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Keep an eye on China

By Saul Eslake - posted Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Australia, more than most advanced economies, will remain sensitive to the rises and falls of the Chinese economy.

When I first began writing about the global economy, more than 25 years ago, what would be considered a reasonably comprehensive coverage for an Australian audience required a discussion of the United States, Japan, Germany and Britain. Those four countries accounted for about 55 per cent of the world economy, and took about 45 per cent of Australia's exports. They were the major sources of foreign investment into Australia. Their central banks were the only ones whose decisions mattered to us; the exchange rates among their currencies were the only ones in which we took a keen interest; their stockmarkets set the tone for ours.

These four countries are still important today, of course, but less so (especially from an Australian perspective) than they used to be. They account for about 42 per cent of the world economy, and take less than 30 per cent of our exports. These days, any analysis of the global economy - and especially one intended for an Australian audience - would be considered grossly deficient if it did not devote considerable attention to China.


China is now the world's second-biggest economy; it is the world's largest exporter, and second-biggest importer; it has the world's largest foreign exchange reserves, and is the US government's largest individual creditor; the decisions of its central bank can move markets around the world; and the exchange rate between its currency and the US dollar is a matter of keen interest to governments and investors alike.

For Australia, China is now our largest single trading partner; it is a major influence on the prices we receive for many of our most important commodity exports, and it is likely to become an increasingly significant source of foreign investment.

Developments in the US remain as important as ever to prospects for the global economy and the tone of financial markets, and neither Europe nor Japan can be ignored. But it's surely telling that (by way of example) the roughly 1,000-word discussion of the international economic environment in the Reserve Bank's most recent quarterly Statement on Monetary Policy devoted a little more than 200 words to economic conditions in each of the US, China and other emerging east Asian economies, and about 125 words (plus a special two-page supplement) to India, but only about 125 words to Europe and fewer than 90 to Japan.

China's rapid recovery during 2009 from what had been a pronounced economic slowdown during 2008 has been an important factor in Australia's relatively benign experience of the recent global financial crisis. It wasn't as critical to avoiding recession as the resilience of the Australian banking system and residential property markets, or the timely and (for the most part) effective responses of monetary and fiscal policy to the global downturn. But it certainly played a major role in shielding Australia from the collapse in exports experienced by most other industrialised economies during the latter part of 2008 and much of 2009, and it has been the most significant factor driving the revival of the resources investment boom that seems likely to be one of the major drivers of growth in Australia's economy this year and next as the last year's monetary and fiscal policy stimulus is gradually withdrawn.

In the first few months of this year, the Chinese authorities have begun to wind back some of the monetary policy stimulus that played such a key role in lifting China's growth rate from a little more than 6 per cent at the beginning of last year to more than 10 per cent by the end of last year. Bank lending quotas were reduced; the proportion of banks' assets required to be held in the form of reserves at the central bank has been increased by 1 percentage point; maximum loan-to-valuation ratios for property investment lending have been lowered, and some short-term interest rates have been marginally increased.

Some adjustment to what the Chinese authorities have for some time described as a "moderately loose" monetary policy stance seems appropriate in view of the rapid rebound in property prices, and by the turnaround in the trend in consumer prices from a decline of 1.8 per cent over the year to July 2008 to an increase of 2.7 per cent over the 12 months to February this year.


The re-emergence of inflation is largely the result of higher food prices (especially grains), but the authorities will nonetheless have been mindful of the fact that the surge in food prices in the first half of 2008 was an important contributor to the slowing in China's economy that was already under way before the global financial crisis punched a hole in China's exports.

Financial markets (and many commentators) have responded to each of these (comparatively modest) moves by the Chinese monetary authorities as if they had been slamming on the brakes, such that a major downturn in Chinese economic growth was imminent.

As is the case with the Reserve Bank's four increases in Australian interest rates since last October, these moves by the Chinese monetary authorities to unwind some of the stimulus they provided in very different circumstances during the depths of the global financial crisis should instead be seen as an indication of their confidence in the strength and durability of the recovery that is now under way, and as a sign of their determination to prevent the emergence of destabilising "bubbles" of the sort that caused so much grief in the US and Europe. In neither Australia nor China has monetary policy yet come close to being "tight".

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First published in The Age on March 24, 2010.

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About the Author

Saul Eslake is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Tasmania.

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