It’s getting to be a familiar pattern: Western analysts add to the mountain of predictions that China is cruising toward a major economic bruising. And data from China at the least sends a dramatically different message.
The China bear meme of the moment has been generated by two Asia-based Merrill Lynch analysts, who argue that the People’s Republic “may be entering an asset-deflation phase” and therefore is in danger of falling into the deflationary trap from which post-bubble Japan has been struggling to escape for two decades. No less than BusinessWeek and TIME have picked up the study.
These claims come on the heels of years’ worth of proclamations that China is rapidly losing its manufacturing competitiveness, largely because its labor costs are rising so fast.
All of this may be true. Certainly, China has its share of big economic problems – and consequently big political, environmental, and social problems, too. But talk about bad timing! The Merrill Lynch report was written up just before the release of new data from Beijing showing that, in August, China’s monthly trade surplus hit its second new record high in a row.
The $49.8 billion excess of imports over exports brought the PRC’s year-to-date surplus to $199.61 – 28.24 percent higher than last year’s comparable total. And although there’s ample reason to be skeptical of all Chinese economic data, China’s July surplus of $47.3 billion tracks well with Census Bureau statistics showing that China ran a record $30.08 billion trade surplus with the United States that month. (The August U.S. figures will be out Oct. 3.)
The second piece of evidence undercutting “whither China” speculation was released today, in the form of U.S. figures on import prices. These Labor Department statistics showed that between July and August, Chinese goods (overwhelmingly manufactures) bought by Americans got cheaper faster (falling in price by 0.1 percent) than all manufactures imports (down 0.09 percent). And year on year, prices of Chinese imports have been rising at only about half the rate (0.19 percent) than manufacturing import prices overall (0.35 percent).
Years of recent official and policy establishment bullishness about the U.S. economy haven’t prevented the current recovery from remaining historically lousy. Don’t count on similar bearishness about China to have significantly greater effects.