These days, China seems to play the same role in much of our discourse that Japan did two decades ago. We look at our own follies — which are immense — and then look at the Chinese, and ascribe to them all the virtues of foresight and determination we lack.
But just like the Japanese, the Chinese are human, and their policy makers are subject to the same kinds of confusion and inability to make hard choices that are part of the human condition. And Chinese macroeconomic policy is in the process of becoming a cautionary tale.
Basic economics says that by deciding to keep the renminbi undervalued, the Chinese put themselves under inflationary pressure; and sure enough, inflation is rapidly becoming a serious problem.
But political considerations seem to be ruling out all the reasonable responses. They won’t revalue, because that would hurt politically influential exporters. They’re reluctant to raise interest rates, because that would hurt politically influential real estate developers. They’re trying to impose quantitative limits on credit, but are finding that borrowers have enough influence to circumvent the limits. And now they’re trying price controls — which will inevitably come apart at the seams unless they do something about the underlying pressures.
It’s an edifying spectacle.
Now, schadenfreude should not lead to any complaceny on our part; China may be corrupt and unable to make sensible short-run choices, but in terms of fundamental inability to deal with long-term problems, we still have them beat hands down. Still, it’s worth remembering that all giants have feet of clay. - Paul Krugman
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