Ruchir Sharma writes: For years now, Donald J. Trump has been sounding the alarm on China, calling it an economic bully that has been “eating our lunch.” The crux of Mr. Trump’s attack is that Beijing manipulates its currency to keep it cheap and give Chinese exports an unfair advantage. But that narrative is so last decade. China is now a threat to the United States not because it is strong but because it is fragile.
Four key forces have been shaping the rise and fall of nations since the 2008 financial crisis, and none of them bode well for China. Debts have risen dangerously fast in the emerging world, especially in China. Trade growth has collapsed everywhere, a sharp blow to leading exporters, again led by China. Many countries are reverting to autocratic rule in an effort to fight the global slowdown, none more self-destructively than China. And, for reasons unrelated to the 2008 collapse, growth in the world’s working-age population is slowing, and turned negative last year in China, depleting the work force.
It will be difficult for any country to grow as rapidly as 6 percent, and all but impossible for China. Nevertheless, in an effort to exceed that target, Beijing is pumping debt into wasteful projects, and digging itself into a hole. The economy is now slowing and will decelerate further when the country is forced to reduce its debt burden, as inevitably it will be. The next step could be a deeper slowdown or even a financial crisis, which will have global repercussions because seven years of heavy stimulus have turned the world’s second largest economy into a bloated giant.
In Beijing, confidence has given way to a case of nerves. Local residents often sense trouble coming before foreign investors and are the first to flee before a crisis. Chinese moved a record $675 billion out of the country in 2015, some of it for purchases of foreign real estate. If China were eating America’s lunch, its people would not be rushing to buy safe-haven apartments in New York or San Francisco. Far from conspiring to cheapen its currency, as Mr. Trump charges, Beijing is struggling to keep the weakening renminbi from falling more, which would further erode local confidence and make a crisis more likely. [Continue reading…]