Unlucky numbersBy David Pilling 2009-02-12
Pick a number, any number. For Asia, they are all likely to be bad. Lau Wong-fat, the unfortunate Hong Kong official designated to select a fortune-telling stick on the city's behalf during recent lunar new year celebrations, plucked out the number 27, seen by those present as the unluckiest possible omen for the year. A fortune teller at Che Kung temple, shrouded in incense and consulting the heavens for inspiration, declared it meant Hong Kong could not isolate itself from global economic turmoil.
But no such master of divination was needed. Not only Hong Kong, which as a port city and financial centre thrives on its openness to fast-dwindling world trade, but the whole of Asia is in trouble. All over the region, particularly in manufacturing-heavy south-east and north-east Asia, government statisticians have been summoning up evil-eye numbers of their own.
One of the worst came from Japan, whose conservative banks had been slow to buy toxic assets, making the economy seemingly less threatened by recession. That illusion ended when statistics showed that exports had fallen a shocking 35 per cent in December from a year earlier as demand for cars, electronics and precision equipment collapsed around the world.
That was followed by a stream of further bad data including a nearly 10 per cent month-on-month drop in industrial production, a sharp rise in unemployment to 4.4 per cent (see below) and a fall in headline inflation that suggests a return to deflation is just around the corner. So sharp has been the deterioration that the International Monetary Fund has forecast a contraction in gross domestic product of 2.6 per cent this year, suggesting Japan could fare even worse than the US, the origin of the credit crisis.
Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan vie with Japan for the swiftest downturn. Singapore, the canary in the coalmine of global trade because of its open economy, could contract by up to 5 per cent this year in what would be the deepest recession since the city-state's birth in 1965. The IMF is predicting a 4 per cent contraction in South Korea, though the government in Seoul is sticking much more optimistic.
Nor is China, an economy that is at least expected to grow by a respectable 6-8 per cent this year, immune from heart-stopping statistics. Last week, the government estimated that no fewer than 20m rural migrant workers, 15 per cent of the total, had lost their jobs as export-oriented factories shut their gates. Blue skies in Hong Kong are testimony to the closure of polluting plants across the border in the Pearl River delta.
The speed and ferocity of Asia's downturn has taken aback even the pessimists. “Whilst Asia was not the epicentre of the crisis it has been hit hard,” said Dominique Strauss-Kahn, IMF managing director, last week. His organisation expects regional growth of just 2.7 per cent, a fraction of the 9 per cent achieved in 2007 and a percentage point lower even than it managed during its own financial crisis a decade ago. That crisis was largely self- inflicted, the product of an overdependence on fickle flows of foreign finance. This time, the region's balance sheets are in better shape and the crisis began elsewhere. So why does Asia appear set for an even harder fall?
The short answer is trade. As Mr Strauss-Kahn says, Asia is more intimately bound to the global economy than it was a decade ago. The region has grown spectacularly on the back of exports but the “bad side of the coin” is that this makes it more vulnerable now. At the time of the previous crisis, exports accounted for 37 per cent of developing Asia's output, according to economists at Morgan Stanley. A decade later, that had risen to 47 per cent as governments sought to build large foreign currency reserves to protect themselves against the current-account shocks that had floored them before. The upshot was that Asia swapped dependence on external financing for dependence on external demand.
This matters hugely for a world that, until just a few months ago, had assumed that the financial crisis jolting the west would somehow pass Asia by. A corollary of that flawed assumption was that China – and to a lesser extent Japan and India – could somehow shoulder the global economic burden by substituting for fast-disappearing US and European demand. That hope ignored the fact that, with the exception of Japan, no Asian economy yet possesses anything like the scale to play such a role. But, more important, it missed the point of how entrenched Asia's export-dependent model is and how difficult it will be to convert its economies into ones powered by domestic demand. As N.K. Singh, a member of India's parliament, says: “It is not just a matter of hey presto.”
Indeed not. Cem Karacadag of Credit Suisse calculates that exports, net of their import content, account for as much as two-thirds of GDP in Hong Kong and Singapore, almost half of the output of Malaysia and Thailand and one-third for South Korea and Taiwan. He says the initial impact of a 10 per cent fall in exports – without taking into account secondary effects, including inevitable job losses and a fall in consumer sentiment – would cut 2 percentage points off growth in South Korea and Taiwan and leave Hong Kong and Singapore each 7 percentage points worse off.
