FlyTitle: The post-virus economy

But not back to normal

但并未复常【新冠报道】

经济学人双语版-复工 Back to work

IN GOOD TIMES Gu Changshi’s job is to persuade companies to invest in Lingang, a wind-swept free-trade zone on the edge of Shanghai, abutting the Pacific Ocean. But over the past two months, as China has battled covid-19, his job has been to ensure basic survival, both physical and corporate. First his agency requisitioned two hotels to quarantine anyone coming to Lingang from virus-hit regions. Then it started offering conditional cash grants to beleaguered companies located there. “There is no fixed limit to the subsidies,” he says, his hands spreading wide.

年景好的时候,顾长石的工作是说服各种企业投资临港,这个海风吹拂的自由贸易区位于上海的边缘,毗邻太平洋。但过去的两个月中,中国一直在抗击新冠肺炎,他的任务变成了保证人员和公司的基本生存。他任职的机构先是征用了两家酒店,用于隔离任何从疫区来到临港的人,然后开始向自贸区内陷入困境的公司提供有条件的现金补助。“补贴没有固定的限额。”他张开双手比划着说。

When China went into lockdown in late January, economists thought that its growth trajectory would be V-shaped. There would be a sharp slowdown, followed by a swift rebound as soon as the virus was under control, as happened with China’s outbreak of SARS in 2003. They were right about the slowdown. Hundreds of millions of people stayed inside for weeks on end. Factories, offices, restaurants and shops closed, in scenes now being replayed around the world. Most analysts think that China’s economy shrank in the first three months of 2020, perhaps by as much as 10%. The last time it contracted was more than four decades ago, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, according to official data.

当中国在1月下旬进入封锁状态时,经济学家认为其增长轨迹将呈V字形。先是会急剧放缓,一旦病毒得到控制便会迅速反弹,就像2003年SARS在中国爆发时那样。放缓的部分他们是说对了。几亿人在家里一待就是好几个星期。工厂、办公室、餐馆和商店都关门了,这些景象目前正在世界各地重演。多数分析师认为中国的经济在2020年前三个月萎缩,幅度或许高达10%。根据官方数据,上一次收缩还是在40多年前文化大革命结束时。

The prediction of a quick, strong recovery is more debatable. With barely any new cases of covid-19 now being detected, the government is trying to restore normal life. At four separate meetings of the ruling Politburo since late February, leaders have declared that they want to restart the economy. But doing so is far from simple when the pandemic is still raging elsewhere.

关于迅速、强劲的复苏的预测则更具争议性。由于几乎没有发现任何新冠肺炎的新发病例,政府正试图让生活恢复正常。自2月下旬以来,领导人已经在四次政治局会议上宣布希望重启经济,但当大流行病仍在其他地方肆虐时,要做到这一点绝非易事。 

Reviving growth involves boosting both supply and demand. Officials schooled in Marxist theory, which emphasises production rather than consumption, have naturally turned first to the former, ie, to ensuring that goods are made. The main problem has been a dearth of blue-collar workers, many of whom went to their hometowns for the spring festival just before the lockdown and have not yet returned. Production hubs along the coast have chartered trains and buses to bring them back.

恢复增长既要增加供应又要提振需求。马克思主义理论学派的官员强调生产而不是消费,自然会先考虑前者,即确保商品被生产出来。主要问题是缺少蓝领工人,其中许多人在封锁之前回老家过年,还没有返工。沿海的生产中心包下火车和大巴把他们带回来。

Officials boast that things are almost normal again. Fully 98% of all listed companies have resumed work, says the securities regulator. Around the country 89% of big investment projects, from airport expansions to the laying of gas pipelines, are also under way, according to a planning commission. “Roaring Chinese factories in full swing”, Xinhua, a state news agency, proclaimed on March 21st.

官员们夸口说一切几乎又恢复正常了。证券监管机构说,所有上市公司中有98%已经复工。一个计划委员会称,从机场扩建到天然气管道铺设,全国89%的大型投资项目都已开工。国家通讯社新华社3月21日宣称“机器轰鸣的中国工厂全力开工”。

The reality is less exuberant. When any measure becomes an official target, it is susceptible to distortion—a  phenomenon known as Goodhart’s law. It has been amply demonstrated in China over the years. In this case an obsession with the “work resumption rate” has invited fiddling. Some low-level officials have told firms to embellish their recoveries, reports Caixin, a magazine. To prevent such trickery, the central authorities started checking electricity data. The logical next step? Some companies were told to consume more power by turning on idle equipment.

