What China’s Economic Woes May Mean for the U.S.

on Aug27
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The news about China’s economy over the past few weeks has been daunting, to put it mildly.

The country’s growth has fallen from its usual brisk 8 percent annual pace to more like 3 percent. Real estate companies are imploding after a decade of overbuilding. And China’s citizens, frustrated by lengthy coronavirus lockdowns and losing confidence in the government, haven’t been able to consume their way out of the country’s pandemic-era malaise.

If the world’s second-largest economy is stumbling so badly, what does that mean for the biggest?

Short answer: At the moment, the implications for the United States are probably minor, given China’s limited role as a customer for American goods and the minor connections between the countries’ financial systems.

In a note published Thursday, Wells Fargo simulated a “hard landing” scenario for China in which output over the next three years would be 12.5 percent smaller than previous growth rates would achieve — similar to the impact of a slump from 1989 to 1991. Even under those conditions, the U.S. economy would shave only 0.1 percent off its inflation-adjusted growth in 2024, and 0.2 percent in 2025.

That could change, however, if China’s current shakiness deepens into a collapse that drags down an already slowing global economy.

“It doesn’t necessarily help things, but I don’t think it’s a major factor in determining the outlook in the next six months,” Neil Shearing, the chief economist at Capital Economics Group, an analysis and consulting firm, said in a recent webinar. “Unless the outlook for China becomes substantially worse.”

When considering the economic relationship between the two countries, it’s important to recognize that the United States has played some role in China’s troubles.

The United States is well past a boom in consumption during the pandemic that pulled in $536.8 billion worth of imports from China in 2022. This year, with home offices and patios stuffed full of furniture and electronics, Americans are spending their money on cruises and Taylor Swift tickets instead. That lowers demand for goods from Chinese factories — which had already been weakened by a swath of tariffs that former President Donald J. Trump started and the Biden administration has largely kept in place.

That’s why some are concerned that China could again fall back on encouraging exports to foster growth. Such a strategy might succeed since the Chinese currency, the renminbi, is very weak against the dollar, and it’s possible to evade tariffs on most items by assembling Chinese parts in other countries — like Vietnam and Mexico.

An export surge would have countervailing effects. It could lower prices for consumer goods, which — along with falling Chinese demand for commodities like gasoline and iron ore — would help lower inflation in the United States. At the same time, it could counteract efforts to resuscitate American manufacturing, raising the political temperature as the presidential election approaches.

“My fear is that an export-based Chinese recovery will run up against a world that is reluctant to become ever more dependent on China for manufactures, and that becomes a source of tension,” said Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And what about goods flowing the other way, from the United States to China? It’s not a huge volume — China accounted for only 7.5 percent of U.S. exports in 2022. American businesses have long sought to further develop the Chinese market, especially for agricultural products such as pork and rice, but success has been underwhelming. In 2018, the Trump administration negotiated a compact under which China would buy billions more dollars in products from U.S. farmers.

Those targets were never met. With appetite fading in China, they may never be. That could mean lower food prices globally, but farmers would be hurt.

One thing to keep in mind: While China appears to be going through a rough patch, the outlook is uncertain. There’s a debate in think-tank circles about whether the country’s economic structure will be durable over the longer term or fundamentally unsound.

Heiwai Tang, an economics professor at HKU Business School in Hong Kong, said it would be unwise to consider China the next Japan, on the brink of prolonged stagnation.

“I remain optimistic that the government is still very agile and should be responsive to a potential crisis,” Dr. Tang said. “They know what to do. It’s just a matter of time before they come to some kind of consensus to do something.”

Ana Swanson and Jason Karaian contributed reporting.



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