Tuesday, May 12, 2009

China's Economic Transition

China's exports were down 22.6% year-over-year in April, continuing a six month negative trend. That's the obvious cloud in China's economic forecast, but in an article in yesterday's Financial Times ("Chinese tap an inner dynamic to drive growth"), James Kynge highlighted the silver lining:

Just as the US during the 19th century underwent a transition from export-oriented growth to a greater reliance on inner dynamism, so China is looking inwards for the engine to drive its economy.

In China's case it is still early days, but evidence suggests the conventional view of an export-dependent, river delta-driven economy no longer matches the reality. The argument here is not that trade has somehow become unimportant to China, but rather that the energy generating the world's fastest economic growth rate this year is increasingly coming from within.

A series of indicators reveals the shift to "China Continental" - the transition of the world's most populous country into an increasingly self-propelling economic force. There are caveats, of course, but first the evidence.

Retail sales have held up much better in China this year than in other big economies, growing at a real 15.9 per cent in March year-on-year. But more important than the overall trend is the composition of the retail spending.

The most robust consumer spending figures are coming from inland and lower-tier cities rather than from the traditional growth powerhouses clustered around the Yangtze and Pearl river deltas.

Kynge also notes another sign of this transition, "that domestically bound cargo traffic through ports is increasing year-on-year, while foreign trade volumes are slumping".

The photo above, of a Wal-Mart in Chongqing, comes from the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service. Chongqing is one of the lower tier cities Kynge referred to in his article.

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