For half a century, East Asia's economic miracle has served as a model of development worldwide. This growth model has been based on two preconditions.
On the one hand, it has rewarded countries and regions that managed to develop or benefit from competitive export industries – from Japan to the "tiger economies" (China's Taiwan and Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore), to Chinese mainland and eventually India in the 1990s.
The other precondition of the growth model has been the ability and willingness of the global economy – led by the US consumer – to absorb these exports.
The model thrived from the 1960s to the 1990s. During this period, US personal spending, adjusted for inflation, tracked the overall growth of the economy. American consumers were able and willing to buy products made in Japan, tiger economies, and Chinese mainland.
More recently, American consumers have been willing, but no longer able to buy – except by living beyond their means, subsidized by banks that are now falling apart.
That era is now history. The question is: How could export-led growth be re-ignited?
In a curious twist of history and facts, some observers argue that, like the pre-Depression United States, contemporary China should serve as the catalyst of the world economy.
During the 1920s – so the argument goes – the US exported its massive industrial overcapacity mainly to Europe, until the stock-market and banking crashes of 1929-31 undercut consumption at home and abroad. Just as foreign overconsumption had come to an end, US overproduction had to end.
Instead of engineering massive fiscal expansion to replace declining global demand, Washington hoped to create additional demand at home by discouraging Americans from buying foreign products.
As part of this strategy, the US Congress passed the notorious Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in 1930, which sharply raised the cost of foreign imports. Congress hoped to increase the trade surplus by forcing most of the adjustment in US overcapacity onto foreigners.
Naturally, other countries refused to cooperate and retaliated by erecting their own trade barriers. As international trade plummeted, the overcapacity problem was pushed back onto the US. In the absence of sufficient expansion of demand, the nation was forced to close factories and the Great Depression ensued.
Today, the roles have been reversed. Until last year – the argument concludes – US overconsumption was fed by Chinese overproduction, until the credit crisis forced US households to cut back sharply on spending. Consequently, as the nation with the largest trade surplus, China should now play the leading role in global adjustment.
It is an intriguing argument. It also conveniently shifts the responsibility for the global financial crisis from the West to the East. But is it valid?
Since the argument is that China this year is in the same position as the US in 1929, let's take a closer look at the prosperity and exports in the two periods.
The shorthand for prosperity is gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity. In 1929, it was close to $6,899 in the US. In the US' export markets (UK, France, Germany), it was significantly lower – about 60 percent to 80 percent of the US level.
If the two periods are comparable, as the argument claims, GDP per capita in China's export markets (the US, Japan, South Korea, and Germany) should be 60 percent to 80 percent lower than in China. Yet, the reality is the reverse. In 2007, China's GDP per capita was about $2,700 – about 10 percent to 20 percent of the level of its export markets.