Feb 11, 2010 | 13:15 GMT

16 mins read

China: The Dragon of Inflation

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Chinese leaders have recently stressed the need to keep inflation under control, with the economy expected to grow at more than 10 percent in 2010 and the banking system continuing to support government stimulus policy with massive lending. This is in spite of the fact that China has experienced relatively low inflation rates since the late 1990s, with the annual average change in its consumer price index (CPI) rarely rising above 5 percent. The modern Chinese economy actually has a systemic inclination toward deflation. In its first few decades emerging from a command economy, China did experience the inflation problems common to developing countries. But with across-the-board inflation not posing a significant problem under China's current economic structure, the concern voiced by Beijing today actually has more to do with inflation of prices in a few key areas that pose a threat to social stability, including energy, real estate and especially food.
The specter of runaway inflation in China is a topic of increasing debate, and countless Chinese leaders have in recent months stressed the need for controls to prevent general price increases. The Chinese economy is expected to grow at a rate of around 10 percent in 2010, and the banking system continues to support government stimulus policy with massive lending. While consumer prices in 2009 were negative overall, January 2010 statistics showed that consumer prices grew by 1.5 percent compared to the same month in 2009, underscoring inflation expectations. However, for a developing economy, China has low inflation rates. The annual average change in its consumer price index (CPI) has rarely risen above 5 percent since the late 1990s, a rate that many developing states — to say nothing of one developing as rapidly as China — find enviable. In fact, the Chinese economy often shows deflationary tendencies. The concerns being voiced by China's leaders about inflation are therefore actually concerns over spiking prices in certain sectors, rather than any broad-based inflation more typical of economies at this stage of development. Price spikes in three key sectors — energy, real estate and especially food — could cause a great deal of social unrest, which Beijing hopes to avoid at all costs.

What is Inflation?

Inflation is the increase in the general level of prices across an economy. It is usually measured with the consumer price index (CPI), a basket of widely used goods and services. In general, it is distinct from price increases in any particular good or sector because it is more fundamental — it spans across a range of goods and sectors. While some inflation generally accompanies growth and employment, too much can be destabilizing. Excessive inflation results from economy-wide shocks in supply or demand, setting them abnormally off balance, and is frequently associated with panic buying, hoarding and shortages, as consumers will rush to buy things if they fear prices rising higher the longer they wait. Inflation can result from monetary and fiscal expansion, war or blockade, sharp demographic or labor shifts, drastic government policy shifts in a range of areas, and other large-scale phenomena. Developing countries are often the most vulnerable to serious bouts of inflation. They are in the midst of erecting an entire industrial and social infrastructure, and so much activity — often where there was little in previous years — can create extraordinarily high and persistent demand for energy, raw materials and basic goods of which the supply cannot quickly be increased. Oftentimes supply chains need to be constructed from the ground up, and the establishment of these new processes where none existed before goes hand-in-hand with stronger price pressures — for example, think of how much it would cost to be the first person in town to install a backyard swimming pool. Additionally, consumers in developing countries usually have limited disposable income, spending most of what they earn on basics like food and energy. Demand for these items cannot be easily reduced, and supplies cannot be easily increased (though they can rapidly shrink). Everyone has to eat, and producing more food or energy requires long lead times. The results — particularly in a rapidly growing economy — are shocks in supply and demand that become apparent in greater price fluctuations. Rampant construction, intensive investment, growing private business and consumer demand — these are factors which, happening all at once in formerly undeveloped circumstances, tend to push the general level of prices up. This is not the case in modern China. But before we can discuss the present, it is critical to understand how China got to where it is now.

