Ray Dalio – John Mauldin Conversation, Part 6

By John Mauldin

 

This is the final letter of the six-part series of my reply to Ray Dalio’s essays.

Here are some links to help you wrap it all together.

As Ray notes, the problems he describes really are existential. He and I agree more than we disagree, but our responses differ.
 
I think that we both agree that the wrong answers will cause much angst and pain for most of our fellow citizens (and that is a severe understatement). And given his reply to me in Forbes, I think Ray would agree with me there are no easy solutions, only very difficult choices vs. disastrous ones. The longer we wait to deal with the problems, the more painful resolving them will be.
 
And make no mistake, the existential problems we are talking about (and neither of us use the word “existential” lightly) will resolve themselves in a highly tumultuous manner if we as a society don’t face them directly and soon.

They are mostly problems of our own making, and since there are no time machines, we must deal with the reality which we created.
 
Today in my final reply to Ray I sum up my previous letters and describe one possible path for dealing with these problems. My idea will be controversial for most people. I am totally open to another, better solution if anybody knows one.
 
Ray started his letter as an invitation to a dialogue/conversation. I hope we can continue our conversation and others will join in. And with that, let’s finish my open letter to Ray…

No Easy Solutions
 
Dear Ray,
 
Let me see if I can summarize my writing so far and what I believe to be your main concerns, which I share. I do welcome a response.
 
Last week I focused primarily on the US deficit and debt situation. Total federal debt is now $22.5 trillion plus another $3 trillion of state and local debt. Annual deficits are running at an average of $1.2 trillion and growing. As I demonstrated, in a recession the annual deficits will likely rise to $2.5 trillion, and certainly no less than $2 trillion, simply using CBO projections and assuming that revenues would drop and then slowly recover similarly to the last recession. I think that is a more-than-reasonable forecast.
 
That means total US government debt will be at $44 trillion plus maybe $6 trillion of state and local debt by the end of the 2020s, just a decade from now.

Not to mention unfunded liabilities, corporate debt, etc. Of course, that assumes no tax increases and no budget cuts. Significant spending cuts are unlikely as the deficits are mostly entitlements, interest, and defense spending.

So-called “non-defense discretionary” spending is actually a small part of the total budget. And while deficit hawks might find $100 billion to cut here and there, that wouldn’t affect the grand scheme of things. There is little political will to cut entitlement spending, and to your point, Ray, we may actually need more spending in order to solve the growing wealth and income disparity problem.
 
That brings us to taxes. Most tax increase proposals would raise rates on “the rich.” Using government data, I showed that a 25% increase on the top 10% of US income earners (roughly those making $120,000+) would produce only $250 billion per year. Ray, I am not certain what you think it will cost to reduce income disparity, but it would certainly eat up a good portion of that $250 billion, leaving little for deficit reduction.
 
Any such tax increase will be even more difficult if we enter recession within the next few years, which the New York Fed’s forecast shows is not far-fetched. Here is their latest data showing a roughly 33% probability of recession within 12 months.
 


The longer the yield curve stays inverted and the more it inverts the more probable a recession is. We have now had an inverted yield curve for three+ months and as I write are still in that situation. The New York Fed’s model has never reached a probability of 100% prior to any recession. But if memory serves, there has always been a recession anywhere from nine to 18 months after the model reaches its current level. The timing isn’t precise, but it’s close enough for our discussion.
 
[Sidebar: To my regular readers, I will further discuss this and other recession indicators next week, plus the political and economic ramifications. Please be patient.]
 
In any case, at some point there will be a recession, the Fed’s rate cut plans notwithstanding. I think they will keep cutting at least back to the zero bound.

You indicate that you believe, and I agree, that it won’t put the economy back on track. Then they will start with quantitative easing.
 
You also feel that QE won’t help and will likely cause even greater income and wealth disparity. I agree. But I have sat in meetings with participants in the Fed thought process. Confronted with the probability that their actions won’t deliver the desired results, they simply reply that we have to “do something.” I’m sure you’ve had that experience more times than I.
 
