According to a Washington Post dispatch today from Shanghai, Chinese exports plummeted by 25 percent in February. Economists reportedly were “shocked” by the news.
Shocked? Like Captain Renault in Casablanca? No, really shocked. Two Merrill Lynch economists called the $64.9 billion export level an “ugly number” and lamented that “the export slowdown has finally come to China.”
Now, wait a minute! One of my intellectual heroes, Herb Stein, said famously that “if a thing cannot go on forever, it will stop.” A mercantilist trade boom predicated on artificially cheap export prices and the recycling of dollars into consumer debt for buyers of the same goods cannot go on forever. It is stopping now. Not a shock. Not even a surprise. A certainty.
Even the New York Times editorial page got it partly right today I opining that China’s leaders “need to understand that export-led growth no longer works for them or the world.” Of course, the Times went on to urge the Obama administration to back off on China’s undervalued currency, one of the pistons driving the country’s export machine.
The China-based economists don’t see everything as lost, however. They credit Beijing for vigorous – one expert calls them ”drastic” -- measures to help the domestic economy. Aside from a 5 percent tax break on small autos, however, much of the stimulus is aimed at more investment rather than more domestic consumption. More investment in production facilities will only add to the burden of overcapacity, deflating prices and creating surpluses that will seek a market outside of China. If that’s what easy credit results in, China’s “drastic” measures might just be making a bad situation worse.
Live by the sword, die by the sword. The current global economic model is broken. Export-led growth won’t work for large economies. As the Times correctly said, neither China nor the world benefits. At least from this time forward, there is absolutely no basis for anyone, not even professional economists and editorial writers, to be “shocked” by perfectly predictable developments.