现实并没有那么生机勃勃。任何措施一旦成为官方目标,就很容易发生扭曲,这种现象被称为古德哈特定律。多年来,这种现象在中国得到了充分展现。在眼下这个例子里,对“复工率”的痴迷诱使人们做了手脚。据《财新》杂志报道,一些地方官员已要求企业粉饰复工率。为防范这种伎俩,中央开始检查用电数据。合理的下一步是什么?有些企业被告知让设备空转来消耗更多电。 

Measures aimed at preventing another surge of covid-19 have added to the complexities of manufacturing in China. The German manager of an optical-wire factory in Jiangsu province has divided his workers into ten separate units to minimise the risk of cross-infections. The units are kept apart from each other in the factory, the canteen and their dormitories. Such measures are necessary but cumbersome, he says. Firms are also wary of sending staff around the country because some places still impose 14-day quarantines on outsiders. Travel between cities, whether by plane, train or car, is at less than half its normal level (see lower chart). Video calls only help so much when a creaking furnace needs fixing.

预防新冠肺炎卷土重来的措施让中国制造业的重启愈发复杂。江苏省一家光缆厂的德国经理将他的工人分为十个独立的分队,以最大程度地减少交叉感染的风险。这些分队在工厂、食堂及宿舍都是相互隔开的。他说,这些措施是必要的,但十分繁琐。企业对于把员工派往全国各地也心存警惕,因为某些地方仍然对外来者实行14天隔离。不论是乘飞机、火车还是汽车,城市间通行量仍不到正常水平的一半(见下图)。如果有一个吱嘎作响的暖炉需要修理,视频通话的作用有限。

Nevertheless, on the supply side, the overall picture is encouraging. Large companies report that they are fully operational. Foxconn, which makes most of Apple’s iPhones in China, has said that it will resume normal production by the end of March. Even many smaller companies are in good shape. Sean Xie, the general manager in China of Lenze, a German automation company, says that all 260 of its employees had returned to its factory in Shanghai as of March 20th, apart from a couple still stuck in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak of covid-19 (Wuhan plans to lift its lockdown on April 8th).

尽管如此,在供给方面,总体情况还是令人鼓舞的。大企业报告说它们已经全面投入运营。在中国生产了大部分苹果iPhone的富士康表示将在3月底前恢复正常生产。甚至许多小公司也状况良好。德国自动化公司伦茨(Lenze)的中国区总经理谢卫东表示,截至3月20日,除了一对夫妇仍留在新冠肺炎疫情中心武汉(武汉计划于4月8日解除封锁)外,该公司的260名员工已全部返回上海工厂。

经济学人双语版-复工 Back to work

Resuscitating demand is proving more difficult. It involves two things that are harder for the government to manage: global growth and public anxiety about the disease. Officials had hoped that factories, once up and running, would be able to tap into strong demand abroad. The relentless march of the virus around the world has put paid to that. “All the wheels started spinning very quickly here, but the orders aren’t there,” says a chemicals executive who oversees a factory in the city of Wuxi.

事实证明需求的复苏更加困难。这涉及到政府更难管理的两件事:全球经济增长,以及公众对疾病的忧虑。官员们曾希望工厂一旦复工,便能够抓住国外强劲的需求。但病毒在世界各地的狂飙猛进让这种希望破灭了。无锡市一家工厂的一位化学品主管说,“这里的一切都迅速开始运转,但是没有订单。”

China can take some solace in the fact that it relies less on exports than it did during the global financial crisis of 2007-09. But domestic consumption is now far more central to the economy than exports ever were, and it is much curtailed. Retail sales plunged, unsurprisingly, when just about everyone was cooped up at home. People now can move more freely, but many still avoid large crowds. Shops and restaurants are quiet. Covid-19 has cut people’s incomes, so few seem willing to splurge yet on big-ticket items. Queues outside Apple stores—open in China but closed everywhere else—are deceptive. Apple strictly limits the number of customers to ensure a safe distance between them.