Inflation in China

After China's initial economic opening in 1979, there were three major bouts of broad based inflation — in 1985, when average annual prices grew at more than 10 percent, in 1988-1989, when prices grew nearly 20 percent, and in 1993-1996, with price increases reaching nearly 25 percent. Each of these incidents was economically and socially disruptive, with dissatisfaction over high prices in 1989 contributing to the protests at Tiananmen Square. Imbalances of supply and demand naturally occurred as the Chinese economy transitioned from a Marxist command economy to a pseudo-free market economy. The worst bouts in 1988-1989 and 1993-1996 were caused by a variety of economic and financial factors, foremost of which were changes involving government price controls and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The 1980s, the period of initial liberalization, best illustrates this paradigm. Subsidies and price controls that had determined prices for decades were relaxed, and prices on a gradually widened range of goods and services were allowed to fluctuate more freely than before, as part of the process of allowing market forces to play a greater role in the allocation of resources. Since there were new opportunities for growth and profit, business and consumer demand were also increasing. In the countryside, the central government allowed rural businesses and markets to take shape, and also raised the prices it paid for procuring agricultural output, to boost farmers' incomes. The combination of higher incomes and price liberalization led to rising prices across the board, especially for food, where prices grew 77 percent in total between 1978 and 1986. At the same time, changes were taking place in China's industrial sector. The SOEs were the dominant forces in China's industrial complex during the Maoist period, comprising 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1978. With the market reforms, they were suddenly granted new freedoms to make investments, and they seized the moment by borrowing heavily from state-owned banks to undertake massive projects and expand in size and capacity. Supported by local and central government, they had no fear of bankruptcy, but did fear their competitors and thus borrowed money to grow as rapidly as possible and grab maximum market share — and yet their overall output fell, indicating serious inefficiencies. Subsidized loans, unblinking government support and a desire to grow as quickly as possible created a surge in demand that affected the entire economy. Rising wages also contributed to inflation by stimulating demand and increasing input costs for producers. As the SOEs grew, they hired more and more employees, going from 74 million in 1978 to more than 100 million in 1990 — while that may not seem like a big increase for a country with China's population, it took place in the context of predominantly rural conditions and an isolated and defunct economy, magnifying its impact on society. With food prices high, urban workers demanded higher wages. Wages rose by an average of 15 percent per year during the mid-1980s, and they rose especially during peak inflation years (50 percent in 1985, 20 percent in 1988 and 35 percent in 1994), putting additional upward pressure on prices. Underlying these changes were equally important changes in government monetary policy. The central government's adoption of loose monetary and credit policies designed to accommodate its own investments and budget deficits and the massive bank lending for local governments and SOEs amplified these inflationary trends. Eventually, in the late 1980s, with food prices and wages both climbing and the system flush with cash, overall inflation skyrocketed, averaging nearly 19 percent in both 1988 and 1989. Consumers rushed grocery stores in the summer of 1988 fearing new government moves to raise prices. Ultimately domestic unrest broke out, culminating in the infamous June 4, 1989, crackdown on protesters at Tiananmen Square and the implementation of other tough security measures to maintain control. Although a period of political tightening followed Tiananmen, in a few years economic liberalization resumed and the forces behind soaring inflation from 1993-1996 were essentially the same: food prices and wages were rising, and SOEs were gorging on subsidized credit as they made investments. The basic conditions of inadequate productive capacity and supply, combined with excessive demand and liquidity, continued to put pressure on existing resources and drove inflation. Thus the first 20 years of reform were years in which whole-scale adjustments were taking place in the economy, and a modern industrial and manufacturing base was being built, in addition to an ongoing process of urbanization. After the tremendous price hikes in 1993-1994, the Communist Party was faced with the need to restructure, and the result was an overhaul of the SOEs that had been the source of so much credit-fueled spending. Retrenching and consolidating the sector took several years, with SOEs shedding over 30 million workers from 1996 to 2000 (and paring down more than 15 million since then) resulting in a current total of around 60 million workers. These reforms trimmed off some of the SOE demand that was an endemic cause of inflation in China's system.

