In the past few months, the market focus has been on the Federal Reserve’s exit strategy and the slowdown of China’s economic growth. Regarding the latter one, the world-second largest economy grew at 7.4% in the first quarter, a level significantly below the double-digit growth many years ago and the 7.7% growth last year.
Since the country has set a target of 7.5% economic expansion for 2014, the below-expectation performance triggered further concern about its growth momentum. In response to that, China’s State Council, the government’s executive body, unveiled a stimulus package in early April to boost growth, including additional spending on railways, upgraded housing for low-income households, and tax relief for small businesses.
Although the package is considered as a mini one compared to the four trillion yuan ($650 billion) program rolled out in late 2008 amid the global financial crisis, it would still impact its overall economy in many ways.
Stimulus 1: Additional Spending on Railways
The government would further develop infrastructure through accelerated railway construction, particularly in the nation’s central and western regions, and more aggressive financing. Some operations in the public interest would be subsidized and 150 billion yuan ($24.6 billion) in bonds would be offered by the government to finance construction for the railways. Relatively, the stock prices of companies in the railway sector rallied, as shares of China Railway Group surged 5.1% and China Railway Construction Corporation’s shares jumped 7.2%.
Personally, I think the spending will have a double-sided effect. Positively, tremendous infrastructure construction will boost growth effectively, and the emphasis on development in the central and western region will lead to more balanced economic landscape across the country. Negatively, as China is undergoing a significant transition from being overly dependent on investments and exports to relying more on domestic consumption, the massive government-led investment project might impede structural reform, and the increasing credit along with financing might pose additional risk in the credit market.
Stimulus 2: Upgraded Housing for Low-Income Households
The government would also spend more on slum clearance and upgrade of poorer urban areas. It added that the China Development Bank, a lender for key government policy projects, would set up a special arm to issue bonds to support new homes.
In my view, this measure could be a complement to the railway construction because of its focus on ordinary people’s well-being. It is a tradition that Chinese people care a lot about their housing and treat it as one of the most important measures of their living standard. If the housing upgrade can be implemented effectively, it could ease social instability and stimulate domestic consumption in the mid- to long-run.
Stimulus 3: Tax Relief for Small Businesses
The government would extend existing tax breaks to small businesses until the end of 2016 and raise the threshold for taxing smaller businesses, which have been struggling as economic growth slows.
I do believe that small businesses will benefit from decreasing tax burden, but this measure might not address their problem radically, which is largely due to the lack of financing. State-owned banks mainly offer loans to large, state-owned enterprises, putting small and medium businesses in a significant disadvantage in market competition. So in addition to regulating state-owned banks, the incorporation of private capital for lending and in-depth financial reform is also indispensable.
In conclusion, as the market force is set to play a fundamental role in the overall economy, it is the quality rather than the quantity of growth that should be strengthened. Therefore, the new leadership should be committed to structural reform with emphasis on wealth increases of ordinary people so as to unleash domestic consumption and underpin growth stability.