In today's issue of the Financial Times, there's a remarkably blunt warning that "Rising wages will burst China's bubble." True, China has enjoyed strong growth while most of the rest of the world has endured deep depressions. But don't be fooled by such superficial measures. On the question that really counts, China is in trouble: "The Shanghai market is at less than half its all-time high, significantly underperforming the other three members of the Bric group."
Like Japan in the immediate postwar period, the piece argues, China has so far seen "workers flooding into the cities from the countryside, depressing wages and setting off a virtuous cycle of rising profitability and rising investment. In the mid-1950s, Japanese labour had taken 60 percent of total value added. in the miracle years, this ratio fell to 50 percent." Miraculous indeed -- but alas, it couldn't last. By 1980, the labor share "had soared to a plateau of 68 percent. These gains had to be fought for. In the 1970s, Japan's now dormant union movement was in its heyday. Profit margins were squeezed, and in real terms the stock market went nowhere for a decade." Oh noes! And despite seemingly abundant reserves of cheap labor, the same disaster could befall China. "Can workers grab a larger share of the economic pie before the urbanization process is complete? In Japan they did. ... If China were to follow Japan, the next stage would be labour strife and inflation. The best way to avoid that outcome would be a radical tightening of the current super-easy monetary policy. But that would risk a serious slowdown and probably necessitate a large revaluation of the renminbi."
So there it is. The important question about China's future is the value of financial assets. And the great threat to asset-owners is the likelihood of rising wages, which will come about through increasing organizing among Chinese workers. The only way to prevent that is pre-emptive tightening, even at the cost of slower growth. The case for austerity is seldom made that bluntly, certainly not for the rich countries, but I don't think the underlying motivation is much different. It's also noteworthy that big revaluation of the renminbi is presented here explicitly as part of a program to hold down Chinese wages. In other words, China faces a choice between higher wages and a higher currency. To China-competing firms and workers in the rest of the world, either would be just as welcome. But for masters of the universe with Chinese stocks in their portfolio, they look very different indeed.
(Incidentally, these questions -- the relationship between profitability, investment, demand, inflation and the politically-determined division of output between labor and capital -- are largely ignored by mainstream macro, saltwater as well as fresh, but are right at the center of structuralist, Marxist, post-Keynesian and other heterodox approaches to macroeconomics. If only there were some economics department interested in supporting those approaches.)
EDIT: There was a link on a Something Awful thread sometime around March 20 that's sending a lot of traffic to this post. Unfortunately, not being an SA member, I can't see the thread. Anyone want to tell me what it was, in comments?