There’s an adage that when the United States faces economic turbulence, the rest of the world catches a cold. But what unfolds when China, the world’s second-largest economy with over 1.4 billion people, grapples with a slew of challenges, including sluggish growth, high youth unemployment, and a turbulent property market? Recent developments, such as the chairman of heavily indebted real estate developer Evergrande being placed under police surveillance and the suspension of the company’s shares on the stock market, have further exacerbated China’s woes.
While these issues undoubtedly pose a significant headache for Beijing, how do they impact the rest of the world? Analysts suggest that concerns of an imminent global catastrophe might be overstated, but the repercussions are expected to be felt, to varying degrees, by multinational corporations, their employees, and even individuals with no direct connections to China.
Winners and Losers Deborah Elms, Executive Director of the Asian Trade Centre in Singapore, raises a pertinent question: “If Chinese people start cutting back on eating out for lunch, for example, does that affect the global economy?” While the direct impact may not be as extensive as one might imagine, it does significantly affect firms reliant on domestic Chinese consumption.
Global giants like Apple, Volkswagen, and Burberry derive a substantial portion of their revenue from China’s massive consumer market. Consequently, a reduction in household spending in China will affect these companies, setting off a chain reaction that impacts thousands of suppliers and workers worldwide.
Given that China contributes to more than a third of global growth, any deceleration inevitably ripples beyond its borders. In fact, the US credit rating agency Fitch recently cautioned that China’s slowdown is “casting a shadow over global growth prospects,” leading to a downgrade in its 2024 global forecast.
However, some economists argue that the perception of China as the primary engine of global prosperity is exaggerated. While China accounts for around 40% of global growth, George Magnus, an economist at the University of Oxford’s China Centre, highlights that this growth primarily benefits China due to its substantial trade surplus.
Nonetheless, China’s reduced expenditure on goods, services, or construction projects translates to diminished demand for raw materials and commodities. For example, in August, China’s imports dropped by nearly 9% compared to the same period the previous year, resulting in adverse effects on significant exporters such as Australia, Brazil, and several African nations.
Moreover, weaker demand in China translates to sustained low prices. From the perspective of Western consumers, this could be a welcome respite from rising prices without the need for further interest rate hikes.
Global Implications China’s economic challenges may also impact its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, through which it has invested over a trillion dollars in large-scale infrastructure projects in more than 150 countries. If China’s domestic economic problems persist, its commitment to these projects may wane, affecting nations that have relied on Chinese financing and technology for infrastructure development.
However, the ramifications extend beyond economic projects. China’s foreign policy in the face of economic vulnerability remains uncertain. While some speculate that a vulnerable China might seek to mend relations with the United States, there is currently no concrete evidence to suggest such a shift. China continues to engage in trade disputes and maintain relationships with authoritarian leaders, despite sanctions from Western countries.
In terms of security, concerns have been raised that China’s economic downturn might influence its approach to sensitive issues like Taiwan. A more vulnerable China could potentially engage in unpredictable actions, though this remains a matter of conjecture.
Nevertheless, it’s essential to anticipate the unexpected, as history has demonstrated. Few anticipated that subprime mortgages in Las Vegas would trigger a global economic crisis in 2008. While parallels between China’s property crisis and the subprime mortgage crisis are tempting, experts suggest that a full-blown collapse of the Chinese economy leading to global financial meltdown is unlikely.
China is unlikely to allow its major banks to go bankrupt, and its financial institutions have more robust balance sheets compared to the regional banks that failed in the United States during the 2008 crisis. Additionally, China’s property market is not as interconnected with its financial infrastructure as the US subprime mortgage market was.
In conclusion, the world is deeply interconnected, and localized domestic issues can have unforeseen consequences. China’s economic challenges may not lead to a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, but their global repercussions underscore the complex and interdependent nature of the global economy.