How the influence of World Bank policies damaged China’s economy

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This article is based on a post from John Ross’ blog, published on the 8th of Jan, 2016

wall_chinaPresent negative trends in China’s financial system and economy were accurately predicted by me three years ago as occurring if there was any influence of policies of the World Bank Report on China.

While China has made major steps forward in areas such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and New Silk Road (‘One Belt One Road’) unfortunately in some areas World Bank policies did acquire influence. As predicted they led to present negative trends.

There should also be clarity. China has the world’s strongest macroeconomic structure so these trends will not lead to a China ‘hard landing’. But they are a confirmation that no country, including China, can escape the laws of economics. As long as there is any influence of World Bank type policies, which are also advocated by Western writers such as George Magnus and Patrick Chovanec, there will be problems in China’s financial system and economy.

The article I wrote in September 2012 which was published under the original title ‘Fundamental errors of the World Bank report on China’ is republished without alteration.

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The World Bank’s report China 2030 has, unsurprisingly, provoked major criticism and protest. I have read World Bank reports on China for more than 20 years and this is undoubtedly the worst. So glaring are its factual errors, and economic non-sequiturs, that it is difficult to believe it was intended as an objective analysis of China’s economy. It appears to be driven by the political objective of supporting current US policies, embodied in proposals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Listing merely the factual errors in the report, of both commission and omission, as well as the elementary economic howlers, would take up more column inches than are available to me. So what follows is just a small selection, leaving space to consider the possible purpose of such a strange report.

The report has no serious factual analysis of the present stage of China’s economic development. On the one hand it is behind the times and “pessimistic”, saying China may become “the world’s largest economy before 2030”. This is extremely peculiar as, by the most elementary economic calculations, (the Economist magazine now even provides a ready reckoner!) China will become the world’s largest economy before 2020.

On the other hand, the report greatly exaggerates the rate at which China will enter the highest form of value added production. As such, the report calls for various changes in China, and bases its calls on the rationale of “when a developing country reaches the technology frontier’. But China’s economy, unfortunately, is not yet approaching the international technology frontier, except in specialized defence-related areas. Even when China’s GDP equals that of the US, China’s per capita GDP, a good measure of technology’s spread across its economy, will be less than one quarter of the US’s. Even making optimistic assumptions, China’s per capita GDP will not equal the US’s until around 2040, by which time China’s economy would be more than four times the size of the US’s! Put another way, China will not reach the technology frontier, in a generalized way, for around three decades, so this rationale can’t be used to justify changes now.

The report appears to envisage China’s development path differing from that of every other country on the planet. It claims that in China “the continued accumulation of capital… will inevitably contribute less to growth”. But one of the most established trends of economic development, first outlined by Adam Smith and econometrically confirmed to the present day, is that capital’s contribution to growth increases with development. Deng Xiaoping certainly argued that economic policy must have “Chinese characteristics”, i.e. be adapted to China’s specific conditions. However, he never argued that China was exempt from economic laws, which is what this report appears to envisage!

The report makes elementary economic mistakes, such as confusing the consequences of high export shares with trade surpluses. It argues: “If China’s current export growth persists, its projected global market share could rise to 20 percent by 2030, which is almost double the peak of Japan’s global market share in the mid-1980s when it faced fierce protectionist sentiments… China’s current trajectory… could cause unmanageable trade frictions.” But if China increases its import share at the same rate as exports, this would not create major trade frictions. Japan’s problem was trade surpluses, not export share.

It is almost impossible to believe, given such elementary mistakes, that this report was intended as a serious objective analysis of China’s economy. What, then, is its goal? , The report spells out its goal clearly enough in calling for China to abandon the policies launched by Deng Xiaoping which brought such success. It says: “Reforms that launched China on its current growth trajectory were inspired by Deng Xiaoping… China has reached another turning point in its development path when a second strategic, and no less fundamental, shift is called for.”

What is this new “non-Dengite” economic policy? Deng Xiaoping’s most famous economic statement was “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white provided it catches mice”. Effectively, this means, in economic terms, that a company should not be judged by whether it is private or state owned but by how it performs. The proposed new economic policy overturns Deng’s dictum by saying: “Reintroduce judging cats by colour, promote the private sector cat.”

The consequences of this are clearly seen in the report’s financial proposals. During the international financial crisis, China was protected by its state-owned banking system. The US and European privately-owned banks simultaneously created the financial crisis and were flattened by it, throwing their economies into crisis. China, however, suffered no significant setback.

The reasons for the US and European banking crisis are well understood. Modern banks are necessarily very large, both in order to undertake international operations and because of the inherent risk of large investment projects. They are literally “too large to fail”, as the failure of any large bank creates an unacceptable economic crisis. This theoretical point was rammed home by the devastating consequences of Lehman’s collapse, following which no government will allow a large bank to fail.

But a situation in which the state is blocking the bankruptcy of a large bank, whose profits are being privately retained, creates disastrous risk. If large private banks are state guaranteed against crippling losses, but retain profits, they are incentivized to undertake potentially profitable but highly risky operations. The disastrous results of this scenario were seen during the financial crisis.

Extraordinarily, this report proposes that China abandon the financial system which brought it successfully through the financial crisis and instead adopt the one which led the US and Europe to disaster. This is the real significance of “privatization would be the best way to make SFIs [State Financial Institutions] more commercially oriented”.

This ties in with US TransPacific Partnership pressure for the elimination of China’s state-owned companies, which are seen as giving China a completive advantage over the US. The US, of course, does not possess such companies. If the US is worried about the competitive disadvantage created by not having state-owned companies, it should create some, not call for China to abandon its own.

The last World Bank report of this type was published in February 1991 and its Study of the Soviet Economy provided the basis for Russia’s economic policies of the 1990s.

The result was that Russia suffered the greatest peacetime economic disaster to befall any country. GDP declined by more than half. Russian male life expectancy fell by four years and we saw the beginning of a population decline, which continues to this day. The USSR subsequently disintegrated, in what Vladimir Putin called the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Russia has not recovered.

This type of economic program is therefore not simply a “theoretical” model. It has been thoroughly and demonstrably discredited on account of the catastrophes it has produced. Russia was ill advised enough to adopt this type of economic program. It is to be hoped, then, that China does not follow the same course

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John Ross is Senior Fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. 

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One Response

  1. Brian Hanley

    January 13, 2016 6:42 am

    Perhaps the report is simply sheer incompetence. I can’t see any reason to think otherwise. Can you point to a report by the World Bank on any country that exhibits a significantly higher level of competence? I would like to know about it if you can.