Courtesy: "Wall Street Journal", 21 April 2011
Beijing Chases the Inflation Dragon
But is it prepared for the structurally lower growth it gets as a result of belated tightening?
By DIANA CHOYLEVAChinese policy makers have acted for the last year and a half as if their inflation problem could be solved easily while growth continues to tick along at 8% or faster. Now they are starting to realize that the problem is more serious. But they still misunderstand why China is overheating. The root cause is a massive increase in the money supply over the past two years that is still filtering through the economy.
Data released last Friday showed consumer prices in March rose by 5.4% year-on-year, the highest in three years. And there's more yet to come, as Beijing was too slow to start cooling China's red hot economy. Being too slow means that unless policy makers bring real GDP growth sharply below trend, China is at risk of runaway inflation.
There is a tendency among Chinese policy makers to attribute the cause of inflation to supply-side factors, like bad weather that creates food shortages. But the real cause is Beijing's stimulus plan after China's economy plunged into recession in late 2008. The increase in broad money as a share of GDP was close to 40% in 2009 and the first half of 2010, much higher than the previous peak of 27% in 2003.
Beijing's monetary boost certainly revived growth. The rebound that started in the spring of 2009 was spectacular, but within just a couple of quarters the economy had overheated. By the middle of 2009 inflation began to accelerate, and it did so on all fronts. Consumer prices, property prices and wages all began to rise at a faster pace. Against this evidence, it is hard to argue that inflation in China has been anything else but a monetary phenomenon.
The dangers of this monetary excess are becoming evident. China may be on the brink of a vicious wage-inflation spiral, which could undermine the authorities' grip over the economy. Actual inflation could well be higher than the official 5.4% in March. That's why Beijing is now hurriedly tightening. Still, this policy action comes too late in the day: Inflation had been on the rise for over a year and real deposit rates had been negative for nearly a year before the authorities began a meaningful withdrawal of the monetary stimulus. It is important to trace the monetary impetus to inflation through the stages of the business cycle to understand what the delayed policy response now means for growth. An economy is overheated and inflation starts to rise if the level of actual output is above the economy's potential. Potential output can be defined on the basis of a given degree of spare capacity: Wherever there is a tradeoff between higher output and higher prices, essentially some capacity must remain idle. The closer an economy approaches the full use of its limited resources, the more prices rise to pull unused resources into production.
There was spare capacity in the economy in late 2008 and early 2009, because the external demand that kept China's factories chugging had slumped, pushing the economy into recession. So actual output fell below potential, and annual inflation slowed quickly, turning negative in early 2009. By mid-2009, growth had rebounded strongly and spare capacity started getting used up, with too many yuan chasing too few goods and services. By the fall of 2009 the level of actual output was already above the economy's potential and has stayed there since. If the tightening had begun then, inflation wouldn't have gotten as bad.
The good news is that the recent tightening efforts may have begun to bite. On a three-month annualized basis, a better guide to recent trends, broad money, or M2, growth slowed to 8.4% in March from as high as 28.5% last October. China published quarterly real GDP growth for the first time last Friday, showing growth slowed to 2.1% in the first quarter of this calendar year from 2.4% in the fourth quarter last year. Lombard Street Research estimates its own quarterly real GDP growth for China, which suggests that the official data could be understating the extent of the slowdown in the first quarter.
Beijing seems serious about winning the battle with inflation. Policy makers have also shown that they understand the need for China's growth model to move away from the credit-fuelled investment binges of the past, and that this means structurally lower growth. The question is, how prepared is Beijing to accept much slower growth and its social and political consequences?
Ms. Choyleva is a director at Lombard Street Research.
Note: The viewpoint expressed in this article is solely that of the writer. "FATA Awareness Initiative" Team may not agree with the opinion presented........................
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