Imagine when China runs a trade deficit

By Wei Gu
September 28, 2009

WeiGucrop.jpg– Wei Gu is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own —

If current trends continue, China might swing to a trade deficit in the not-too-distant future. Given that China has enjoyed more than a decade of strong exports, this may sound a bit far-fetched. But even if it happens, this would not necessarily be something for the world to worry about.

Some economists have recently sounded alarm bells about the possibility of a Chinese trade deficit. They argue that if the Chinese current account surplus shrinks, it would leave Beijing with less spare cash to buy U.S. Treasury bonds. Then who would fund the U.S. budget deficit — and, by implication, U.S. consumers?

Those worries are largely misplaced. First, it is unlikely to happen any time soon. In order for China to have a trade deficit next year, imports would have to outgrow — or shrink less than — exports by at least 23 percentage points.

In August, exports fell 23.4 percent while imports fell 17 percent. So while the trade surplus is diminishing, a deficit is not around the corner.

If China’s trade surplus shrinks, it will most likely be caused by a contracting U.S. deficit, in which case Americans will be saving more and the U.S. will be less dependent on overseas investors to finance its government debt. That would be a sign that the long-overdue rebalancing of the global economy was beginning to take place.

It would not be so bad for the Chinese economy either, because China is a lot less dependent on exports than many people assume. Although exports have accounted for a whopping 50 percent of the economy in the past few years, the contribution of net exports to economic growth is actually much smaller, because a lot of what China sells abroad is low value-added assembly work.

In the same way, one cannot just look at China’s large imports number and jump to the conclusion that China is a big end-user of the world’s goods. China’s imports accounted for a third of its gross domestic product last year, versus about 17 percent in the U.S. during the same period. But this is because a lot of what China imports, such as computer parts, eventually finds its way abroad.

On average, net exports contributed 1.4 percentage points to annual GDP growth between 1979 and 2007, according to the Statistics Bureau, much less than the contribution from the other two drivers — consumption and investment.

The transition to a more balanced trade account will take time. In particular, it will need a push from foreign exchange reforms, as the currently undervalued yuan encourages exports and discourages imports. China allowed the yuan to rise gradually for a few years after 2005, but has re-pegged it to the dollar since the start of the credit crisis.

It will take time before Beijing is confident enough to remove some of the export incentives, or at least not pile them up as it has done in response to the crisis. A more equalised trade account will probably not hurt China’s overall growth that much, but will help in making the world economy more balanced.

– At the time of publication Wei Gu did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. She may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund —

3 comments

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I’d imagine it would very much depend on the variety of trade deficit. Are the Chinese likely to start importing things they used to make themselves, or are they more likely to import raw materials for building Chinese infrastructure and maintaining employment?

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

As JF Kennedy pointed out: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

There you have it, a ‘SWOT’ analysis in one sentence, 46 years ago.

Posted by Casper Lab | Report as abusive

This is an interesting article. If this were to happen we could envision a new Walmart-like chain littered with crappy reverse engineered American goods. Shelves stocked to the rafters with Made in U.S.A. All priced at $9.99.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive