China no longer growing at Ludicrous Speed

Guangdong province factory

To the extent that official GDP figures mean anything at all, it’s worth noting that Chinese growth is slackening as trade and manufacturing get hit hard:

China is expected to report on Monday that economic growth cooled to its slowest in 28 years in 2018 amid weakening domestic demand and bruising U.S. tariffs, adding pressure on Beijing to roll out more support measures to avert a sharper slowdown.

[…]

Analysts polled by Reuters expect the world’s second-largest economy to have grown 6.4 percent in the October-December quarter from a year earlier, slowing from the previous quarter’s 6.5 percent pace and matching levels last seen in early 2009 during the global financial crisis.

That could pull 2018 gross domestic product (GDP) growth to 6.6 percent, the lowest since 1990 and down from a revised 6.8 percent in 2017.

We have a culprit:

Surprising contractions in December trade data and factory activity gauges in recent weeks have suggested the economy cooled more quickly than expected at the end of 2018, leaving it on shakier footing at the start of the new year.

Sources have told Reuters that Beijing was planning to lower its growth target to 6-6.5 percent this year from around 6.5 percent in 2018.

Tepid expansion in industrial output and weaker consumer spending is squeezing companies’ profit margins, discouraging fresh investment and raising the risk of higher job losses.

Some factories in Guangdong – China’s export hub – have shut earlier than usual ahead of the long Lunar New Year holiday as the tariff war with the United States curtails orders. Others are suspending production lines and cutting back on workers’ hours.

Beijing slowing credit growth is also to blame:

Qin Nan, the chief executive of a Beijing-based manufacturer, needs to borrow at least Rmb5m ($740,000) to expand production of his company’s air purifiers and air conditioners. But because his company lacks an equivalent amount of collateral in property and other assets, Chinese banks were willing to lend only Rmb2m.

[…]

Mr Qin’s grievances, which he recently aired on social media, are increasingly common among private sector companies in the world’s second-largest economy, which have been hit by a squeeze on lending as Beijing has worked to reduce the economy’s dependence on debt-fuelled stimulus. If their complaints are not addressed, the consequences could be disastrous for Chinese officials as they try to avoid a precipitous deceleration in economic growth, which last year slowed to a 28-year low of 6.6 per cent, according to data released on Monday.

Interestingly, according to data cited by the article, “non-state companies” (including foreign-invested enterprises) received only 11% of new loans issued by the official banks in 2016, despite accounting for more than half of total economic output. (Private sector firms received 52% of new loans in 2012.) More fodder for the great debate about how much of China’s economy is really private.

More:

Mr Xi and Mr Liu [the vice-premier] appear to have underestimated both US President Donald Trump’s willingness to launch an all all-out trade war with China, which has sapped investor and private-sector investment, and also their ability to force the country’s state-controlled banking sector to direct more lending to non-state companies.

Also worth bearing in mind:

Yes, China’s 6.6% growth in 2018 is its slowest in nearly 3 decades. But given the size of its economy, that represents about $1.2trn of additional demand, nearly twice as much as it generated with 14% growth in 2007.

(And yes, we should take official figures with a big pinch of salt. And yes, China faces big downside risks. But it is worth taking a moment to look past the growth rate at the fact that, within a decade, we’ve gone from talking about a $4trn economy to a roughly $13trn economy.)

Here’s another angle on it:

China GDP growth global comparison

Some good news for US manufacturing

US manufacturing

Advanced manufacturing is the key to lasting prosperity. The destruction of the US manufacturing base in recent decades – the US lost 55,000 factories and 5 to 6 million manufacturing jobs in the first decade of the 21st century – has dealt a severe blow to America’s economic competitiveness and its ability to generate wealth and provide decent, well-paying jobs to its population.

Reversing this dangerous state of affairs should be one of America’s top strategic priorities. In this regard, the latest US jobs report has some encouraging numbers:

Partly as a result of the last few months’ numbers, 2018 stands preliminarily as the best year for U.S. manufacturing job creation (284,000) since 1997 (304,000). The previous December-to-December manufacturing employment gain was 209,000.

Also, manufacturing jobs as a share of total non-farm jobs (the Labor Department’s definition of the total U.S. employment universe) rose to just under 8.55 percent – their highest level since July, 2016 (8.56 percent).

That’s the good news. The bad news:

Even so, manufacturing’s prior relative employment creation has been so weak that the sector still remains a laggard on this front for the recovery era as a whole.

Since bottoming out in February and March of 2010, manufacturing has regained 1.389 million (60.58 percent) of the 2.293 million jobs it had lost during the Great Recession and its aftermath. Overall private sector employment sank by 8.785 million during the downturn, but since then has regained 20.608 million jobs.

Manufacturing keeps trailing the overall private sector on the pay front, too. In December, pre-inflation manufacturing wages rose by 0.26 percent – considerably slower than the overall private sector’s 0.40 percent.

In summary, manufacturing employment is booming, but wage growth is still terrible. Part of the reason for this could be that some of the best and most lucrative manufacturing jobs are going unfilled. Given the general disdain for factory jobs in current-year America and the lack of emphasis on training people for highly skilled manufacturing roles, it’s unsurprising that the industry faces a sharp shortage of qualified workers:

This week’s new Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) revealed that job openings in the manufacturing sector jumped in October [2018] to a record-high 522,000, and it’s only going to get worse.

[…]

There are several causes behind this workforce crisis, notably that many workers lack critical training in the necessary skills to fill these jobs. The manufacturing industry also suffers from inaccurate perceptions among talented students who may avoid career opportunities in modern manufacturing.

In crisis there is opportunity, and the dearth of skilled manufacturing workers implies that a greater focus on closing the skills gap could lead to a boost in wages as the open jobs get filled. Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, appears to think so. At the very least, this could be one piece of the puzzle to addressing the disaster of real wage stagnation in America. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it will take many years to undo a generational catastrophe.

Also, the tariffs are working.

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More on the strong manufacturing employment numbers: another way to put it is that “the U.S. had as many people working in the manufacturing sector in December as it did 69 years ago.” And, although the percentage of the population working in manufacturing is far lower than it was in 1949, it is growing: “As a percent of the total workforce, manufacturing rose for the first time since 1984.”

And here’s a comment from Timmons:

This year was one for the record books, with manufacturers’ average optimism for 2018 hitting an all-time high. Empowered by tax reform and regulatory certainty, manufacturers are keeping our promise to expand our operations, hire new workers and raise wages and benefits. But as this survey also shows, we face challenges, most seriously the workforce crisis. We have more than half a million jobs to fill right now—and by 2028, as many as 2.4 million could go unfilled if we don’t equip more Americans to take on these high-tech, high-paying careers.

Who’s afraid of a trade war?

Can you be afraid of something that doesn’t exist?

Economist Ian Fletcher writes in the HuffPo:

Trade wars are mythical. They simply do not happen.

If you google “the trade war of,” you won’t find any historical examples. There was no Austro-Korean Trade War of 1638, Panamanian-Brazilian Trade War of 1953 or any others. History is devoid of them.

Please don’t respond with that old canard about the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 starting a trade war and causing the Great Depression. It doesn’t stand up, as actual economic historians from Milton Friedman on the right to Paul Krugman on the left have documented. See here, and here, and here.

The Depression’s cause was monetary. The Fed allowed the money supply to balloon during the late 1920s, piling up in the stock market as a bubble. It then panicked, miscalculated, and let it collapse by a third by 1933, depriving the economy of the liquidity it needed to breathe. A wave of bank failures in 1930 spread the collapse around the country. Trade had nothing to do with it.

As for the charge that Smoot caused the Depression to spread worldwide: it was too small a change to have plausibly so large an effect. For a start, it only applied to about one-third of America’s trade: about 1.3 percent of GDP. Our average tariff on dutiable goods went from 44.6 to 53.2 percent—not a large jump. Tariffs were higher in almost every year from 1821 to 1914. Our tariff went up in 1861, 1864, 1890, and 1922 without producing global depressions, and the recessions of 1873 and 1893 managed to spread worldwide absent tariff increases.

Now, there will be much sound and fury about the decision by the US to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports (of 25% and 10%, respectively). China, which accounts for 2% of US steel imports, will mostly shrug:

But most analysts said the move was more of an irritant to China than anything serious at this stage.

A glut of steel from China has fueled global oversupply, but Lu Zhengwei, chief economist at Industrial Bank in Shanghai, said China had already been working to cut overcapacity in its steel industry.

Anti-dumping duties imposed by the Obama administration on China two years ago had also helped cut U.S. imports from China and protect a restructured U.S. steel industry based around mini-mills, experts said. Last year, China’s steel exports fell 30 percent […]

The uproar over trade in nineteenth century commodities is drowning out the far more important issue for the US, which is the destruction of the American edge in advanced manufacturing thanks to trade and technology transfers:

America produced every important invention in the digital age, from integrated circuits to semiconductor lasers, solar cells, flat panel displays, sensors and light-emitting diodes. Except for integrate[d] circuits, Asia now produces virtually all the world’s output of these building-blocks of the electronics industry, and China has a crash program underway to become the world’s major producer of semiconductors.

The steel tariff could be just an opening salvo, as the US prepares to take action on high-tech manufacturing. That’s when the sparks would really fly. On the other hand, there are no clear signs that this will actually happen, so we’ll just have to wait and see.