Inflation Today

Since the inflationary mid-1990s, China's inflation landscape has been fundamentally different. With a massive and more fully developed productive capacity in place, China's economic system has maintained high production levels, flooding foreign and domestic markets with goods. Overcapacity and oversupply — made possible by the endless availability of subsidized loans — have been the dominant forces affecting prices. In contrast, consumer demand remains relatively low, as people for a variety of reasons prefer to save rather than spend. Steadily rising supply plus anemically growing demand pushes domestic prices on consumer goods down. Hence core inflation (calculated without energy and food prices) generally stays low. (click here to enlarge image) In fact, sporadically from 1998 to 2003, and again in 2009, China fell into deflation — that is, negative change in the general level of prices. Growth and exports fell due to recessions abroad, and Chinese consumption dropped along with the prices of stockpiled goods for which there was little global demand. Even when inflation reached its most recent highs of 7-8 percent compared to the previous year, which lasted for a few months in 2008, the annual average inflation rate that year barely exceeded 5 percent — and that was for the first time since 1996. By contrast, from 2000-2009 Brazil averaged more than 15 percent inflation and Russia more than 12 percent. The inflation of 2008 was then cut short by a financial crisis that interrupted global trade, sending prices everywhere plummeting. In 2009, overall inflation was -0.7 percent, revealing China's deflationary tendencies once again amid the latest global recession. Even in 2010, with overall economic growth expected to top 10 percent and massive amounts of liquidity in the system as part of government stimulus efforts, the central bank claims it expects inflation of 3 percent and no more than 4 percent. International demand remains constrained, keeping prices for China's imports down, and China is also looking for ways to wind down its stimulus measures. Domestic consumption has remained resilient, but mostly because of stimulus policies propping it up — it is not suddenly surging forward on its own accord. All of these factors apply downward pressure on prices. While the Chinese government is not expecting a swelling of broad-based inflation comparable to the late 1980s or mid-1990s, it remains highly concerned that spiking prices in critical areas could stir up social unrest. Three sectors of particular concern are energy, real estate and especially food. Real estate bubbles have been a constant in China for years, with the slowdown in 2009 being short-lived, and 2010 showing all the signs of a new bubble forming. Anywhere with limited land available for development, a large population, and an endless stream of subsidized credit will see property prices rise. Local governments derive an average of 40 percent of their tax revenues from land sales and therefore collude with property developers to drive prices up. The developers themselves want the land not only hoping to sell it later for a profit, but also as collateral to present to banks to get more loans. There is no doubt a construction and real estate bubble taking shape (with serious implications for overall financial and economic stability), given the 3.2 trillion yuan or $530 billion invested in real estate in 2009 alone. But the impact on overall inflation is not presently a paramount concern. Housing prices in the CPI dropped by 3.6 percent in 2009 compared to 2008, reflecting the fall from recent highs in summer 2008 (though China's National Bureau of Statistics uses a variety of methods to underestimate the effect of housing prices on CPI). The chief concern is the risk to social stability. The frantic pace of development frequently leads to peasants getting coerced from their homes, a major cause of protests. Moreover, housing prices have accelerated faster than incomes, putting pressure on families' pocketbooks. Beijing is attempting to limit social stresses by restricting forced evictions and restraining rising prices in the real estate sector through a variety of measures announced in January, but these central government policies will be difficult to enforce and will have at best mixed results on the local level. Beijing's best hope comes from the fact that prices on cheap housing and second-hand homes barely grew in 2009, constraining the impact of price increases on the poorest sectors of society. Energy is another area where social stability is the primary focus. Maintaining China's booming industries requires energy and raw materials inputs, which have volatile prices and are certainly capable of driving inflation in other countries when prices soar. But the Communist Party uses price controls to ensure that prices of oil, refined oil products, natural gas, coal and electricity stay within socially acceptable ranges, so as to prevent fluctuations from wreaking havoc on the delicate balance of Chinese companies and households. State-owned energy companies are required to sell goods at low prices domestically, sometimes below the cost of production; in return, they receive subsidies from the government to make up for the lost profits. Such subsidies hide the true costs of many economic processes in China, transferring them to the government finances or banking system in some way. But one intentional outcome of these practices is that since the costs are not borne by the physical economy, they do not increase prices for all users downstream. Of course, such price control policies create all kinds of distortions: during times of high input costs, energy producers will deliberately limit supply so they do not have to subsidize the domestic market from their own pockets — they will also seek to export their product as much as possible, and avoid reinvesting in capacity upgrades, since their goal is to make money and that is difficult to do when foreign oil is expensive and domestic prices are capped. Oil refiners resorted to such methods during the period of high international commodity prices in 2007 and 2008, and natural gas companies were accused of limiting supplies in winter 2009-2010 when cold weather increased demand for household heating. Artificially low domestic prices also encourage consumers to consume inefficiently, generating unnecessarily high demand. Normally, inflationary pressures would limit such demand growth, but to maintain social stability, the Chinese government has chosen to short-circuit market forces. As a result, energy shortages happen frequently in China. Nevertheless, China's energy price controls have worked well enough to maintain internal order. Attempts to reform pricing mechanisms to allow higher prices are in the works, but always subject to reversal given the social risks. As long as bank loans are available for state energy companies, China can mask the costs of controlling energy prices. (click here to enlarge image) Food is perhaps the sector most capable of sparking domestic unrest if prices spike. Food prices are inherently inflationary in China, where too little arable land must feed too many people. Food price inflation generally runs well above overall CPI, such as the run from spring 2007 to fall 2008, when food prices rose well above 7 percent every month and reached a peak of 23 percent in February 2008. This is not a problem that can be solved easily, since food supply and demand are hard to change. Crop yields are unpredictable because of weather, and slow to adjust considering planting seasons. Meanwhile food demand has a stable basis, since population changes happen over generations, everyone eats, and there is no substitute for food. The causes of food price inflation do not necessarily mark economy-wide changes but are often highly specific, contingent or localized. Farmers may create shortages of certain supplies that drive prices up — wheat farmers frequently turn to other crops during times of low wheat prices, inadvertently causing shortages later on. Pig farmers slaughtering their pigs (amid a disease outbreak) were the leading factor causing meat prices to rise by more than 40 percent (compared to the previous year) during spring 2008. The government may also buy domestic farm produce or restrict imports to control prices. But ultimately food prices are subject to factors beyond the control of short-term business or policy adjustments. Even during times of overall low inflation, food prices follow their own rules — for example, vegetable prices rose by 24 percent in November 2009 because of weather conditions. About 35 percent of expenditures by urban and rural households go to food, so price increases are sharply felt. When China first emerged from its command economy, core inflation was a dangerous threat, and would remain so for decades. But over time China's economic structure became so heavily geared toward high production and low consumption that deflationary tendencies formed. Today when Chinese officials say they are concerned about inflation they are talking about price spikes in key economic sectors — energy, real estate and especially food. The risks posed by such spikes have the potential to spark social unrest that shakes the foundations of the central government's control, as they indeed have in the past, and could again in the future.

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