Mar 31 2008
Inflation, with its erosive effects on wealth and income, has plagued China at increasing rates since mid-2007. In February it reached an annualized rate of 8.7%, threatening to undermine China’s GDP growth rate, which has been predicted in the 8% range for this year.
As we have discussed in our our AP Econ class here in Shanghai, China’s inflation is caused by a combination of demand and supply-side factors. On the demand-side, a growing middle class has driven consumer spending to record levels recently, surpassing investment as the largest component of China’s GDP in 2007. Of course, as always, high inflation (thus low real interest rates), optimism about rising consumption in the future, and a comparative advantage in labor-intensive manufacturing (albeit a diminishing one as wages continue to rise) all combine to keep investment extremely high. Furthermore, cheap exports have helped keep demand for China’s output from abroad strong. The combination of increasing consumption, strong investment, and its trade surplus have resulted in demand-pull inflation.
On the supply-side, China has encountered additional inflationary pressures of late. Rising energy prices (mostly due to coal and oil shortages) combined with record rises in food prices (24% increase in the last year), have driven costs to firms up, shifting the aggregate supply curve leftward, further fueling inflation.
Knowing the damaging effects inflation has on income and wealth, it might be assumed that Beijing would place the utmost emphasis on taming the country’s rising prices. This, however,is not at the top of the government’s macroeconomic goals, according to premier Wen Jiabao:
On the issue of whether he would sacrifice economic output to bring down inflation, at the risk of increasing unemployment, Mr Wen indicated that growth remained the overarching priority. “We must ensure that our economy will grow…in order to ensure employment,” he said. “China is a developing country with 1.3bn people. We have to maintain a certain degree of fast economic growth to provide enough jobs.
The tradeoff between inflation and unemployment to which Mr. Wen refers is a text book example of the challenges faced by macroeconomic policymakers everywhere. This trade-off is illustrated in the Phillips Curve model, which shows that in the short-run, there exists an inverse relationship between the price level and the unemployment rate.
In case you haven’t heard, China is not a democracy. Nor is it a, ehem, “free” country. According to Alan Greenspan in his book “The Age of Turbulence”, democracy and freedom of speech act as “safety valves” in Western countries; in other words, in times of economic or political unrest, the right to gather in the streets, the right to vent frustrations through a free press and the opportunity to advocate political and economic change through the various media, all combine to prevent violent and revolutionary uprisings when times get tough economically.
Take the US for example. Times are certainly tough right now. Inflation’s approaching 4-5%, while nominal growth has nearly stagnated. Unemployment, while it has technically fallen recently, in reality has risen as hundreds of thousands of workers have given up searching for work. The bursting of the housing bubble represents one of the most massive losses of wealth in recent history. A weak dollar has meant that even cheap imports don’t seem so cheap anymore. Throw in the desperate war in Iraq, the nuclear threat from Iran, rising food prices, $110 oil and an incredibly unpopular national leader, and by some measures the country would appear ripe for revolution. However, a revolution is about the least likely thing to occur in America, because it enjoys the “safety valve” of democracy. Rather than overthrowing their government, Americans have the right to go to the pole and vote for a new one, which in all likelihood will occur this November when it seems either Barrack or Hillary stand the greatest chance and winning the White House.
Now let’s look at China. The picture’s not quite so gloomy for the Chinese right now. Yes, inflation is high, as in the US. But unlike America, China is still growing at a very healthy pace, unemployment is probably still below its natural level, the real estate markets in China’s cities are still booming, meaning the middle class residents there are experiencing leaps and bounds in terms of personal wealth. Demand for its exports remains strong, and ever more poor Chinese are finding jobs in high paying factories across the country. Investments in capital, infrastructure and education point towards a bright future of continued growth for the foreseeable future.
But wait, 8.4% is something to worry about, especially when we take into account the 24% increase in food prices. Shouldn’t Wen and Beijing be taking drastic steps to reign in this high rate of inflation? In short, NO, they shouldn’t. Because as can be seen in the Phillips Curve, to reduce inflation could result in another, far more serious problem for Beijing; rising unemployment.
It appears that Beijing’s greatest fear is a population out of work. Its goal of creating 10 million new jobs is ambitious, but in the eye’s of the government, necessary. The Chinese people do not enjoy the “safety valve” of democracy through which economic frustrations and hardships can be channeled were the country to experience a slowdown in growth and an increase in unemployment. The last time the economy faced high inflation AND high unemployment, students, workers, soldiers and tanks all gathered for an afternoon of urban warfare under Mao’s somber gaze in Beijing. To avoid such massive revolutionary movements in the future, Beijing must do all it can to insure job creation continues and growth remains strong, even if the trade-off is record high inflation.
This one passage spoken by Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, tells a vivid story about the reality of Communist dictatorship in China. Sound economic policy may go on the back burner in times of political uncertainty. Price controls, such as those on petrol in Shanghai (speaking of, the long lines at gas stations are back!), were a microeconomic example of bad economics; Beijings hesitance to seriously tackle inflation is a macroeconomic example. Holding on to power seems to be more important than stabilizing prices, at least for now.
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