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. 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.
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.)