Skip to main content

Will China's economy crash?

By Michael Pettis, Special to CNN
updated 10:56 AM EDT, Mon July 29, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Pettis: Some experts think that China's economy is in big trouble
  • Pettis: Most likely, China's growth rate will decline in the coming years
  • He says the country needs to shift from investment to consumption model
  • Pettis: If China recalibrates its economy in the right way, everyone will benefit

Editor's note: Michael Pettis is a professor of finance at Peking University, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "The Great Rebalancing" (Princeton University Press).

(CNN) -- After many years of euphoria over China's rapid growth and the country's apparently inevitable rise to global economic dominance, the China story has taken a serious turn for the worse. China, it now seems, is about to collapse, and along the way it may well bring the world economy down with it.

Fortunately, the new story may be as muddled as the old one.

China's economic model has relied heavily on investment and debt. It shouldn't be a surprise that after many years of tremendous growth driven at first by badly needed investments, Chinese spending on infrastructure and manufacturing capacity is slowing down.

During the same period, debt levels surged as borrowed money poured into more highways, airports, steel mills, shipyards, high-speed railways, and apartment and office buildings than the country could productively use.

Michael Pettis
Michael Pettis

A few economists predicted as far back as 2006 that China would face a serious debt problem. By 2010, it became obvious even to the most excited of China bulls that this was indeed happening.

To protect itself from the risk of a debt crisis, China must bring spending to a halt. Beijing now wants to rebalance the economy away from its excessive reliance on investment and debt, and to increase the role of consumption as a driver of growth.

But this cannot happen except at lower growth rates.

China debt
Fareed's Take: China's slowing growth

So what happens next -- will China collapse? Probably not. A financial collapse is effectively a kind of bank run, and as long as government credibility remains high, banks are guaranteed and capital controls are maintained, it is unlikely that China will experience anything like a bank run.

What is far more likely is that in the coming years, China's gross domestic product growth rate will continue to decline as the country focuses on stimulating consumption.

Growth rates during the administration of President Xi Jinping are unlikely to exceed 3% to 4% on average if the economic rebalancing is managed well.

Will the slower growth rate be a disaster for China? Certainly, it would be huge departure from the growth rate of roughly 10% a year for nearly three decades. Would much lower growth rates create high unemployment and huge dislocations for the economy? Some are worried about such scenarios. But the Chinese economy has so far shown a lot of resilience despite passing storms such as the global financial crisis.

Beijing has huge challenges ahead. China's growth has been a boon to large businesses, the state, the powerful and the wealthy elite. What the Chinese government needs to do is recalibrate growth so that average household incomes can rise and consumers have more money to spend.

This will not be easy to pull off, but there are positive signs. Xi's government seems determined to make the necessary changes, even at the expense of much slower growth.

Even if GDP growth declines but average Chinese household income grows at 5% to 6% a year, it would put China in the right direction.

As for the rest of the world, there's no reason to panic over China's economic slowdown. Contrary to popular beliefs, China is not the global engine of growth; it is merely the largest arithmetic component of global growth. What drives global growth is demand. China, with a large trade surplus, is not a net provider of demand to the world.

What matters to the world, in other words, is not how fast China grows but rather, how its trade with foreign partners evolves. If China rebalances in an orderly way, its imports of manufactured goods and services should rise faster than its exports. This will be good for the world.

What's more, manufacturing industries around the world that lost out to China in the export business will benefit. When wages rise for Chinese workers -- so that they have more money to buy goods and services at home -- it means other developing countries will have a chance to compete for exports if they offer lower labor wages.

There is no doubt that Beijing has a long road ahead in terms of managing a huge economy, but as of now there should be nothing surprising or unexpected about the slowing growth of China. It will probably benefit the Chinese people and the global economy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Pettis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT