22 octubre 2006

Asia and the world economy - The alternative engine

Utilizado en Situación actual del petróleo

A sharp slowdown in the American economy could be offset by the growing and largely unrecognised power of Asia's consumers

During the past five years America has accounted for only 13% of global real GDP growth, using purchasing-power parity (PPP) weights. The real driver of the world economy has been Asia, which has accounted for over half of the world's growth since 2001.

Since 2001 the increase in emerging Asia's trade surplus has added less than one percentage point a year on average to the region's average growth rate of almost 7%. Contrary to the received view, the bulk of Asia's growth has been domestically driven. True, domestic demand (investment and consumption) has grown more slowly than GDP over the past year everywhere except in Malaysia (see chart 1). But in most cases the gap has been small, especially in China, India, Japan and Indonesia.

Real consumer spending has been growing at an average annual pace of 10% over the past decade—the fastest in the world and much faster than in America

How does this square with the common perception that Chinese household saving is extraordinarily high and rising? The truth is that it is not. The saving of Chinese households has in fact fallen from 20% to 16% of GDP over the past decade. The main reason why China's total national saving rate looks so high (at close to 50%) is that Chinese companies have been saving a much bigger slice of their booming profits

Another reason for believing that Asian economies can decouple from an American downturn is that most of them have small budget deficits or even surpluses. This means they have plenty of scope to ease fiscal policy to support domestic demand so as to offset some of the fall in exports. The main exception is Japan, which has a massive public debt.

America's share of Asia's total exports has fallen from 25% to 20% over the past five years. Regional trade links within Asia have also deepened, thanks partly to growing Chinese demand. China's exports to America have fallen from 34% of its total exports in 1999 to 25% now. Chinese exports to the European Union are now almost as big as those to America and are growing faster.

Could Asia withstand a sharper American slowdown? Hong Liang at Goldman Sachs estimates that if America's GDP growth drops to zero by the end of 2007 then China's annual export growth could plummet from 26% in early 2006 to a decline of 2% by late 2007. That sounds dire. Yet after taking account of the impact of slower export growth on imports and domestic demand (ie, slower growth in investment), Ms Liang estimates that China's GDP would still expand by a respectable 8%. That is significantly down from this year's growth rate of over 10%, which is still too fast to be sustained. China is today tightening policy so as to slow down its runaway economy: weaker external demand could be partly offset by reversing these measures.

In sum, if America suffers a slump, the economies of China and the rest of Asia would slow, but they are unlikely to be derailed. However, a slowdown in America could affect Asia indirectly through other channels. Most important and least certain of all would be the impact of an American recession on financial markets. Even if economies can decouple, global financial markets tend to be more tightly linked through the investment strategies of hedge funds and the like. If America's economy hits the buffers, this will surely trigger a rise in risk premiums and a drying up of market liquidity, pushing share prices lower in Asia as well as in America. When America sneezes, the rest of the world's economies may no longer catch a cold; but if Wall Street shivers, global tremors will still be widely felt.

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