No matter how ineffective we might believe it to be, they are going to keep rates at or below the zero bound and ratchet up quantitative easing, building the Fed’s balance sheet up to levels that today would seem mind-numbing.
 
I think Japan is the model here. Like the BOJ, the Fed will keep rates ultra-low and buy bonds until there are no more bonds to buy. The government will run massive deficits as long as the market lets them get away with it. And in Japan and apparently Europe, at least, the market seems to have quite a deal of tolerance in that regard. I call it Japanification and it will have roughly the same results here: extremely low growth, if any growth at all, tending towards deflation. Except that the deflation, at least in the price of things government doesn’t affect like healthcare, will likely be worse in the 2020s because of technology.
 
That’s not the end of the world, but it is certainly not a world that compares favorably to the 1950s, 1980s, or 1990s. You argue that we need to engage in a new combination of fiscal and monetary policy, something you called Monetary Policy 3, or MP3. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) may or may not be part of that, and you caution that MMT has significant negative consequences and that you are not endorsing it. Again, I would totally agree. I want to come back to MP3 a little later…

A Radical Restructuring of the Economy

and Tax Code
 
You’ve laid out what you believe to be the basis for how the economy and markets work. Let me offer a few simple assumptions of my own.
 
1.   There is no political will in either the Republican or Democratic party to reduce entitlement spending, and entitlement spending is on an ever-increasing path.
2.   There is simply no way that we can raise income taxes enough to close the deficit to within striking distance of nominal GDP growth (where debt relative to GDP growth is equal).
3.   As long as debt is expanding as it is now, we will stay in a slow-growth economy at best, if not in recession. Much research shows that increasing debt beyond today’s level will reduce GDP growth.
4.   What we need to do is very difficult: balance the budget, bring deficits and debt under control, so that we can begin to grow our way out of the crisis. But we can’t do that while thinking about revenues as we do now.

So what can we do? The first step toward getting yourself out of a hole is to stop digging.
 
I would suggest that the US adopt a Value Added Tax or VAT, excluding food and certain other basic necessary items. I would make the VAT high enough to completely eliminate Social Security taxes on both the individual and businesses, giving lower income earners a significant tax break. We could also compensate those below the poverty line for their VAT costs.
 
Ironically, you and I will both qualify for Social Security benefits soon. I daresay you need it even less than I do. We aren’t the only ones. I think we should consider means-testing Social Security, and the same for all entitlements.
 
Consumption taxes like the VAT are the least economically damaging of all taxes, at least according to most of the research that I have read. While I personally (or at least the economist in me) would like a VAT high enough to get rid of all other taxes, I just don’t know if it would be politically posible.
 
One attraction should be that, if the VAT is high enough, say in the 17 or 18% range, we could have much lower income taxes. Just for illustration, maybe there could be…
  • No income tax below $50,000,
  • A 10% income tax on incomes from $50,000–$100,000,
  • A 20% tax on all income between $100,000 and $1 million,
  • A 25% tax on incomes between $1 million and $10 million,
  • and a 30% tax on incomes over $10 million.

… all with no personal deductions for anything. Period. That should certainly produce enough total revenue (along with corporate taxes) to fund the government as currently configured. It might even allow a little bit more for important needs we have deferred (like infrastructure) as well as medical and scientific research.
 
I totally understand that conservatives are uncomfortable opening the door to a VAT when a future majority might raise income taxes on top of it. I would be among them. In the spirit of compromise, we could amend the Constitution to require 60% majorities in both House and Senate to pass any tax increases. Of course, that would have to be passed by 37 states in order to become part of the Constitution, but that can be part of the negotiation process. Perhaps the new tax regime’s launch could be contingent on adoption by 37 states, which would encourage a more rapid adoption process.
 
I would also suggest that the tax changes be phased in over three or four years to allow for individuals and businesses to adjust.
 
