Davos Notebook

China’s economy absent from concerns on Davos panel

By Gary Regenstreif
January 27, 2012

If policymakers and financial markets outside the Swiss alps are concerned about China’s economic outlook, those worries were missing from a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos. While delegates to the meeting of the rich and powerful surfaced a host of challenges facing China’s new leadership later this year, the pace of growth wasn’t one of them.

The panel talked about political cronyism, pollution, and the need for a more robust safety net for migrant workers. But there wasn’t any talk of crisis or hard landing. Despite the fact that China is still very export dependent, defenders and critics at this session betrayed no concern about the impact that the euro crisis and slow U.S. growth could have on the Asian powerhouse.

Many economists expect China to grow at 8 percent or more this year, slowing from 9.2 percent in 2011, as authorities seek to avert inflation and ensure more sustainable expansion. China is comforted by having the world’s biggest foreign reserves, which lets it cope with weaker demand for its products. Li Daokui, Director of the Center for China in the World Economy in Beijing, and an advisor to the Chinese central bank, is sticking to his 8.5 percent growth projection this year and insists the economy, the world’s second largest, will grow by “at least 8 percent” in 2013.

Stephen Roach, Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and senior research fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University, shared the optimism. The current five-year Chinese plan will be a “watershed”, he said. The shift from investment and exports to consumption leaves him positive further out into the future. “China has demonstrated it’s up to the task.”

Perhaps the biggest concern among panel members is the need to develop a safety net that can support the masses of migrant workers who head for China’s cities, struggling to make ends meet, and maintain social peace.  Housing has been expensive, leading to a bubble, and rental costs are dear. Roach dismissed talk of ghost towns. He recalled Shanghai in the 1990s, relatively empty then, booming today. “Ghost towns are built in anticipation of the people who come.” Housing has spooked the markets. “They’re expecting the worst,” he said. “They will be pleasantly surprised.”

Other problems: pollution, which will impact health and be a burden on the state; and what Roach describes as “the financial repression” created by a gap between deposit and lending rates.

But there was not a word about the value of the yuan, and it took until question time for this to be raised. So how would Chinese authorities respond if Mitt Romney wins the U.S. election and declares China a currency manipulator? “You can expect a strong reaction from the government,” Li said. He, in turn, countered that the yuan was fairly close to “equilibrium”.

Elsewhere in the Congress Center, Boston Consulting Group Chief Executive Hans Paul Buerkner described the top risk in China, India and other major Asian economies. “The biggest risk for Western companies,” he said, “is not to get engaged and worry too much about setbacks.”

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