China / Japan? History repeating itself?

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Too far fetched?

Let’s consider briefly the facts and also some important caveats.

Population demographics

The results of a census taken in 2015 has placed Japan’s population at just over 127 million – a decline of about 1 million in about 5 years. Japan’s birth rate has been long below the total fertility ratio of 2.1 (currently 1.4) and nearly a third of all Japanese citizens are now over 65. This is already a source of policy and economic challenges for Japan and one that is likely to keep growing.

China’s one-child policy starting in the 70s has had a major impact. Whilst the policy has now been relaxed, the population control genie, once out of the bottle can rarely be controlled. Changing economic trends, mindset shifts, and a movement towards an urban citizenry means less people are keen on having children. The United Nations estimates that that the number of Chinese over 65 will increase by 85% to 243 million in 2030 (from the current 131 million). The Chinese working population saw its biggest decline in 2015 – a fall by a record 4.87 million.

Both Japan and China have very restrictive and insular immigration policies which will only serve to further exacerbate the population and demographic challenges. These demographic issues will also impact economic growth and development as in time both economies will have inverted population pyramids, where one active working individual will be supporting two parents and four grandparents – and better medical facilities and healthcare will lead to a greater demand on the working population.

Perhaps the spur in investment in robotics will help alleviate these challenges?

Economic growth history

Japan’s economic growth started with the development of its manufacturing base following World War Two with support from the USA and other Allied nations. Japan’s growth was an average of 9% between 1955 and 1973 (when the first ‘oil shock’ impeded growth).

In the case of China, following a debilitating post-war economic situation and the challenges of the Cultural Revolution, the opening up and reformation of the economic system from 1978 was instrumental in China’s economic story. China’s growth has averaged between 7% and 10% since.

The main engine of growth both in the case of Japan and subsequently China was manufacturing. It will surprise users of top-notch Japanese products today to learn that from the 1950s to around the 80s, ‘Made in Japan’ meant low-quality and cheap and people preferred to use American or European produced goods. However, the Japanese investment into their manufacturing processes, research and development over time meant that they started developing high-value and high-quality goods and products. It’s a process that took decades and systemic investment into innovation.

In the case of China-made products, there are still some challenges around quality and value, but this is something that is being addressed as we now increasingly see greater investment into research and innovation.

Funding world’s developing needs

Japan became development donor from as early as the mid-50s and by the early 90s, Japan became one of the largest officual development assistance (ODA) providers in the world. Grants, aids and soft loans were provided through agencies such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Japan then became instrumental in the establishment of the Asian Development Bank (an institution for which it has maintained presidency since inception in the 60s).

This allowed Japan to project its soft-power and help foster policies favourable to Japan across recipient nations.

If we examine China’s development assistance, aid and grants – it has grown from less than US$1 billion in 2002 to over $25 billion in 2007 to currently over US$100 billion. Due to differences in the way ODAs are valued, it is possible that China’s current aid and grants may be undervalued.

China also was instrumental in the set-up of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with an express aim of building infrastructure across Asia-Pacific. Whilst both ADB and AIIB officials have been at pains to stress that they do not see each other as competitors (indeed they have already co-financed a number of projects), a primary reason why the AIIB was set up so as to have greater autonomy by China and other partners in multilateral banking institutions.

Slowing growth and liquidity trap

In the late 80s, Japan was running a very large trade surplus and the stock market and property prices were booming (there were properties which were valued at US$1.5 million per square meter – or ten square feet in Ginza!) which collapsed in the 90s. There was an asset bubble across both the stock and property markets and when the bubbles burst, it led to the loss of trillions of dollars of value.

Deflation set in and whilst the Japanese government tried its best to promote spending (including setting interest rates at near zero levels), there was little effect. Growth has been anaemic and in 2009 the GDP fell by 5.2%.

Japan found itself stuck in a classic liquidity trap where where its monetary policy had little or no impact on economic output and production levels. This led to the ‘tragedy of Japan’s lost decades.’

Let us now consider China. Relatively easy loans made by banks? Check. Booming property prices? Check. Booming stock market? Check. Corrections across all three areas? Check.

China’s economy has been slowly significantly and it’s GDP growth rate has fallen to a level not seen since 1990. A report from the Wall Street Journal indicated that investors are hoarding cash rather than investing – a classic sign of a liquidity trap. The stock market debacle in Shanghai in 2015/2016 has also dampened investor enthusiasm.

The Chinese Communist Party Politburo has also cautioned against debt-fuelled growth and rising asset bubbles. There is also evidence to suggest that the stimulus packages initiated by the government are having little impact.

Some key differences.

Whilst there are some similarities, it is important to note a number of major differences and caveats before any quick conclusions are made. Firstly, China starts off with a much bigger population base and the reverberations from the impacts will take a much longer time before they are felt.

Secondly, China’s political system lends itself to a greater continuity in policies which may be effective in warding off economic downturns and avoid ‘lost decades’ the likes which Japan went through. Japan on the other hand went through nine prime ministers in the 11 years between 1989 and 2000 which hardly allows for lasting measures and policies.

In order to avoid the liquidity trap challenges, the Chinese government will need to focus on its war against graft and corruption and instil trust in the public institutions. Long-term and difficult policy decisions in the areas of state-owned enterprises reform need to be made in order to boost productivity. There needs to be continued efforts to keep narrowing the inequality gap and create greater employment opportunities which will in turn boost spending and help deter deflation.

The road ahead is a difficult one but there is no reason for history to repeat itself as long as the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

 

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