The Real Reason China Will Surpass Us

by Simon Johnson | August 11, 2009

The usual concern about the U.S.-China balance of economic and political power is couched in terms of our relative international payments positions. We've run a large current account deficit in recent years (imports above exports); they still have--by some measures--the largest current account surplus (exports above imports) even seen in a major country. They accumulate foreign assets, i.e., claims on other countries, such as the U.S. We issue a great deal of debt that is bought by foreigners, including China.

There are some legitimate concerns in this framing of the problem--no country can increase its net foreign debt (relative to GDP) indefinitely without facing consequences. And the Obama administration, ever since the Geithner-Clinton flipflop on China's exchange rate policy early in 2009, seems quite captivated by this way of thinking: Will they buy our debt? Can we control our budget deficit? What happens if China dumps its dollars?

The reason real to worry about China, however, has very little to do with external balances, China's dollar holdings, or even capital flows. It's about productivity and rent-seeking.

China mostly invests in activities that raise productivity, raising the amount of goods and services that they can produce. This could be manufacturing or infrastructure or various kinds of services. Agriculture lags but continues to get some new investment. And of course they pour money into education.

I'm not a fan of the Chinese way of organizing their economy or their society. They no doubt have weaknesses that will catch up with them eventually (including waves of overinvestment in some sectors), and there's good reason to think they will be the center of a big new "Asia Century" bubble that is just now starting to emerge.

But contrast their pattern of investment in recent years with ours. What sector in our economy has expanded more than any other? Where should you work if you want both the highest wages on average, potentially very big bonuses, and quasi-retirement by age 40? Finance.

Of course, we need finance and an important part of modern economic development involves intermediating savings and investment. The U.S. did this well, with some bumps in the road, and built a system that worked through the 1960s or 1970s.

But finance as a share of our activities (i.e., percent of GDP) has roughly doubled in the past 40 years. What has this really added in terms of productivity? The ATM and the credit card were great breakthroughs, but they are old.

What has "financial innovation" brought us since the 1980s? One answer, of course, is "hedging strategies" that lower the cost of doing business for companies large and small. This is plausible, although not likely to be large relative to the economy--send me your favorite study on the cost of capital since 1990 (you choose the definition), and we can talk about whether this effect is significant, sustainable, or even sensible.

Because financial innovation has mostly facilitated a big increase in finance. If a sector grows, pays more wages, and rises as a share of GDP, surely this is a good thing? Not necessarily--if this is a rent-seeking sector.

Rent-seeking means effectively a tax extracted by one sector from the rest of the economy. We're used to thinking of this as something that occurs through trade restrictions and the big breakthroughs in this area came from analysis of tariffs and quotas (Anne Krueger, Jagdish Bhagwati). If a tariff, for example, will make your life cushy, you will devote great resources to getting one established or increased - irrespective of the effects on the rest of the economy (call this strategy "let's hammer the unprotected consumer").

Finance is rent-seeking. The sector has devoted great resources to tilting all playing fields in its direction. Consumers are taken advantage of; consumer protection is vehemently opposed. And great risks are taken, with the downside handed off to the government (and the consumers again, as taxpayers). This downside protection allows an overexpansion of debt-financed finance--reaching the preposterous levels seen in mid-2008 and now re-emerging.

Finance in its modern American form is not productive. It is not conducive to further sustained economic growth. The GDP accruing from these activities is illusory--most of finance is simply a tax on what is done by more productive members of society and a diversion of talent away from genuinely productivity-enhancing activities.

The rise of China does not necessarily imply slowdown or demise for the United States. But if they specialize in making things and we specialize in finance, they will eat our lunch.

On an urgent basis, we need real consumer protection against predatory financial practices and an end to all forms of Too Big To Fail behavior--which is actually just the biggest, nastiest form of predation. 

This is our most pressing national and international strategic priority.

[Cross-posted at The Baseline Scenario.]

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