This plan would eliminate the need for higher debts and quantitative easing, and would let the Fed keep interest rates at a more normal level.

Retirees could once again look for an actual return on their savings, instead of the brutal punishment of financial repression. (We can have a whole separate conversation on allowing the market to set interest rates rather than 12 individuals sitting around a table.)

MP3?
 
I would welcome a further explanation of what you mean by Monetary Policy 3.

I agree we need to do something far different than we are now. If we continue down this same path, at some point a more left-wing government will come to power, raise taxes and increase spending, but not really deal with deficits or the burden of ever-increasing entitlement spending. That will not work as well as they hope. I can totally foresee a movement back to the right, which would want to repeal those same policies. Neither side would actually come close to dealing with the real problems. We would remain in a regime of ever-increasing deficits, accompanied by growing debt and quantitative easing.

The simple fact of the matter: We don’t know how much debt the markets will be willing to give to the United States. As in actually having the cash, not to mention the willingness, to buy government debt. $44 trillion is a lot of money, which is why I think we will be encumbered with quantitative easing and zero interest rates until there is a significant structural change in how we manage revenue and spending.
 
We simply don’t want to know what the limit is on the amount of debt the United States can sustain. If we ever find out, it will be too late. We will be in a crisis.
 
Unfortunately, I think my proposal or any other compromise solution is simply not possible in today’s partisan world. That being said, I think this is an important conversation to have. When that crisis does happen, maybe somebody will pull one of the compromise plans off the shelf and say, “Let’s try this.”
 
What I don’t want to see is a repeat of what happened at the beginning of the Great Recession. When the powers that be finally realized the financial world was collapsing down around our ears, they had no plan.

They were making it up as they went along. While they put out the fire, they also did a great deal of damage. This was not the best way to deal with the problem. But it was probably the best they could do at that moment, given the realities on the ground.
 
That’s why it is important to make this discussion become both public and national. I would hope that others will join us in thinking about how to restructure the US economy into a more self-sustaining and hopefully more equitable system. Having plans available for consideration in the next crisis will help create a willingness to compromiso.
 
I think this may be the most important decision that our nation makes in my lifetime. If we continue down this path, at best we are consigning ourselves to more of the same meager growth. At worst, we will have a crisis that ends with what I call The Great Reset, where the world has to radically restructure its debt in ways that will not be pleasant. (That is an understatement along the lines of calling the Great Depression merely “unpleasant.”)
 
All this will be happening as technology improves our lives but also slowly eliminates higher-paying jobs, causing many people to earn less than they thought their education would justify. We will see more become “underemployed,” creating a great deal of political and social frustration.

I hope we can avoid this type of Blade Runner outcome. There is the potential for a far more abundant and pleasant future for everyone, if we can reconcile these economic conundrums.
 
This has been a conversation well worth having. Ray, I want to sincerely thank you for starting what could be a very, very important national engagement. And politely ask for a little bit more elucidation on what you mean by MP3.

Seriously… I really want to know.

A Brief Commercial
 
I know that many readers are small business owners, especially investment advisor/broker-dealer firms. One of the problems in the investment advisor business (as well as others) is that many of us are getting older and need to transition our businesses to younger successors who need financing. One of the partners in my network of recommended services is a national bank called T-Bank, which specializes in SBA (Small Business Administration) loans. They have done numerous SBA loans for small businesses that are transitioning to the next generation.
 
SBA loans also have other purposes and T-Bank is an excellent source. T-Bank also develops cash balance retirement plans that let owners save more tax deferred income (I have a cash balance plan and it indeed works!).

New York, Maine, and Montana
 
Early August sees me in New York for a few days before the annual economic fishing event, Camp Kotok. Then maybe another day in New York before I meet Shane in Montana to spend a few days with Darrell Cain on Flathead Lake.
 
I met with my partners Olivier Garret and Ed D’Agostino in Boston two weeks ago. We were making longer-term plans for Mauldin Economics, as we do from time to time. They have done a very good job of growing the business and I am happy with it. But they also expressed very clearly that I need to stop talking about writing a book about the future and actually begin writing. I am mentally ready, but structurally I am not always the most organized.
 
