There are at least three reasons why China’s growth might suffer a discontinuity: the current pattern is unsustainable; the debt overhang is large; and dealing with these challenges creates the risks of a sharp collapse in demand.
The most important fact about China’s current pattern of growth is its dependence on investment as a source of supply and demand (see charts). Since 2011 additional capital has been the sole source of extra output, with the contribution of growth of “total factor productivity” (measuring the change in output per unit of inputs) near zero. Moreover, the incremental capital output ratio, a measure of the contribution of investment to growth, has soared as returns on investment have tumbled.
The International Monetary Fund argues: “Without reforms, growth would gradually fall to around 5 per cent with steeply increasing debt.” But such a path would be unsustainable, not least because debts are already at such a high level. Thus “total social financing” ”” a broad credit measure ”” jumped from 120 per cent of GDP in 2008 to 193 per cent in 2014. The government can manage this overhang. But it must not let the build-up restart. The credit-dependent part of investment has to shrink.