Commentary Type

Peterson's Lardy Sees Underlying 'Financial Repression' in China

Scott Johnson (Bloomberg) and Nicholas R. Lardy (PIIE)

Interview published in Bloomberg Brief


May 4 (Bloomberg Brief)—Nicholas Lardy, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, spoke to Bloomberg Brief on May 2 about this week's US-China talks, the impact of leadership transitions on both sides, and the need for economic reform.

Q: What do you expect the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue to achieve this week?

A: I think the aspirations in terms of concrete deliverables are fairly modest. I think both sides want to keep the momentum going, looking forward to the next dialogue when some of the principles will have changed on both sides. I think there will be some very specific discussions of some of the issues that have been addressed over the years, trying to make incremental progress, which I think is the characteristic of this process. I think there's likely to be more focus than in the past also on the kinds of steps the United States would like to take to make sure there's a level playing field between private firms and state-owned companies. This is an initiative the United States is taking in a number of different places. It's part of the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is being promoted at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by the United States, and it has now been built into this model bilateral investment treaty (BIT) that the United States will use in future negotiations on BITs, I think including with China. I think those are the main areas.

Q: What do you think China would like to see come out of these talks?

A: I think first of all they want to maintain the momentum in the bilateral relationship. It's fairly clear from all the things they've done that maintaining a productive working relationship with the United States is a pretty high priority.

In terms of the concrete deliverables that they will ask for, I think they're going to ask for the kinds of things that US negotiators have very little flexibility on. For example, one of the perennials is a relaxation of export controls, but the export-control regime in the United States is based on laws passed by the Congress, and negotiators on a bilateral basis with China can't offer to ease the restrictions. And the whole reform of the export-control system, I think, has gotten very bogged down. Promises have been made, and it's been very, very difficult to get congressional action that would allow implementation of any significant reform. So they frequently ask for things that maybe are important to them, but I think they recognize it is difficult to impossible for the United States to be forthcoming on, and of course this covers, in part, their unwillingness to make concessions on issues that are important to the United States. It's a bit of a stalemate in a certain respect.

Q: Chen Guangcheng said today he will remain in China. Is this story a blip on the radar, or will it affect the tone of the talks? [Note: This interview took place on May 2. Chen Guangcheng said on May 3 he wished to leave China with his family, reversing his position on a US brokered deal.]

A: I would guess at this point that it's going to not have a substantial effect on the talks. I think both sides have bent over backwards to minimize the damage. I think if the Chinese side or the US side, three or four or five days ago, had come out with an extreme statement, it would have potentially derailed the talks or certainly made the atmosphere quite different. Instead, both sides were bending over backwards not to make a big issue of the Chen Guangcheng affair, if that's the right word—not making public statements, not using his name.

Both sides avoided making statements the other side would regard as extreme. We're not quite clear what the final outcome is, whether he'll go back to Shandong province or whether he'll live in Beijing, what assurances can be made about the treatment of his family members. But I would say from what we know so far it looks like a favorable outcome.

Q: How much do you believe the US rhetoric on China? Do you think China policy will change next year under either party?

A: No, I do not. I think the chances of a significant policy change are very remote. We've seen a great deal of continuity in US policy towards China over quite a few administrations.

There certainly wouldn't be too much of a change if Obama is reelected. Obviously we'll have a new Treasury secretary, a new Secretary of State. But I would see enormous continuity in our policy towards China, which has been basically dictated from the White House, in any case. If Mr. Romney is elected, I think he will have to walk back from his statement about naming China as a currency manipulator. I think the campaign is already trying to get some wiggle room on that issue.

Q: What effect is China's leadership transition having on the pace of economic reform?

A: Well, my view is that really fundamental far-reaching reform has been stalled in China for quite a few years. It seems to me there's gridlock. It's a leadership that operates by consensus.

It's very difficult to get a consensus on any of the really far-reaching reforms that I think are necessary at this point.

Vested interests oppose them. I think we've had weak leadership at the top, not willing or able to push through when they don't see a consensus. When vested interests object to a reform, the outcome is no action. Whether or not that will change under Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang I think remains to be seen, but I'm hopeful that it will change because it's increasingly clear that China cannot rely on exports to generate growth in its economy.

Europe, their biggest market, is likely to be quite weak for a number of years, not just for a few quarters. The recovery in the United States continues to be quite tepid. They already have investment at what I characterize as super-elevated levels. I think they will ultimately have to undertake some of the tougher reforms that will lead to an increase in private consumption expenditure to become an increasingly important source of growth in the economy, rather than investment and exports.

Q: Where is there overcapacity in China apart from the real estate market?

A: I think it's very hard to see overcapacity given the pace of growth that we've seen, which is a little surprising. Obviously there are a few industries, but I think it's pretty difficult to make the case that there is large-scale overcapacity across the board in manufacturing. You can point to a few sectors.

Obviously, if real estate investment continues to soften, there's going to be excess capacity going forward in things like steel and other industries that feed into construction, and the steel industry is already under quite a bit of stress, with large numbers of firms losing money in recent quarters because of the slowdown in the growth of demand in the construction sector. I think the real area of overcapacity has been and continues to be real estate.

Q: How successful do you think China's current approach to property reform is going to be?

A: I think they've had some success. Obviously prices have begun to moderate in most cities. The cumulative declines in price are not large, but they're starting to go down instead of rising.

The restrictions that they have placed on investment property I think have been somewhat effective—that is, they've required larger down payments if you're taking out a mortgage for a property that's not going to be a principal residence. The interest rates on those loans are also higher than for first- time buyers.

But I think the underlying problem has not been addressed, and the underlying problem has been financial repression, which has led to a situation in the last eight years or so in which the average return on a one-year deposit has been in negative territory. If you go back and look at the late 90s or the early part of the last decade, the first three or four years, real returns on a one-year deposit were 3.0 percent. Now the last eight years, they've averaged minus 0.5 percent. Financial repression is reduced interest rates, particularly on deposits; capital-account controls, which make it difficult for the average family to invest in foreign-currency assets; a stock market that has been characterized correctly as a casino, in which there are widespread trading abuses—front-running, insider trading, and so forth and a 10-year rate of return that is about equal to inflation. People have been increasingly looking at real estate as the most viable asset class for long- term investment. I think that's led to a very large share of urban households owning multiple properties.

They've put up some barriers, made it a little more expensive to invest in multiple properties, but it hasn't really corrected the underlying problem, which is the lack of good regulation of the stock market, the absence of capital account convertibility and negative real deposit rates in the banking system.

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