Writing a book is simply a massive undertaking, especially when it is as all-encompassing as “the future,” whatever that is. But to underline their insistence, they laid out a plan and offered help. It made sense and I am now actually beginning to write. The goal is to have a book in our hands sometime in the spring.
 
Much of the writing has already been done in one form or another; the problem is pulling it together, not to mention sorting through the thousands of pages of research on my computer and in links that I have saved, and much that has been sent to me by teams of my readers (thank you!). The good news is my travel schedule is not all that demanding over the next five to six months. And if Puerto Rico can avoid another debilitating hurricane, this is a great place to write.
 
Years ago, I took my family to Venice where a reader graciously offered to be our guide for a few days. He took us out to one of the small islands nearby where Ernest Hemingway actually wrote some of his novels. It was quite the idyllic location. I can’t complain in the least about my own location and circumstances, so I simply need to get on with it and crank out a chapter or two a week for the next five months. Plus my regular letters.
 
As my dad would say when we started a big project, “Son, that’s no hill for a stepper.” And with that, it is time to hit the send button. Let me wish you a great week.
 
Your getting ready to step up analyst,


John Mauldin
Chairman, Mauldin Economics
 

Psychology of wealth: Do rich people deserve to be rich?

Although inequality is growing in many western countries, concern about it is not

Rhymer Rigby


Increasingly we are less likely to meet people in neighbourhoods who are not like us © Getty


Here’s a topical question. Do rich people deserve to be rich? If so, how rich?

You might think this is worth asking because concern about inequality is growing everywhere.

But actually, this is not true. Although inequality is growing in many western countries, concern about it is not. In fact, according to new research by Jonathan Mijs, a sociologist at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, inequality and belief in meritocracy may go hand in hand. The more unequal a society, the more likely people are to believe the rich have earned it.

Such thinking is hardly new. “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” is a quote popularly attributed to John Steinbeck, the author of The Grapes of Wrath.

This is probably an oversimplification of what Steinbeck actually said. But it is often cited as a reason for the persistence of the American Dream. The poor are OK with enormous inequality, the thinking goes, because they believe — or hope — that one day they will be rich too.

Mijs suggests there are other factors at work here also. One is the extent to which people have self-segregated in the past few decades. We increasingly spend time with our own economic kind in places ranging from neighbourhoods to workplaces (education has been a key driver here), meaning we are less likely to meet people who are not like us.

Thus, if we are rich, our idea of a poor person may simply be someone further down the social strata who may one day earn what we do. If we are poor this may mean that we are unaware of the structural barriers that prevent us from climbing the ladder.

Meanwhile, thanks in part to the cult of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, we now see businesspeople treated like athletes. You’re either a superstar or a nobody and the super-rich deserve it because they are the brilliant innovators our economy relies upon. Without them we would all be poorer.

But would we really? In his 2018 book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas writes: “A successful society is a progress machine. It takes in the raw material of innovations and produces broad human advancement. America’s machine is broken.” The fruits of recent change, he adds, have been largely captured by the very fortunate — in a way that would not have occurred 30 years ago. So perhaps, without them, we would all be a bit better off.

One place where the problem of inequality is arguably at its starkest is chief executive pay. In the US, the ratio of chief executive to average worker pay has risen from about 30 times to more than 300 times, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington DC think-tank.

This raises several questions. First, does what the individual is being paid reflect what they bring to the table? Or are they simply in a position where they marshal the efforts of others? Is corporate endeavour about superstars or group effort? Is Tim Cook worth the $136m he took home in 2017?

The mutability of the notion of being paid what you are worth is also illustrated by national differentials. According to Willis Towers Watson, a consultancy, median chief executive compensation in large companies in 2016 was around $1.2m in Japan, compared with $11.7m in the US and $5.3m in the UK. As chief executives often argue that theirs is a global market for talent, it is hard to see why a Japanese boss “deserves” a 10th the pay of their American counterpart.