Jong Wha-Lee of the Asian Development Bank says a sharp rise over recent years in intra-regional trade disguises the fact that 60 per cent of final demand for Asian goods comes from developed countries. As western consumers postpone purchases, a lot of intra-Asian trade – much of it components, inputs and capital equipment – has also evaporated. As if this were not bad enough, economies that rely on tourism are receiving an additional body blow as visitor numbers fall. Tourism makes up 5-7 per cent of GDP in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Moreover, if employment of foreign workers in the Gulf and elsewhere falls as fast as expected, then remittance-dependent countries from the Philippines to parts of India are also in for a shock.
At the other end of the development scale, Japan is undergoing factory closures as companies slide into the red. Toyota, the leading car manufacturer, has warned amid collapsing US sales that it would make an operating loss of Y450bn ($5bn, €3.8bn, £3.2bn) this year, its first since 1950. Just a few months ago it was predicting a Y600bn profit.
In China, the slowdown contrasts with breakneck 13 per cent growth in 2007. There are tentative signs – including a sharp recovery in bank lending – that growth, which slowed to 6.8 per cent in the fourth quarter, may have hit bottom as a barrage of government stimulus measures begins to take effect. Beijing was fairly quick to recognise the severity of the slowdown, announcing as early as November a Rmb4,000bn ($585bn, €447bn, £390bn) stimulus package. Many other governments are still playing catch-up. Last week, Australia became the latest to formulate a big stimulus package, announcing A$42bn ($29bn, €22bn, £19bn) in extra spending. Japan, whose deadlocked parliament is fighting over stimulus measures, has come up with a string of unorthodox actions, including the central bank's decision last week to buy up to Y1,000bn of shares owned by banks.
Even if such moves help dull the pain of the external demand shock, the bigger worry is what comes next. Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University, argues that China (and others) will have to engineer a massive rebalancing of their economies towards domestic-led growth if they are to adjust to a world in which US consumers must rebuild depleted savings.
“In the best possible world, Chinese consumption would rise by exactly the same amount as US consumption drops,” he says. But given that the US economy is more than three times the size of China's, the magnitude of such an adjustment is likely to be beyond it.
