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Stanford experts offer insight on China's stock market dive

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A stock market board illuminated with trading numbers.
Photo credit: 
Wikimedia Commons/Katrina.Tuliao

China's tight control over its economy is one reason why it is facing an economic slowdown of global implications, Stanford scholars say.

China's stock market fall is now in its third week, and share prices have lost a third of their value since mid-June, though the market is still higher than a year ago. China has the world's second-largest economy, with deep financial links to the United States.

Nicholas Hope, director of the China Program at the Stanford Center for International Development, which is part of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, said the simple answer behind the slowdown is that "nothing grows at 10 percent forever."

However, the dropoff is sharper than the government of China expected or desires, he noted.

Hope said the deceleration is due to the effects of slow growth globally on international trade, slower progress than hoped in rebalancing the Chinese economy toward spending more on consumption and less on investment, and the inefficiency of much of Chinese investment. Another big problem is the debt load of local and regional governments.

Hope does not think the steep fall of China's stock market is comparable to the American crash of 1929 – "so long as the Shanghai market index remains comfortably above where it was a year ago."

Yet the "frighteningly sharp correction" over the past few weeks highlights the fragility of the Chinese financial system, he said. It also serves as a cautionary tale for the many small investors who speculated on high returns with borrowed money.

"Borrowed funds have financed many risky economic investments in infrastructure by subnational [regional and local] governments as well as stock purchases by unwise investors," he said. "The result threatens to be an unwanted increase in non-performing loans in the banking system as borrowers are unable to repay."

Hope believes China can overcome its problems if it adopts economic reforms aimed at fostering more private enterprise and less state control over the market. Back in 1993, China's Communist Party announced those reforms and updated them in 2013, so they are technically on the books.

"Paradoxically, current weaknesses could be a longer-term source of strength, as the shares of income and consumption in Chinese GDP rise, investment is increasingly more efficiently allocated by a transformed financial system and all factors of production – land, capital and labor – are put to more productive uses," he said.

To counteract the market drop, the government ordered state-owned companies to buy shares, hiked the amount of equities insurance companies can hold and offered more credit to finance trading. Hope said this may cause a problem.

"It is introducing considerable moral hazard by attempting to bail out small investors because of the concern over the potential for social unrest if too many of those investors lose all of their savings," he said.

Charlotte Lee, associate director of the China Program at Stanford's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, says it is too early to tell if the market fall will diminish the credibility of the government and Communist Party in the eyes of the people. China's President, Xi Jinping, does want to maintain his popularity.

"The government's management of the economy is, however, one of the pillars of its credibility," Lee said.

She described this as a "small dent" in that credibility, as the government has many other ways it aids the Chinese people.

Opening up the economy

Stanford Professor Darrell Duffie says that it will be hard for China to maintain its past high growth rates.

"China's growth rate is still very high, but it is less high than it was because most of the giant pool of cheap and underutilized labor that China had 20 years ago has by now been put to work relatively productively," said Duffie, the Dean Witter Distinguished Professor of Finance at the Graduate School of Business.

"Additional sources of productivity gains are harder to find," he added.

Duffie is concerned about excessive leverage in China's equity markets.

"Chinese investors have borrowed a lot of money to invest in equities. This margin financing was used too aggressively. China's corporations and local governments are heavily indebted, and that will be a drag on future growth," he said.

He suggests that China would do well to continue on its current course of opening up its economy to cross-border capital flows and reducing its economy's reliance on state-owned enterprises.

If China's economy slows down, the country will decrease its demand for American goods and services, he added. American businesses that plan to operate in China should learn as much as possible about how China's economy and government works.

And Duffie advised, "Whenever possible work with trusted partners in China."

Asian power games?

With China ramping up its military in recent years, what are the risks to U.S. national security if China's economy plunges?

Amy Zegart, co-director of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, said it is possible that a slowing economy might make China behave differently in terms of its hard and soft power.

"For all the worry about a rising China, a fragile China is bad for the United States. The Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy rests on a promise of economic prosperity. The more China's growth falters, the more party leaders will be driven to stoke the fires of nationalism to secure domestic support," said Zegart, who is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

She added, "We've seen this movie before. It stars Vladimir Putin behaving recklessly abroad to win political support at home as his economy stalls."

Clifton Parker is a writer for the Stanford News Service.