This is before we even look at inherited wealth and advantage. According to the OECD, a child born into a poor UK family would take five generations to get to the average income.

Conversely, the UK’s top tier shows that many of its members haven’t had far to climb. Here, the idea of pure meritocracy is sometimes held up as an ideal. But really? As the coiner of the word warned, an effect of meritocracy can be to make those at the top think they deserve it.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty says the way these factors work together can create the worst of all worlds for those who are neither top income earners nor top successors: “They are poor and they are depicted as dumb and undeserving.” Referring to the French Revolution, which was partly driven by inequality, he notes tartly that “at least, nobody was trying to depict Ancien Régime inequality as fair”.

So does this mean western societies are nearing a breaking point? Pointing to the CIA’s World Factbook, Mijs argues: “You only have to look at Latin American countries to see how much further inequality can go.”

The US Economy’s Strange Decade

Weak productivity growth helps to explain the continued robust rates of job creation in the United States, as well as workers’ sluggish wage gains. If left unresolved, the productivity malaise will ensure that the current expansion remains uniquely unbalanced and unhealthy.

Larry Hatheway

lhatheway6_FabrikaCrGettyImages_rolleddollarrisinggraph


ZURICH – The current US economic expansion is extraordinary. Not only does it rival the longest on post-war record, but, unlike previous periods of sustained growth, it has not unleashed much inflation. Corporate profits have soared to unprecedented levels. And economic inequality in the United States is at its most extreme in a half-century.

Each of these unique features is paradoxically linked to another oddity: despite a mostly lackluster expansion since 2009, the US unemployment rate has fallen significantly further than would have been predicted by GDP growth alone. But perhaps the defining aspect of this strange decade-long expansion, and the one that helps to explain its main anomalies, is weak productivity growth.

Consider, first, the jobs phenomenon. Using a simple model relating unemployment to GDP growth – similar to Okun’s Law – indicates that the jobless rate has fallen by half a percentage point more per year during this expansion than history would have suggested. Since 2014, the rate of US employment growth has exceeded what GDP growth would have predicted by nearly one million jobs per year.

Even as unemployment has fallen to historic lows, job creation remains more than double the rate of increase of the labor force. Firms are hiring strongly despite tepid growth, a dwindling pool of productive workers, and troubling political and policy uncertainty. The soft May jobs report, alone, does not change the decade-long phenomenon of robust employment growth.

One plausible explanation is that firms are substituting cheap labor for expensive capital. The share of total worker compensation in US national income has fallen steadily this century, reaching a low of 60% in late 2014, before edging back to its current level of 62%. Yet that is still three full percentage points below its average level between 1965 and 2000.

On the other hand, returns on capital are exceptionally high. Since 2010, the share of corporate profits in GDP has reached average levels that are unrivaled in the post-war era. One might think, therefore, that firms would prefer to invest in high-returning capital rather than in labor. But that is not the case. The average annual rate of non-residential gross fixed capital formation since 2009 has been 5.3%, more or less the same as it was in the expansions of the early 2000s and the 1980s, and well below the rate in the investment-led boom of the late 1990s.

Why is cheap labor so abundant? Perhaps workers are willing to sacrifice higher wages in return for job security. That’s understandable, given the painful memories of the 2008-2009 recession. Wage demands may be restrained by fears of losing jobs to China, Mexico, or machines. Yet a rising “quits rate,” which is now back to levels seen prior to the financial crisis, suggests that workers are perhaps less excessively cautious than they once were.

Another factor is declining union membership. In the early 1980s, nearly one-quarter of the US labor force was unionized. Today, that figure has fallen to about one-tenth. Non-union workers earn, on average, about 20% less than their unionized counterparts. A less unionized labor force works more cheaply and, perhaps, more flexibly, making it more attractive for companies to hire.

