Europe’s debt crisis takes toll in China as exports slow


Workers assemble one of the many car models at Chinese carmaker's Chery Automobile plant in Wuhu, east China's Anhui province on Oct. 26, 2011. (STR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
November 23, 2011

Exports are down. Some small factories have closed. Growth projections for next year have been lowered. Foreign exchange reserves have lost their value.

And in a further sign of just how badly the continuing debt crisis in the euro-zone economies is affecting China, a few economists here are even speculating that China could soon see its first trade deficit in two decades.

“The shrinking European market will definitely have an impact on China’s exports, and we should be prepared for it,” said Teng Tai, the chief economist of China Minsheng Banking. He said the falloff in demand from Europe “will be painful.”

Any slowdown in China could also be felt more widely, because of its role in recent years as a principal engine of global economic growth.

China sends one-fifth of its exports to the European Union, and Bert Hofman, the World Bank’s chief economist for the region, said the slowdown was hitting every sector “from toys to flat-screens,” with a particular effect on the electronics industry. In Dongguan, in export-heavy Guangdong province in southern China, some 450 small and medium-size companies have closed in the past 10 months, mostly firms making clothing and toys, as export orders have shrunk.

Some businessmen and economists said the latest global slowdown would accelerate China’s switch from an economy dependent on exports to one fueled by domestic consumption.

China continues to run a trade surplus, expected to be about $150 billion this year. But that surplus has declined for three years running, and the slide of exports to Europe, combined with continuing weak demand from the United States, has at least some economists here warning about a sharper slide that might even lead to a trade deficit, something recently considered unthinkable.

A World Bank report this week on the East Asian and Pacific economy lowered the growth forecast for China to 9.1 percent this year and 8.4 percent for 2012, mainly because of the concern about the debt problems in Europe. Although far healthier than growth rates in the West, that is lower than the bank had previously forecast and reflects a slowdown from 2010, when the economy grew at 10.4 percent.

A broad range of Chinese officials, economists and businessmen say Europe’s financial problems have already had a contagion effect here in the world’s second-largest economy and around the Asian region, affecting not only exports but also capital flows and the value of foreign exchange reserves.

“We can’t rule out the possibility of a trade deficit next year,” Xia Bin, a member of the Central Bank committee on monetary policy, said in remarks to the Reuters news agency on Tuesday that were widely reported in China.

The Agricultural Bank of China said in a report released Monday that China’s year-on-year export growth to the E.U. has fallen into single digits — 9.8 percent in September and 7.5 percent in October. Those figures were substantially down from the 22.3 percent year-on-year growth in August.

The euro-zone crisis has also brought a decline in the amount of foreign capital flowing into China. According to the Agricultural Bank of China, which cited government statistics, investment in China from the 27 E.U. countries rose 1.05 percent in the period from January to October this year, a huge drop from the 10.71 percent increase in 2010. Also, the bank said, because of the depreciation of the euro against the dollar, China’s foreign exchange reserves lost $87.9 billion in value.

China’s capital markets, including its stock markets, are essentially closed and thus not subjected to huge turbulence from foreign investors withdrawing. But economists said they still feared a loss of domestic confidence among investors who might run scared because of the global downturn, withdrawing funds from banks and causing a liquidity crisis here.

The huge and real-time euro hit to China’s economy partly explains the reluctance of Beijing’s leaders to engage with critics, including the Obama administration, urging a faster appreciation of the Chinese currency, the renminbi, also known as the yuan. The yuan has already appreciated about 10 percent against the U.S. dollar since Beijing’s currency managers resumed a gradual, managed float in June 2010.

The rising currency, increasing wage demands and the dramatic slowdown in orders from Europe and the United States have created what Chinese exporters call a triple whammy that is threatening their livelihoods.

Businesspeople and others said the situation appears even worse than the contraction that followed the global economic recession of 2008, because then the central government in Beijing immediately stepped in with a two-year, $586 billion fiscal stimulus package that began March 2009.

“The one thing that we can be certain of, among all the uncertainties, is that the global economic recession caused by the international financial crisis will be chronic,” said Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan, quoted by the state-run Xinhua News Agency. “As for our country, which relies highly on external demands, we must see the situation clearly and get our own business done.”

Beijing’s leadership has said there will be no stimulus this time. The stimulus in 2009 and 2010 is credited with insulating China’s economy from the worst effects of the Great Recession, but it also caused problems such as excess liquidity and a huge debt burden on local governments and state enterprises. Chinese leaders are now more concerned about reining in rising inflation and are trying to engineer a “soft landing” for the economy.

Ma Jun, the sales manager of a toy factory in Dongguan, said his factory has already made the transformation to greater dependence on the domestic market. The factory used to export most of its stuffed toys to Europe, but there were constant fluctuations in the exchange rate, and the 2008 recession brought a sharp drop-off in demand. Now, he said, 60 to 70 percent of the toys it sells are for the domestic Chinese market, with 30 to 40 percent going to Europe.

But the shift came only after the factory downsized its workforce from 600 to 100, expanded its design team, registered its trademarks in China and worked to build a domestic market. Also, profits are about a tenth of what they were before.

“It’s hard to develop a domestic market, since the demand is weak. But on their other hand, there’s less risk,” Ma Jun said. “It’s the price we have to pay, because this is the only way for us to survive.”

That’s the path the central government in Beijing would like other Chinese exporters to follow. But the transformation will take time.

“That is a long-term trajectory,” said Hofman, the World Bank economist. “China wants to become less dependent on exports. China wants to become less dependent on investment.’’ But, he added, “that requires a dramatic shift.”

Researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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