Markets are having a hard time interpreting China’s economic slowdown and evaluating policy options. At one extreme, some observers are talking about a potential dynastic collapse. But most have turned to the notion that economic growth needs to be more consumption driven since the almost universal view is that China’s growth is unbalanced, with consumption as a share of gross domestic product having declined steadily to below 35 per cent – the lowest level of any major economy – while its investment share rose to above 45 per cent, correspondingly the highest.
The reason for this imbalance is often attributed to low interest rates or an undervalued exchange rate. This has been the easy explanatory option since financial markets are comfortable with prices driving outcomes. But in his article in The New York Times last week, Paul Krugman is unique among prominent commentators in getting it right. He notes that China’s unbalanced growth is explained by the Nobel Prize-winning model by Arthur Lewis that shows how the transfer of surplus workers from the rural sector to the modern economy, complemented by rising investment, leads to rapid but unbalanced growth. The model also lays out the conditions when labour supplies tighten, growth slows and China’s economy eventually becomes more balanced – referred to as the “Lewis turning point” – and this as argued by Mr Krugman is causing China to “hit its Great Wall”.