Chinese bullet trains: Is Beijing investing way too much in infrastructure?

Commentaries on economics and technology.
April 14 2011 2:43 PM

Beijing's Empty Bullet Trains

Is China investing way too much in its infrastructure?

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Several Chinese policies have led to a massive transfer of income from politically weak households to politically powerful companies. A weak currency reduces household purchasing power by making imports expensive, thereby protecting import-competing SOEs and boosting exporters' profits.

Low interest rates on deposits and low lending rates for firms and developers mean that the household sector's massive savings receive negative rates of return, while the real cost of borrowing for SOEs is also negative. This creates a powerful incentive to overinvest and implies enormous redistribution from households to SOEs, most of which would be losing money if they had to borrow at market-equilibrium interest rates. Moreover, labor repression has caused wages to grow much more slowly than productivity.

To ease the constraints on household income, China needs more rapid exchange-rate appreciation, liberalization of interest rates, and a much sharper increase in wage growth. More importantly, China needs either to privatize its SOEs, so that their profits become income for households, or to tax their profits at a far higher rate and transfer the fiscal gains to households. Instead, on top of household savings, the savings—or retained earnings—of the corporate sector, mostly SOEs, tie up another 25 percent of GDP.

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But boosting the share of income that goes to the household sector could be hugely disruptive, as it could bankrupt a large number of SOEs, export-oriented firms, and provincial governments, all of which are politically powerful. As a result, China will invest even more under the current Five-Year Plan.

Continuing down the investment-led growth path will exacerbate the visible glut of capacity in manufacturing, real estate, and infrastructure, and thus will intensify the coming economic slowdown once further fixed-investment growth becomes impossible. Until the change of political leadership in 2012-13, China's policymakers may be able to maintain high growth rates, but at a very high foreseeable cost.

This article comes from Project Syndicate.

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Nouriel Roubini is chairman of Roubini Global Economics and professor of economics at New York University's Stern School of Business.