As economic managers, Chinese leaders have been in a league of their own for the past quarter century.
They’re the product of a bureaucratic system that, at its best, weeds out underperformers, rewards achievement and prizes experience. By the time they reach the very top, most leaders have run provinces the size of whole countries. Their image of competence has been reassuring at home—and acknowledged abroad—at times of crisis. And they’ve delivered success: China’s economy grew faster, and for longer, than any in history.
That’s how Andrew Browne opened his recent piece in The Wall Street Journal. Then he added,
Now, as growth slows sharply and markets fear more bad news, the stewards of the world’s second-largest economy appear to be losing some of their golden touch.
No. There are some misapprehensions here. One is tacitly acknowledged, apparently without recognition, by Browne:
According to international economists who have been briefed at a high level in Beijing, it became clear that regulators didn’t have a clear picture of huge money flows from the banking system to the stock market that were inflating a bubble.
That’s just it: central planners never have a clear picture of huge money flows, whether from the banking system to the stock market (which is puny, in any event, relative to the PRC’s economy when it’s compared with, say, the DAX, or FTSE, or NYSE, or…), or to any place else, or from any place else. Central planners have no clear picture of any aspect of the economy they’re pleased to mess with regulate.
The PRC’s economy, though, grew faster and longer than any in history? It grew from very deep depths, a bottomed-out baseline that featured frequent famines and mass starvations, backyard iron mills, and the like. And it grew on the largest population in history. Against that basement-level baseline and that population on which to erect an economy, a high schooler learning to spell economics could have “regulated” the thing in that kind of growth.
The PRC’s economy, though, grew faster and longer than any in history? It grew from those depths in an era of unprecedented free trade and globalized and entangled economies. The PRC’s cheap labor, coupled with easy shipping and already developed manufacturing techniques coming in from outside the PRC potentiated the growth.
That bureaucratic system that has weeded out underperformers and rewarded achievement and experience—brought to the top guys who’ve run provinces the size of whole countries? Define “achievement” and “experience.” These guys have achieved a lot in the political game, in the game of rising to the top of economies, and of doing so where the cost of money—actual budgeting—has never been a factor. These guys have not achieved overmuch in business, much less in economics; their experience here is…low.
No, as any poker player can recognize, the PRC was just the guy at the table who got to play a hot hand. Now the PRC’s economy has grown up a lot, the stakes have gotten larger and more complex, and the Chinese central planners, like all central planners, have gotten in over their heads, and their lucky streak has played out.