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Transatlantic Voices

US, China face austerity vs growth debate

Previously, we looked at the IMF and EU positions on growth vs austerity. Even though China and the US do not have the debt problems of the euro countries, both are facing a similar debate, writes Elliott Morss.

China and USA Flag © Feng Yu #24512850

Symbolbild China und USA

In 2009-10, at the peak of the global recession with 16 million unemployed in the US, there was widespread agreement that growth trumped austerity and a stimulus was needed. Consequently, Congress enacted a $787 billion stimulus package. But Congress has been unwilling since then to pass any significant stimulus bill, even though the economic recovery has been slow.

With further Congressional action blocked, fiscal policy (higher government expenditures, lower taxes) was no longer available as a tool to stimulate the economy.

However, Ben Bernanke, who took over from Alan Greenspan as the head of the Federal Reserve in 2006, has tried to learn from past experiences. Much of his research had been on just how long it took the world to recover from the 1929 global recession. To avoid a repeat of that slow recovery, he believed vigorous government stimulation efforts are needed. And with additional fiscal stimulatory efforts blocked, Bernanke said he would do all he could to stimulate the economy. And he has: since 2008, the US money supply has increased by 76 percent, while the Fed has kept interest rates near zero.

Arguments Pro and Con

Perhaps the most convincing argument for growth/continuing stimulus has been made by Joe Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner and a former VP and Chief economist of the World Bank. After observing that the US recovery remains "anemic", he said: "The risks are asymmetric: if these forecasts are wrong, and there is a more robust recovery, then, of course, expenditures can be cut back and/or taxes increased. But if these forecasts are right, then a premature 'exit' from deficit spending risks pushing the economy back into recession."

But overall, unlike what is happening in Europe, there is general agreement on what is needed to resolve the twin concerns: a stimulus was needed to get the economy going and now a plan to curb the growing deficit should be put in place. The only issue now is when and how the deficit cutting should start. In actual fact, it has already started with the ending of the payroll tax holiday and the beginning of the "Sequester." The Congressional Budget Office estimates the sequestration will reduce government outlays by $100 billion in 2013 and 2014. The Congressional Research Service estimates that ending the payroll tax holiday and other tax changes will mean tax increases of $400 billion in 2013.

As indicated above, the supporters of austerity include groups that want to reduce the size of government and those who are seriously concerned over growing debt.

But the debate in the US is quite different then it is in Europe. In the US, both growth and austerity supporters agree that at some point, the focus should turn to deficit reduction.The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform recommended reducing the federal deficit by nearly $4 trillion and eliminating it by 2035. Outlays would be reduced from 24 percent of GDP in 2010 to 21 percent in 2035 while revenues would rise from 15 percent in 2010 to 21 percent in 2035. In addition, the report called for significant health care and social security reforms. And while the report was not signed by the 14-vote threshold of commissioners required to formally endorse the blueprint, the report provides all the information needed to end the deficit using different approaches.

China's take on the debate

Elliot Morss ­ economic consultant to developing countries on issues of trade, finance, and environmental preservation. Copyright: Elliot Morss, Massachussets, 2012

Elliott Morss

China is in a very different position than Europe or the US: rapid growth, low unemployment, and low debt. But it also is facing growth/austerity issues: they are just longer-term. For the last two decades, China's amazing growth has been fueled by exports to the West. And in recent years, as export growth has slowed, the government has launched major infrastructure programs for roads, railroads, and energy. And at the same time, the private sector has supported huge urban real estate developments. The result has been a 52 percent investment rate. Perhaps austerity in China should be measured by it consumption rate of only 48 percent of GDP.

Until the mid-'90s, the Chinese government made it very difficult for citizens to move from rural to urban areas. These policies were then relaxed (in part to supply the workers needed for the explosion in urban real estate development). The result has been a rush to urban areas. Since 1990, the China's workforce has grown by 25 percent. In that same period the urban population has more than doubled, growing from 300 million to nearly 700 million.

The "growth" question in China is where future jobs will come from. Exports are no longer generating new jobs, urban real estate development is slowing, and how much more infrastructure investment makes sense? The hope is that demand from the growing middle classes will pick up the slack - less austerity.

But here is the rub: much of the demand from the growing middle class will be for Western products. And this is the point at which discussions of austerity start. China is a resource poor country. Iron ore is good example. Unlike the US that makes all the new steel it needs from scrap, China needs to import iron ore to make steel. Energy is another case where China is resource poor. Since 1995, Chinese energy imports have increased 13 fold to 16 percent of total imports. Commodities have increased 17 times to 23 percent of total imports. 53 percent of China's energy imports are for oil, and oil imports will continue to grow: China's middle classes want autos and other import intensive consumer goods.

Consider cars, a product that the Chinese middle class wants. In the US, there are 802 motor vehicles per thousand people. It is interesting to ask what will happen to oil consumption when there are 400 motor vehicles per thousand people in China. That would mean more than an eightfold increase in Chinese vehicles. Assume they drive the same distances as the current vehicles and are powered by and get the same miles-per-gallon as the current vehicles. This would cause Chinese auto fuel demands to increase by almost 9 times. That growth would increase global oil demand by 77 percent over its current production level. This will not happen. Something has to give.


An austerity/growth debate is happening in China and the US. But it is quite different than what is being discussed in Europe. Austerity in Greece and Spain has caused overall unemployment rates to approach 30 percent, with unemployment rates of young people exceeding 50 percent. And yet the Germans continue to push austerity. It appears the IMF has learned its lesson: it is calling for stretching out government deficit reduction periods and lower debt (presumably via defaults - not something the European banks want to hear).

The US is different: while there are political blockages, the austerity/growth trade-offs are clearly understood. And assuming the recovery stays on track, the focus on reducing the government deficit will gain momentum in the next few months.

Looking at China from a Western perspective, things look great: should the GDP growth rate be 8 or 10 percent? But there are clouds on the horizon. Will its huge trade surplus of recent years of recent years turn negative? And if so, will it be forced to borrow huge sums internationally to finance its imports?

And then there are the growing energy needs. Global warming will get much worse as both China and India burn all the fossil fuels they can obtain to satisfy the energy needs of their more than 2 billion citizens.

Elliott Morss has spent most of his career teaching and working as an economic consultant to developing countries on issues of trade, finance, and environmental preservation. For several years, he worked in the Fiscal Affairs Department of the International Monetary Fund. He later helped establish Development Alternatives, a firm that became the largest contractor to the US foreign assistance program (AID). Since his first IMF assignment in Ghana in 1966, he has worked in 45 countries.

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