But the most important factor behind sluggish wage growth is probably weak productivity growth. Average labor productivity in the US (and in most other advanced economies) has slumped in the past decade. Despite the explosive growth in information technology, the average worker is not becoming more productive.

If output per hour worked is not rising much, then the number of hours worked must increase to ensure adequate provision of goods and services. This is why US job creation remains robust, despite pedestrian GDP growth.

In addition, firms cannot raise wages by more than the increase in the marginal product of labor. Low productivity growth therefore explains sluggish wage increases. It also makes firms less willing to invest. The resulting capital discipline contributes to high returns on capital, which underpin soaring profits and yawning income inequality.

US policymakers must try to ensure that the benefits of growth are more equally distributed. Populist proposals from both ends of the political spectrum, such as calls for protectionism or a universal basic income, are unlikely to do the trick. Such measures would simply result in Americans fighting over shares of a shrinking pie.

Rather, the key is to raise average levels of productivity. For a variety of reasons, including the current political and social backlash against capitalism, the US cannot address its productivity challenge solely with 1980s-style deregulation, lower taxes, and less government. Economic efficiency will have to be augmented by improvements to energy and transport infrastructure, along with better access to quality education, worker training, and health care.

America’s growth over the past decade has been unique in many ways. But if its productivity malaise is allowed to persist, the expansion will remain uniquely unbalanced and unhealthy.


Larry Hatheway is Group Head of Investment Solutions and Group Chief Economist at GAM.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and the hope for a better China  

There is no reason why an ethnic Chinese society cannot also be a democracy

Gideon Rachman




Nothing better captures the difference between Hong Kong and mainland China than the annual commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre that takes place on June 4 every year in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.

In mainland China the memory of the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in 1989 is ruthlessly suppressed. But Hong Kong has been allowed to continue to mark the anniversary. That kind of freedom matters not just to the 7.4m inhabitants of Hong Kong. Potentially, it is also of great importance to the future of China itself.

Put simply, Hong Kong is acting as a guardian of China’s memory and of the hope that a more liberal China could one day replace the current one-party state. The “one country, two systems” arrangement put in place when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 has allowed the territory to continue to preserve vital freedoms, such as an independent judiciary and a free press.

Hong Kong is not a full democracy. Its chief executive is elected by a tiny group from a Beijing-approved list. But, nonetheless, since 1997 the territory has provided room for ideas, people and organisations banned from mainland China. I know of well-connected Beijing families who have taken their children to Hong Kong for the June 4 commemoration — just to ensure that the memory of Tiananmen is passed down through the generations.

Hong Kong’s peculiar role within China makes the current struggle over its legal system of global significance. If Hong Kong’s freedoms can be protected, that will also help to preserve breathing room for liberal ideas within the Chinese state. That matters not just to the Chinese people, but to a wider world that will increasingly be shaped by the power of a rising China.

At the moment, the situation is finely poised. Mass demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong have led to the temporary withdrawal of a proposed law on extradition from Hong Kong to China. That law had threatened to break down the firewall between the territory’s independent judicial system and the one-party state in Beijing.

The announcement by Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam that she was suspending the proposal surprised many China-watchers, who had assumed that President Xi Jinping in Beijing would be reluctant to back down and lose face. The fact that Mr Xi decided to hit the pause button suggests that the Chinese president and the Hong Kong government have collectively realised that the greatest risk facing them now is not perceived weakness, but chaos and violence on the streets of Hong Kong that could have significant domestic and international repercussions.

Their restraint is wise. But it could well just be a tactical retreat. On Sunday demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong again, to press for the definitive withdrawal of the extradition law.

One reason that Hong Kong citizens have demonstrated in such numbers is the growing evidence, in recent years, that the “one country, two systems” settlement is being eroded in dangerous ways. Students who led pro-democracy protests in 2014 have been given jail sentences; elected members have been barred from the Hong Kong legislature; a political party has been outlawed; and a bookseller and a billionaire have been abducted to the mainland. The fact that the Chinese government is pressing for Hong Kong to push through new national security laws has increased fears about the future of freedom of speech.

