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Talking about Asia’s consumption

Economist has a good analysis of consumption in Asia during the current crisis and how its quickly rebound means to the rest of the world. One note is that albeit the savings rate is high in Asia, the consumption is not as low as widely reported.

Can Asians replace Americans as a driver of global growth?

ASIA’S emerging economies are bouncing back much more strongly than any others. While America’s industrial production continued to slide in May, output in emerging Asia has regained its pre-crisis level (see chart 1). This is largely due to China; but although production in the region’s smaller economies is still well down on a year ago, it is rebounding in those countries too. Taiwan’s industrial output rose by an annualised 80% in the three months to May compared with the previous three months. JPMorgan estimates that emerging Asia’s GDP has grown by an annualised 7% in the second quarter.

Asia’s ability to decouple from America reflects the fact that the region’s downturn was caused only partly by the slump in American activity. In most Asian economies falling domestic demand was more important than the drop in net exports in explaining the collapse in GDP growth. The surge in food and energy prices in the first half of 2008 squeezed profits and spending power. Tighter monetary policy aimed at curbing inflation then further choked domestic demand.

The recent recovery in industrial production reflects the end of destocking by manufacturers as well as the large fiscal stimulus by most governments. But the boost from both of these factors will fade. Meanwhile, export markets in developed economies are likely to remain weak. So the recovery in Asian economies will stumble unless domestic spending, notably consumption, perks up.

Consumers’ appetite to spend varies hugely across the region. In China, India and Indonesia spending has increased by annual rates of more than 5% during the global downturn. China’s retail sales have soared by 15% over the past year. This overstates the true growth rate because it includes government purchases, but official household surveys suggest that real spending is growing at a still-impressive rate of 9%. In the year to May, sales of household electronics were up by 12%, clothing by 22% and cars by a stunning 47%.

Elsewhere in the region, spending has stumbled, squeezed by higher unemployment and lower wages. In Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea real consumer spending was 4-5% lower in the first quarter than a year earlier, a much bigger drop than in America. But Frederic Neumann, an economist at HSBC, sees tentative signs that spending is picking up. Taiwan’s retail sales rose in May for the third consecutive month. Department-store sales in South Korea rose by 5% in the year to May.

It is often argued that emerging Asian economies have large current-account surpluses—and are thus not pulling their fair weight in the world—because consumers like to save rather than spend. Yet this does not really fit the facts. During the past five years consumer spending in emerging Asia has grown by an annual average of 6.5%, much faster than in any other part of the world. It is true that consumption has fallen as a share of GDP, but that is because investment and exports have grown even faster, not because spending has been weak. Relative to American consumer spending, Asian consumption has soared (see chart 2).

In most Asian economies, private consumption is 50-60% of GDP, which is not out of line with rates in countries at similar levels of income elsewhere. China, however, is an exception. Private consumption there fell from 46% of GDP in 2000 to only 35% last year—half that in America. In dollar terms, spending is only one-sixth of that in America. (Singapore’s consumption is also low, at just under 40% of GDP.)

This explains why China’s government has recently taken bolder action than others to boost consumption. Over the past six months the government in Beijing has introduced a host of incentives to encourage households to open their wallets. Rural residents get subsidies for buying vehicles and other goods such as televisions, refrigerators, computers and mobile phones; urban residents get a subsidy if they trade in cars and home appliances for new goods; tax rates on low-emission cars have also been cut. There is huge potential for higher consumption in the countryside as incomes rise: only 30% of rural households have a refrigerator, for example, compared with virtually all urban households.

The government has also introduced several measures this year to improve the social safety net, such as spending more on health care, pensions and payments to low-income households. On June 19th it ordered all state-owned firms that had listed on the stockmarket since 2005 to transfer 10% of their shares to the National Social Security Fund to shore up its assets. The short-term impact is likely to be modest but if such measures ease households’ worries about future pensions and health care, it could in the long term encourage them to save less and spend more.

Another way to boost consumption is to make it easier to borrow. In most Asian economies household debt is less than 50% of GDP, compared with around 100% in many developed economies; in China and India it is less than 15%. South Korea is the big exception: households have as much debt relative to their income as Americans and their saving rate has fallen over the past decade from 18% of disposable income to only 4%. In many other Asian economies financing for consumer durables is virtually nonexistent. Promisingly, the Chinese bank regulator announced draft rules in May to allow domestic and foreign institutions to set up consumer-finance firms to offer personal loans for consumer-goods purchases.

These measures are a modest step in the right direction. But a bigger test of Asian governments’ resolve to shift the balance of growth from exports towards domestic spending is whether they will allow their exchange rates to rise. A revaluation would lift consumers’ real purchasing power and give firms reason to shift resources towards producing for the domestic market. But so far, policymakers have been reluctant to let currencies rise too fast.

Asian spending is already an important engine of global growth. Even before the crisis, emerging Asia’s consumer spending contributed slightly more (in absolute dollar terms) to the growth in global demand than did America’s. But it could be even bigger if Asians enjoyed the full fruits of their hard labour, rather than subsidising Western consumers through undervalued currencies. It is time for an even greater shift in spending power from the West to the East.

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