“There is no longer any choice for Asia,” concurs Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute who warned for years that global imbalances were unsustainable. “Asia has to start consuming more but I am not sure that the Asian leaders I have been speaking to get it,” he says, adding that this would require changes to credit provision, tax incentives and regulation. “The export-led model has outlived its usefulness.”
If Mr Prestowitz is right, the global crisis means more than a cyclical shock to Asian economies. Rather it signifies the start of a profound – and no doubt painful – transformation as they adjust to a world in which the US consumer is no longer the buyer of last resort. Whether Asian economies are up to that long-term challenge is something on which fortune tellers might usefully comment.
请选择一个数字，任意一个数字。对于亚洲而言，任何一个数字可能都很糟糕。在不久前的农历新年庆祝活动中，倒霉的香港官员刘皇发(Lau Wong-fat)被指派到车公庙(Che Kung Temple)为香港求签。他抽到了第27号签，在场的人都将这支签视为今年最不吉利的兆头。烟雾缭绕中，向神灵祈求启示的一位算命师傅宣称，这示意香港 将不可能免受全球经济动荡的影响。
甚至连悲观主义者也对亚洲经济下滑的速度和猛烈程度感到吃惊。IMF总裁多米尼克•斯特劳斯-卡恩(Dominique Strauss-Kahn)上周表示：“尽管亚洲并非危机的核心地区，但仍遭受了严重打击。”IMF预计，该地区经济增长率将仅为2.7%，远低于 2007年的9%，甚至较10年前亚洲金融危机期间的水平还低了一个百分点。上一次危机在很大程度上是自我造成的，是对变化无常的外资流动过于依赖的后 果。而这次，整个地区的资产负债状况更好，且危机源自他方。那么，为何亚洲似乎将陷入一场更为严重的衰退呢？
简言之，是由于贸易。如斯特劳斯-卡恩所言，与10年前相比，亚洲与全球经济更为紧密地捆绑在了一起。该地区依靠出口实现了惊人的增长，但“问题的 另一面”是，这使亚洲如今更容易受到冲击。摩根士丹利(Morgan Stanley)经济学家表示，上一轮危机期间，出口占亚洲发展中地区产出的37%。10年后，由于各国政府努力构建庞大的外汇储备，以保护自己免受曾经 来袭过的经常账户冲击，这一比例已升至47%。其结果是，亚洲从依赖外资转变为了依赖外需。
对于当今世界而言，这一点至关重要——就在数月前，世人还以为，亚洲多少能躲开西方世界目前遭受的金融危机。这种存在缺陷的假设产生了一个推论：即 中国——其次还有日本和印度——能通过填补迅速消逝的美国和欧洲需求，在一定程度上承担起全球经济重担。这种愿望忽视了以下事实：除了日本，亚洲目前没有 哪个经济体拥有如此规模，来扮演上述角色。但更重要的是，它忽略了亚洲出口型经济模式根深蒂固的程度，以及将其经济转为由内需推动的难度。正如印度议员 N•K•辛格(N.K. Singh)所言：“这不可能一蹴而就。”
的确不是。瑞士信贷(Credit Suisse)的杰姆•卡拉贾德(Cem Karacadag)估计，香港和新加坡的净进口部分占国内生产总值的比例高达三分之二，在马来西亚和泰国，这一比例将近二分之一，而韩国和台湾为三分之 一。他表示，出口下滑10%的初始影响——不考虑不可避免的失业和消费者信心下降等次级效应，——将使韩国和台湾的经济增长分别下降2个百分点，而对香港 和新加坡的影响为7个百分点。
亚洲开发银行(Asian Development Bank)的李金沃(Jong Wha-Lee)表示，近年来地区内部贸易的大幅攀升，掩盖了这样一个事实：亚洲商品最终需求的60%都来自发达国家。随着西方消费者推迟了消费，大量亚 洲内部贸易——大量组成部分、投入和资本设备——也随之缩水。好象这还不够糟糕似的，随着游客数量下降，依赖旅游业的经济体也遭到了另一重打击。旅游业占 香港、马来西亚、新加坡和泰国国内生产总值的5%至7%。此外，如果海湾及其它地区外籍劳工的就业下降速度像预期的那样快，那么从菲律宾到印度等许多依赖 劳工汇款的国家也将遭受冲击。
在中国，经济减速与2007年高达13%的增长形成了鲜明对比。一些暂时的迹象——包括银行放贷急速回升——显示，随着政府密集的刺激措施开始见 效，去年第四季度降至6.8%的经济增长可能已触底。北京方面很快意识到了经济下滑的严重程度，早在去年11月就宣布出台4万亿元人民币的财政刺激方案。 其它许多政府仍在争相效仿。上周，澳大利亚成为最新一个出台大规模刺激方案的国家，宣布额外支出420亿澳元（合290亿美元）。日本陷入僵局的议会正就 刺激措施进行辩论，拿出了一系列非常规的措施，包括央行上周决定购入至多1万亿日元的银行持股。
即使这些举动有助于缓解外需冲击的痛苦，更让人忧虑的问题还在后面。北京大学金融系教授迈克尔•佩蒂斯(Michael Pettis)认为，如果中国（和其它国家）想要适应美国消费者必须重建已枯竭的储蓄这样一种现实，它们将必须进行大规模的经济调整，转向由内需拉动增长 的模式。
“亚洲不再有任何选择，”美国经济战略研究所(Economic Strategy Institute)所长克莱德•普列斯多维兹( Clyde Prestowitz)对此表示同意。他多年来一直警告称，全球失衡是不可持续的。“亚洲必须要开始增加消费，但我不确定我一直在忠告的亚洲领导人是否明 白这一点，”他补充称，这要求对信贷发放、税收优惠和监管都进行变革。“出口导向型经济模式已经不管用了。”
如果普列斯多维兹是对的，那么全球危机对于亚洲经济而言，将不仅意味着一次周期性打击。而是表明，当美国消费者不再是最后的买家，而亚洲各经济体开 始针对这种情况进行调整之际，它们将开始一场意义深远——同时无疑令人痛苦——的转型。亚洲经济能否战胜这一长期挑战，算命大师们或许可以发表些有用的评 论。