The increased pressure from Beijing on Hong Kong is of a piece with increasing authoritarianism within China itself. Over the past two years, “Xi Jinping thought” has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution and presidential term-limits have been abolished, potentially allowing Mr Xi to rule for life.

The belief that Hong Kong’s freedoms are under threat from the growing authoritarianism of Mr Xi’s China is supported by the increasing pressure that Beijing is exerting on Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China has always claimed that Taiwan is an integral part of its territory. But for decades it has had to tolerate Taiwan’s continuing existence as a de facto independent country that is also a prosperous and vigorous democracy.

Over the past year, however, Beijing has ratcheted up the pressure on Taiwan, flexing its military muscle and moving to curtail any form of international recognition for the Taiwanese government. One common theory in Beijing is that Mr Xi has decided that finally achieving reunification between Taiwan and the mainland should be his legacy. Some hotheads in Beijing even talk of invading Taiwan in the next five years.

Fortunately, geography and politics ensure that Taiwan is much better placed than Hong Kong to keep Beijing at arm’s length. Its continuing political and economic success is vital because it serves as a potential model for modern China, demonstrating that, whatever the Communist party says, there are no cultural or historical reasons why an ethnic Chinese society cannot also be a democracy. Some of the many millions of Chinese tourists who have visited Taiwan and Hong Kong must return home with new ideas about politics and press freedom.

With luck, persistence and international support, Hong Kong and Taiwan may be able to keep the flame of a more liberal China alive until the mainland itself begins to change.

Darker horizon

China’s growth is the slowest in nearly three decades: get used to it

The trade war with America hurts, but the government is wary of stimulus




CHINA’S ECONOMY is slowing, again. After a good start to the year annual growth slipped to 6.2% in the second quarter, the country’s weakest expansion in nearly three decades. But that is hardly cause for panic. For an economy now worth nearly $14trn, such a growth rate is impressive. As the trade war with America hurts exporters, it also underlines the extent to which China’s economy is now fuelled by domestic demand. The question for the coming months is whether that domestic strength will remain sufficient to offset the trade turmoil.

The export picture has clearly taken a turn for the worse. Last year, when America’s president, Donald Trump, first levied tariffs on China, the country still managed to increase its exports by 10%. This year Chinese exports have all but stopped growing.

Moreover, the fight with America is getting more serious. In May Mr Trump ratcheted up tariffs on Chinese goods, and he has threatened to hit it with yet more duties if trade negotiators fail to resolve an impasse in the talks. The uncertainty is already taking a toll: foreign companies have started to shift more operations away from China.

So far China has looked rather well insulated from all these troubles. Activity actually accelerated towards the end of the second quarter. Investment in factories, roads and other fixed assets increased 6.3% in June compared with a year earlier, up from 4.3% in May. Retail sales also were robust, rising 9.8% in June compared with a year earlier, up from a year-on-year increase of 8.6% in May.

Yet there are doubts about how long this resilience will last. Some of the apparent strength is transient. Car sales, which have been in the doldrums for a couple of years, surged in June to double-digit growth, pushing up retail sales more broadly. But that was largely because dealers had slashed prices to run down inventories before tough new emission standards were imposed in July. The property sector, a bellwether for the economy, also seems set to soften.




The government, anticipating a slower patch, has started to spend more on infrastructure, a tried-and-tested method in China for revving up growth. Having tightened its purse strings for a couple of years, in recent months it has made it easier for municipal officials to raise funds for building railways and highways.

But there are limits as to how far it will go. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has declared that containing financial risks is a matter of national security. The odds of another giant stimulus, routine in the past whenever growth slowed, are much lower this time around. And in any case the government has less money to work with, having already racked up so much debt over the past decade.

It also wants to conserve its limited fiscal firepower in case the trade war turns uglier. In the meantime, get used to headlines about Chinese growth dipping to its lowest in nearly three decades: they are likely to appear again in three months and, again, three months after that.