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9.18.2009 Recovery Picks Up in China as U.S. Still Ails


WUXI, China — Just eight months ago, thousands of Chinese workers rioted outside factories closed by the global downturn.

Now many of those plants have reopened and are hiring again. Some executives are even struggling to find enough temporary staff to fill Christmas orders.

The image of laid-off workers here returning to jobs stands in sharp contrast to the United States, where even as the economy shows signs of improvement, the unemployment rate continues to march toward double digits.

In China, even the hardest-hit factories — those depending on exports to the United States and Europe — are starting to rehire workers. No one here is talking about a jobless recovery.

Even the real estate market is picking up. In this industrial town 90 miles northwest of Shanghai, prospective investors lined up one recent Saturday to buy apartments in the still-unfinished Rose Avenue complex. Many of them slept outside the sales office all night.

“The whole country’s economy is back on track,” said Shi Yingyi, a 34-year-old housewife who joined the throng. “I feel more confident now.”

The confidence stems from China’s three-pronged effort — a combination of stimulus, liberal bank lending and broad government support for exports.

The Chinese central bank said the country’s economy surged at an annualized rate of 14.9 percent in the second quarter. The United States economy shrank at an annual rate of 1 percent in that period.

“So often China and the U.S. are mixed together as being in the same situation, and that is totally wrong,” said Xu Xiaonian, an economist in Beijing with the China Europe International Business School.

That does not mean the two nations are not connected, of course. China’s rebound in growth may slow if the American economy does not pick up. China needs the United States to buy its goods, and the United States needs China to continue to buy its debt.

This mutual dependence makes it harder for either country to let the current dispute over Chinese tires and American chicken and auto parts to grow into a trade war.

But with more economic planning than the United States, China has been able to disburse its stimulus much faster, turning it into new rail lines and highways.

China’s finance ministry announced in late June that half the $173 billion in central government spending had already been allocated to specific projects. The White House said in early July that a quarter of the spending authority and tax cuts in the $789 billion American stimulus had been allocated or used.

But even more key to China’s recovery, economists say, are two other government efforts that are paying big dividends: looser lending and export supports.

The state-controlled banking system here — which breezed through the global financial crisis with minimal losses as American financial institutions reeled — unleashed $1.2 trillion in extra lending to Chinese consumers and businesses in the first seven months of this year. That money is financing everything from a boom in car sales, up 82 percent in August from a year earlier, to frenzied factory construction.

Beijing also has given huge tax breaks and other assistance to exporters. They include placing broad restrictions on imports and intervening heavily in currency markets to hold down the value of the renminbi, to keep Chinese exports competitive even in a weakened global economy.

Indeed, subsidies abound at all levels of government: the Wuxi municipal government just offered up to $146,000 to each local business that increases exports in the last three months of this year.

To be sure, not all the laid off workers throughout China have been hired back.

“Some plants reduced worker numbers by 20 to 30 percent, now they hire back 10 percent,” said Stanley Lau, deputy chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, which represents export-oriented factories employing 10 million Chinese workers.

Even so, American trade data shows that imports from China only eroded 14.2 percent in the first seven months of this year while imports from the rest of the world plunged 32.6 percent. China’s trade surplus, already the world’s largest, was $108 billion for the seven-month period.

“We definitely see an upswing in sales orders in the second half of this year when compared to the first half,” said Gu Fung, the sales manager at the Wuxi Baolai Batteries Company.

China’s well-capitalized banking system allowed for rapid investment.

Chinese banks came into the crisis with enormous excess reserves, the result of three years of tight regulatory limits on lending to prevent the economy from overheating. When those limits were removed, and authorities urged bank executives to lend, the total value of loans outstanding shot up more in the first seven months of this year than in the previous 24 months.

By contrast, total loans and leases outstanding at financial institutions insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation actually fell $249 billion, or 3.2 percent, in the first half of this year.

Though Washington has used taxpayer money to bail out American banks, it does not have Beijing’s power to force banks to lend that money to businesses and consumers.

As much as a third of the extra bank lending in China appears to have gone into real estate and stock market speculation. But the bulk has gone into investments by companies and local governments, with tangible results.

China’s currency and trade policies, though highly effective, would be hard for the United States to emulate.

For instance, government intervention in currency markets has prevented the renminbi from moving appreciably against the dollar in more than 14 months, and has pushed the renminbi down by 18 percent against the euro since March.

Government agencies have been told not to buy imported goods with money from economic stimulus programs unless no domestic alternative is available. Washington has imposed a less restrictive rule, misleadingly known as “Buy American,” requiring that construction materials for the stimulus program be bought from any of the 39 countries that have agreed to free trade in government procurement — which China has not.

Still, China’s stimulus efforts could be sowing the seeds of future distress. With so much money washing into the system so fast, regulators have voiced concerns about corruption in government investment projects.

Cheap cash has a way of inflating bubbles — just ask Wall Street — that could damage China’s economy and its banks when they pop.

“You have to imagine the rigor and due diligence” that mainland banks have been showing in rushing out so many loans, said Benjamin Hung, the chief executive of the Hong Kong unit of Standard Chartered Bank.

But such concerns are so 2008.