What’s the most important economic question in the world today? One contender would certainly be whether the euro will collapse. Another might be whether the U.S. will plunge into a double-dip recession. But a third, and possibly the most important over the long term, is whether China can find its way out of the biggest housing bubble ever created.
It may seem strange to Westerners, who hear so much about the rise of Asia and growing Chinese competitiveness. But like U.S. Republicans who try to “starve the beast” by cutting government spending, the Chinese Communist Party has been attempting to put a damper on the debt-fueled real estate boom that is at the heart of the nation’s economic miracle. This is part of a deliberate attempt that is meant to rejigger the Chinese economy into one that relies more on a domestic service sector and less on manufacturing and exports. If, however, the party’s efforts result in a precipitous drop in real estate values, multinational corporations whose revenue and earnings growth are tied to China could be hard hit. And the U.S. could be thrown back into recession.
While Washington has sweated through its partisan debates on budget balancing and economists have bickered over solutions to our low-growth and high-unemployment problems, the Chinese boom of the past several decades has blasted ahead without a glitch. Much of that boom is wrapped up in real estate. In the first six months of this year, Chinese investment in real estate was up 32.9% compared with the same period in 2010, and China’s economy is expected to grow more than 9% this year, about equal to its average during the post — Deng Xiaoping era of “communism with Chinese characteristics.”
But if the bubble pops, it will have serious consequences in the U.S. America sold $92 billion in goods and services to China last year. If China succeeds in moving away from its model of cheap land and cheap capital and makes a smooth transition to an economy based more on domestic demand, hallelujah. But if Chinese land prices plummet, there will be less demand for raw materials and a steep decline in world commodity markets and global trade in general.
That could very easily lead to even higher unemployment in the West. The U.S. economy is already in the strange position of having cash-rich companies that are not spending or hiring. Imagine how much less inclined they will be to do so if they are frightened by a Chinese economic slowdown. And the U.S. government, already shedding jobs in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, will be in no position to ride to the rescue.