian short-run into a Classical long-run. Hear me out. China is today an industrialized economy with the world’s best supply-chain infrastructure placing it at the forefront of international manufacturing. But it wasn’t always – and understanding this is key to observing the inherently Keynesian dynamic.

China was in – more or less – a Classical long-run with rather underwhelming growth at the time of the Xiaoping Reforms. The agrarian infrastructure supported a rural, labor-intense workforce and there was no excess capacity. However, after supply-side reforms, China’s infrastructure advanced far more rapidly than its labor force. There are many reasons for this, but the most compelling may be an extension of Paul Krugman’s strategic trade theory – emphasizing the importance of economies of scale in international trade. Suddenly, with respect to potential output, there was a huge excess supply. Of labor. To reiterate – this is not a vanilla Keynesian argument of excess supply of roads and factories. Rather, for the first time, the potential output of the average Chinese laborer has increased exponentially, because of the roads and factories. Therefore it is the excess capacity of human and not physical capital. Without this distinction the somewhat unorthodox interpretation that follows is lost.

There is no such thing as an absolute supply of labor. If the United States could tolerate wages measured in pennies and majority people involved in the production of rice we would have no unemployment because of labor-intense comparative advantage. But given our vast social, economic, and physical infrastructure capital-intensity reduces the absolute demand for labor.

The past two decades have been kind to China not only because aggregate supply has been expanding, but also because aggregate demand has been catching up. One, very perverse, way to think about it is that there was a discrete time period at which China entered a deep recession – with its future self – and has been in a frantic, Keynesian catchup ever since.

Having millions of peasants not introduced to its urban economy meant that what was once a Classical long-run in a crappy growth trajectory became a Keynesian short-run with an excess supply of workers relative to new infrastructure. Recoveries – Keynesian and otherwise – provide a period of above-trend growth. This dramatically changes how we might understand the last few years: much like how advanced economies (used to) climb out of economic slumps.

But excess supply can only last so long. In this case China is about to hit what we should colorfully call “Peak Peasant”. That implies the following:

  • There will be – further economies of scale aside – diminishing returns from the marginal unit of labor.
  • Wage inflation will be significantly emergent as the aggregate supply – vis a vis a once future economy – becomes inelastic.
  • China’s growth rate will mean revert: not to its historical mean but back to a trend defined by the expansion of long-run aggregate supply.

That, mostly, supports the Krugman interpretation which, however, wildly misses the mark here:

The need for rebalancing has been obvious for years, but China just kept putting off the necessary changes, instead boosting the economy by keeping the currency undervalued and flooding it with cheap credit. (Since someone is going to raise this issue: no, this bears very little resemblance to the Federal Reserve’s policies here.) These measures postponed the day of reckoning, but also ensured that this day would be even harder when it finally came. And now it has arrived.

Nope.

There is no day of reckoning. That would imply China has – for some period of time – been in a Classical long-run and increases in aggregate demand fueled by cheap credit and an undervalued Renminbi are reflected only as an increase on short-run aggregate supply whose coincident growth will be eaten by inflation.

But China is only now entering the Classical long-run. Until now, Chinese growth has been entirely real without any money illusion.

That means there’s no big “reckoning” coming. If our framework is a China that’s been in (conceptual not technical) recession due to excess supply relative to a discretely improved infrastructure, we are now entering normal times where growth won’t be nearly as rapid.

This means Roach himself has misdiagnosed China’s position. While he’s right that a sectoral shift to tertiary, service-oriented industries is an important component of China’s future, his reasons are wrong:

Why are services so important for China’s rebalancing? For starters, services are far more labor-intensive than the country’s traditional growth sectors. In 2011, Chinese services generated 30% more jobs per unit of output than did manufacturing and construction. This means that the Chinese economy can achieve its all-important labor-absorption objectives – employment, urbanization, and poverty reduction – with much slower GDP growth than in the past. In other words, a 7-8% growth trajectory in an increasingly services-led economy can hit the same labor-absorption targets that required 10% growth under China’s previous model.

That might have been great with a hugely untapped reserve of peasant labor. Like the Keynesian China of yesteryear. Roach’s writing is slightly misleading. He thinks of it as higher employment created per unit of GDP. I think of it as higher employment required per unit of GDP. Without a perfectly elastic labor supply, this means China will rapidly tempt inflationary pressures.

It’s like someone telling you the 18th century model of American farming – where one hundred men with plows do as much as one man with a tractor today – is better because of its labor intensity. While it “absorbs” more labor, it will also push us against a much harsher supply curve.

Also note, an “excess supply” of labor is very different from what we normally think of as excess capacity (empty factories, unfarmed land, or unemployed PhDs). Excess capital is part of the business cycle, and an intimate component of Keynesian philosophy. It is perennial and hence mundane.

But a country will have excess labor only once. We only shift from labor-intensity to capital-intensity once. In other words, China’s quantum expansion of aggregate supply will be unique in its economic history. It cannot sustain the growth rates it has by any wide margin.

In this sense, the Chinese slowdown will only approximate a “Keynesian” explanation. This is the time for China to pursue sensible, capital-oriented policy. Liberalizing its financial market, privatizing state-owned enterprises, and instituting a rule of law will be chief among any such policy.

It is obvious that corruption and absence of law are what will most lethally damage China’s supply-side future, and hence its economy. Until now China’s excess labor held its aggregate supply so high that anti-supply policies – like authoritarian government – were not felt in the numbers. This will not any longer be the case.

The economic future of the world will be dictated not by how China handles a demand-side rebalancing from investment into consumption, but how it handles a supply-side rebalancing from authoritarian management to liberal democracy.

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