Saturday, October 15, 2011

Can China become a Consumer-economy quickly?

It would hasten the reorientation of China’s economy from exports to consumer spending, give its central bank more freedom to fight inflation, and divert demand to depressed Europe and America, catalysing an essential rebalancing of the global economy.
I contend that it is not easy to create a domestic-demand focussed economy or consumer economy as we call it. In my June 2009 post titled "China domestic demand and other notes", I explained:
Creating domestic markets is not easy and does not simply happen by throwing capital. Domestic tastes and preferences, as we see in India, are lot different than we anticipated. Same logic should hold for China. It is easier to customize goods (and services like restaurant services) are easy to manage – but inflexible goods (capital goods e.g.) take long time. The changes cascade from consumer side till they reach the top end. Examples:
  1. A large part of textile industry may be geared to service cotton clothes – whereas Chinese might prefer silk. (OK I simplified it a bit too much)  
  2. You take milk, some producers added some hormones to aid milk production. Resulting milk was not safe for children. Now we need institutions, legal, regulatory etc that create a feedback system to discover and curb such practices. These complex frameworks anchors in democratic setup – leading us to political minefield.
If someone clarified the entrepreneurial scene – we may actually get better clues about domestic demand. Large entrepreneurial pool backed by venture funds experimenting with products and distribution is the best way to create (and an indicator for thriving or potentially thriving) domestic market.
The easiest part of domestic demand stimulus is to allow top brands to enter the domestic market and give them some price leeway through currency appreciation. Louis Vitton bags, Chanel perfumes etc will kick start domestic consumption faster.
What is a consumer economy?
I must reiterate that consumer-economy is not a simple concept. It represents a system with various parts    many contradicting the political climate in China.

Principle of Choice: Consumer economy is under-pinned by a principle of choice. The consumers get choice and their choosing creates a feedback loop that allows such preferences to be incorporated into national manufacturing and service capacities. Let me give and example.
Imagine a population that fancies, say, sour cream flavoured potato chips, but without any chips manufacturing capacity it does not yet know of it. Manufacturers must experiment with various flavours and then, by trial and error, or through research, arrive at this conclusion. This implies a cycle of investment in various flavours which gets wasted, stock outs of preferred flavours and large inventories of less preferred ones etc.

Principle of Consumer orientation: A consumer economy must necessarily be consumer oriented. I am sure you have noted the pun but people often forget this. Existence of choice necessitates competition and, hopefully, benefit of the consumer rises to the top of priority list. This seemingly simple mechanism is very difficult to implement. Milk producers can collude in using hormones or additives that may be detrimental to consumers and rival producers should feel free to expose such practices rather than cower and join forces with them.

Institutions of dispute resolution: A mechanism of choice and consumer orientation, as discussed above, leads to disputes and conflicts. A system of institution is required for resolution. Independent courts and free press are part of such institutions.

Political implications
Thus we observe the congruence between democratic principles in political systems and consumer orientation in economic systems. Both these systems feed off each other and reinforce each other. In the democratic world, we almost take this congruence for granted. It is this congruence that is critical problem for Chinese authorities. Therefore I don't believe the process of reorienting China into a consumer economy is going to be easy without corresponding political reform. But we can always wait and watch, I will be happy to be proven wrong.