The Davos economic forum, held every winter in the Swiss Alps, allows its participants to look down at the world from above: topographically because of the high-altitude location, but also symbolically, because of the high incomes, high status or high-minded rhetoric that characterize the jet-setting global elite dubbed “Davos Man” by the American political scientist, Samuel Huntington. This week, however, I discovered a sub-species of Davos Man with a very different perspective. At the “summer Davos” that the World Economic Forum now organizes every year in China, participants look at the world sideways, from the East instead of down. The shift in viewpoint is striking, even for people who travel frequently to Asia, as I do, but rarely experience such total immersion in the eastern elite’s hopes and fears.
The biggest surprise at this week’s Dalian forum was the East-West divergence of opinion on the economic outlook, both in the months ahead and in the very long term. Western economists mostly believe that developing countries in general, and China in particular, are threatened by serious financial crises as U.S. monetary policy begins to be tightened, probably as soon as the Federal Reserve Board’s meeting next week. The consensus view is that emerging economies have invested and borrowed too much, taking advantage of the Fed’s easy money and will now face painful deleveraging similar to what Europe and the U.S. experienced five years ago. This deleveraging means, in turn, that the glory days for developing economies are probably over — and most of these countries, perhaps including China, may never escape the “middle-income trap” that has prevented further progress in many developing economies. The trap starts to hobble growth when per capita incomes rise to around $10,000 and many of the obvious opportunities for catching up with Western productivity are exhausted. China’s is $9,160 according to the IMF.
When I travelled to China this week, I expected obsessive discussion of the recent shift of economic sentiment against developing countries and the resulting collapse of bonds, shares and currencies in most emerging markets this year. And indeed warnings of ruinously compounding debt burdens and dangerously unsustainable investment bubbles did dominate Western presentations, both in Dalian and at an earlier academic seminar in Shenzhen, organised by Tsinghua University and the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
Surprisingly, however, the Chinese economists in Shenzhen seemed largely unperturbed by the Western warnings, preferring to concentrate on environmental, governance and public health issues and the details of financial market design. In Dalian, too, the sense of financial foreboding was strangely absent, as speakers from other developing countries agreed with their Chinese colleagues that higher priorities than debt management were structural issues such as demographics and education, governance and corruption, bank regulation and competition, energy and urban design.
In one session, Ali Babacan, the finance minister of Turkey, generally seen as a victim of severe financial panic after Ben Bernanke’s tapering announcement, noted that his country had only suffered a “modest” outflow of foreign capital, worth roughly 1.5 percent of GDP. “It was mostly just a re-pricing [of the Turkish currency and stock-market] — and in the meantime we have continued to enjoy 4.4 percent growth, along with an improving income distribution.” In a similar vein Arkady Dvorkovich, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, noted that participants in last week’s G20 summit expressed no major concerns about the global financial outlook, nor about Fed policy.