The issue is less about loosening the lockdown restrictions, and more about the long-term consequences of freezing the economy for a couple of months, particularly for the millions and millions of small businesses that didn’t have the reserves and basically died during this time period. I’m fearful this is what we’ll see soon in China—that a lot of businesses have effectively died, and we just don’t know it yet.
The only precedent that we have for this in China is what happened from 1998 to 2012, when there was a restructuring and the closing of lots of state-owned companies. During that period, about 100 million workers lost their jobs, but that case is different from what we’re seeing now.
What happened then was geographically concentrated in some of the Chinese rust belt cities. It was also demographically concentrated, in that primarily older workers lost their jobs. The current situation is different because it’s widespread and likely affects most Chinese cities. It will also be concentrated among the young and the middle-aged, but perhaps more among the young.
There was an announcement last week that they [Chinese officials] are putting in place a rescue package, but the rescue package doesn’t really address this unemployment problem and is about more infrastructure spending on 5G infrastructure, roads, etc. But that doesn’t directly address the issue of massive unemployment, and I don’t have a sense that they have really thought about it.
I don’t think there’s going to be political instability, just because of the nature of the political system. But unemployment will potentially create a huge social problem.
China has moved away from being a manufacturing hub over the past few years, for several reasons. One is the trade war that has been going on. Second is the long-term structural changes that have been taking place in the Chinese economy. Some of the most important companies in China now are nonmanufacturing companies, and very few of the most important companies are in manufacturing. The question is whether what’s happened in the past three months will just accelerate this shift away from manufacturing. The answer is yes. In terms of being a global manufacturing hub, China will play a much smaller role in the future, at least for US companies.
Could we be heading for a wave of sovereign-debt defaults?
There has been a lot of focus in the US on the two big rescue packages. The first was $1 trillion, and the second was $2 trillion. That is already 15 percent of US GDP. Now there are talks of a third rescue package.
All of the European countries have put in place, or will, their own rescue packages. The Danish government is going to subsidize 70 percent of the payroll of every single one of the small and midsize companies in Denmark. The United Kingdom is going to do something similar. Canada has done something similar. The details of the rescue packages differ, but they fundamentally involve borrowing huge sums of money. China is already starting to do exactly the same thing.
There are two questions to think about. Where exactly is that money going to come from? A country has to borrow money from somebody. Let’s put that question to the side for now.
The second thing to think about is: Who is affected by this crisis? It’s not just China, or Europe, Canada, and the US, but every country in the world. It’s Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, India. Every single country has exactly the same problem. It’s a shock that hits everybody equally.
If you think the US needs to put in place a rescue package, every other country needs to do the same thing. On the low side, India or Mexico should really be spending at least 5 percent of their GDP. If they don’t, people die. There’s no other way around it.
Now, this ties into my first question. What happens when everybody tries to borrow money at the same time? That is just an impossibility. We can only borrow money from each other. This is why what’s going on now is very different from what’s happened before.
In 2008, only some countries needed to borrow. The US needed to borrow, but China did not. At that time, China lent a lot of money to the US, but that’s not possible now.