Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Let Old Disasters Be Forgotten

It was Queen Elizabeth II who first publicly used the term “annus horribilis” (before that it was considered to be in poor taste to refer to certain parts of anatomy in public). She was, of course, referring to the miserable year that she had in 1992, where most of her children parted company with their spouses and her house (Windsor Castle) caught fire. More recently, the Economist referred to the year 2008 as the Wall Street’s annus horribilis – at the end of which, of Wall Street’s five big securities firms, only Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley still remain in recognizable existence.

The Chinese started the year 2008 with great expectation and anticipation. After all 2008 should have been a lucky year - an “annus mirabilis”, as all years, months and days which include the number “8” are expected to be. However, the year had merely commenced when tragedy struck in the form of the worst snow storm ever witnessed by China, with millions of workers stranded on the road, trains and railway stations and unable to make the almost mandatory trip back home for the Chinese new year. The snow had hardly melted and the workers barely resumed their roles in turning the economic wheel of China, when the earth trembled viciously in Sichuan province, and destroyed thousands of lives, and hundreds of thousands of home and livelihoods.

China did have its day in the sun when it unveiled the opening ceremony of the Olympics on the 8th day of the 8th month of 2008 and dazzled the world with its technical prowess and cultural richness. As widely expected, it brought down the curtain two weeks later with the largest haul of gold medals - even though their favourite 110 metres hurdles runner, Liu Xiang, broke the nation’s heart by limping away from the track nursing an ankle injury.

The glow of national pride was blindingly bright and many thought that it had changed China for ever. But then the “melamine” tragedy struck, a grim reminder of the hazard of greed overshadowing a sense of right and wrong. Thousands of children in China were hospitalized as they developed kidney stones as a result of drinking milk which was contaminated with melamine – an industrial chemical which found a new revenue stream as an aid to showing a high protein level reading, even when the milk has been diluted.

Already hurting at the monumental collapse of their stock market, the financial sentiment further deteriorated as all hell broke loose on Wall Street. Initially the economists and the government shrugged off the threat and felt reasonably secure and “decoupled”. However when the American consumers stopped buying the toys made in Guangdong province in South China, and workers were seen arguing for their unpaid wages, a realization dawned that this would be as much a Chinese crisis as an American one. China’s exports actually declined by 2.2% in November 2008 – first decline seen in the last 7 years.

Today, gloomy economists are speculating whether China (along with India) will be one of the worst affected economies from the credit crunch. Particularly China, which depends so heavily on exports (accounting for 37% of its GDP). How it is going to run those factories and pay the wages when the orders dry up as American consumers either do not have money or do not feel inclined to spend it. Will it be able to find alternative routes to maintain the growth? Will the traditionally thrifty Chinese (with 25% household savings rate) want to hoard even more when they see the gloom in the West? The car sales in China have already seen a negative growth in recent months. Consumers are reluctant to buy houses, an activity that added significantly to economic growth in the last decade.

That China will slow down and that the current crisis signals the end of the uninterrupted double digit growth which made China the cynosure and envy of the world is not disputed now. However, will it merely decelerate to a more modest, but still a healthy growth, while continuing on the path of striving for a better life for its citizens, or will it derail and cause ruin and mayhem. So far the government has been responsive. Interest rate has been reduced as many as five times in the last 5 months to stimulate lending and borrowing. The government has also announced that it will spend as much as 4 trillion yuan (US $ 586 billion) over the next couple of years to stimulate demand. A mammoth amount is planned to be spent on infrastructure projects, including adding 41,000 kms of railroad by 2020 and providing six million jobs on the way. However, this alone is unlikely to suffice to ensure a continued ride for the Chinese on the train to economic prosperity. To continue on the joy ride, the Chinese economy will need a nimbleness and openness with which it can reinvent itself and wean itself from the export dependence that it has been flourishing on so far.

Written by Ashok Sethi

1 comment:

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