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China is biggest threat to global economy right now, says Harvard professor

Eminent economist Ken Rogoff rubbishes claims that China is a 'special case' and would be able to defy the gloomy outlook as it economy slows.

Ben Chapman
Monday 26 September 2016 11:31 BST

The biggest threat to the global economy is not Brexit, but an impending crash in China, according to one of the world’s most eminent economists.

Speaking to the BBC, Harvard professor, Ken Rogoff warned that China was facing a “pretty sharp landing already” after years of rapid economic growth. The real picture is much worse than the official one, Rogoff said. “I worry about China becoming more of a problem,” he said.

The economist rubbished claims that China is a special case and would therefore be able to defy the gloomy projections. “Everyone says China's different, the state owns everything they can control it. Only to a point. It's definitely a worry, a hard landing in China,” Rogoff said.

Chinese growth has been taken for granted, he said, with the world pinning its hopes on the country to prop up a moribund global economy, that has witnessed anemic growth in recent years, most notably in Europe and Japan.

“We've taken it for granted that whatever Europe's doing, Japan's doing - at least China's moving along and there isn't really a substitute for China.

“I think India may come along some day but it's fallen so far behind in size it's not going to compensate.”

“The IMF has marked down its forecasts of global growth nine years in a row and certainly the rumour is they're about to do it again,” he said.

He added that China is going through a “big political revolution”. Beijing has campaigned to tackle corruption and also to move from a focus on manufacturing goods cheaply to a more typically middle-income economy, driven to a greater extent by consumer spending.

Rogoff pointed to other dangers in the world including whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would be the next US president.

Should Trump be victorious in November, his actions cannot be predicted by commentators, Rogoff said, while a victorious Clinton may find her plans for infrastructure spending are blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Rogoff said he was nervous about the uncertainty around the election, and particularly the prospect of a Trump vicotry, adding that watching the election had been “painful” for economists because of the protectionist policies of both candidates.

Several international bodies have expressed concern about a Chinese slowdown in recent weeks. IMF expects China's GDP (gross domestic product) to grow by 6.6 percent this year.

The Bank for International Settlements - a global organisation of central banks - released data last week showing the risk of a catastrophic Chinese banking crisis is, by one measure, at its highest ever level.

The BIS said that China's credit-to-GDP gap now stands at 30.1%, a figure the Bank of England described as “very high”. In fact it is the highest for any country since data was collected in 1995, suggesting an unsustainable credit bubble.

Any crash could have ripple effects the world over. British banks have $530bn wirth of lending and investment in China, or 16 per cent of all foreign assets they own.

Central bank warning

Rogoff also took aim at central bankers, including Mark Carney, warning them of the limits of their capabilities. Monetary policy is “not a panacea,“ he said.

“It is a little bit the fault of central bankers for allowing themselves to take too much credit when things are good, and [then] getting blamed too much when things are bad.

“But monetary policy doesn't make an ageing economy young, it doesn't make an economy which is having little innovation suddenly innovate, it doesn't make an economy with a Zombie banking sector somehow miraculously healthy.

“I have a concern about monetary policy at the moment - that it is being asked to take on roles that it's not built for. It is being asked to do helicopter money where you just print money and hand it out to people.

“In Europe, central banks are buying up a significant proportion of the corporate debt market - that's what you do in China, in India, they're doing that in Japan also.

“There are all sorts of other pressures and I worry in the long run that central banks are losing their independence.”

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