中国可以稍感慰藉的是,与2007到2009年全球金融危机时相比,它对出口的依赖已经减少。但如今国内消费对经济的重要性远远超过任何时期的出口,而这一块大幅收缩。毫不意外,当几乎每个人都被困在家里时,零售额急剧下跌。人们现在可以自由行动,但许多人仍然避开人群。商店和餐馆门可罗雀。新冠肺炎减少了人们的收入,所以似乎还很少有人愿意在大件上一掷千金。苹果门店(在中国开张但在其他地方都关闭)外排队等候的队伍具有欺骗性。苹果严格限制店内顾客人数,以确保人与人之间的安全距离。

A good proxy for the state of consumption in China is urban traffic. Some thus welcome the return of traffic jams: congestion has reached about 90% of its normal level (see chart). But a closer look is less comforting. Some people who used to take subways to work are using cars instead, to limit contact with others. Passenger numbers on subways are down by roughly two-thirds in big cities. Unusually, there is no road congestion at the weekend. The occupancy rate of a posh international hotel chain is in the single digits, says the company’s boss in China. Bao Wenjun, who owns a restaurant in Shanghai selling cheap and tasty noodles, says that his revenues are down by nearly three-quarters.

城市交通是中国消费状况的一个好指标,因此一些人很高兴交通又开始拥挤:道路拥堵已达到正常水平的约90%(见图表)。但仔细观察一下就没有这么乐观了。一些本来坐地铁通勤的人改用汽车,以减少与他人接触。在大城市中,地铁上的乘客人数大约少了三分之二。和往常不同的是,周末路上一点都不堵。一家豪华国际连锁酒店的中国区老板说,入住率是个位数。包文军(音译)在上海开着一家价廉味美的面馆,他说自己的收入下降了近四分之三。

Hey small spender

嘿,小气鬼

For consumption to recover, people must feel confident. They do not. Most provinces have reduced their emergency-alert levels. Even Hubei, the worst-hit, has started to let people (other than residents of Wuhan, the capital) travel elsewhere. But anxiety abounds. Except in a few remote regions, schools are into their second month of closure. Only about 500 of the country’s 11,000 cinemas have re-opened. The government has tightened border controls because many travellers—723 at last count—have tested positive for the virus after arriving from abroad.

消费要恢复,人们必须有信心。但他们没有。大多数省份都已经降低了紧急响应的等级。即使是受灾最严重的湖北也开始允许人们(省会武汉的居民除外)去外地。但焦虑非常普遍。除少数偏远地区外,学校已进入停课的第二个月。全国11,000家电影院中只有大约500家重新开放。政府加强了边境管制,因为许多旅客(最新统计为累计723名)从国外入境后病毒检测呈阳性。

In the past China has often been quick to unleash stimulus measures to counteract economic slowdowns. Its spending splurge in response to the global financial crisis was crucial to the world’s recovery. This time China has been uncharacteristically restrained. Britain has pledged to make loans to firms worth 15% of GDP and America is working on a support package worth nearly 10% of its output. But China’s fiscal measures—mainly tax and fee cuts—so far add up to little more than 1% of its GDP. Whereas America has slashed its interest rates to zero, China has barely trimmed its own.

中国过去常常迅速采取刺激措施来应对经济放缓,其为全球金融危机投入的巨额资金对世界的复苏至关重要。但这一次,中国一反常态地表现克制。英国承诺向企业贷款的额度占到了GDP的15%,而美国正在制定占GDP近10%的一揽子支持计划。但到目前为止,中国的财政措施(主要是税费减免)加起来仅占GDP的1%。美国已将利率大幅削减至零,而中国几乎没有降息。

经济学人双语版-复工 Back to work

What explains the frugality? One reason is that China has no need to replicate some of the other countries’ actions. Take the struggling airline industry. The American programme includes $58bn in aid for it. Britain may take direct stakes in its airlines. The Chinese government already owns the country’s biggest airlines. State-owned firms account for about three-quarters of corporate debt in China. The government need not spell out that it stands behind them. Investors know that. Whereas corporate-bond prices have fallen sharply in the West—reflecting concerns about firms’ solvency—they have only inched down in China. In the Lingang free-trade zone, Mr Gu goes out of his way to note that the official subsidies are mainly aimed at private businesses, which have a harder time obtaining loans than state firms do.

如此节俭又是为何?原因之一是中国无需复制其他国家的某些举措。以陷入困境的航空业为例,美国的计划包括580亿美元针对该行业的援助,而英国可能会直接持有其航空公司的股份。中国政府已经拥有该国最大的航空公司。国有企业约占中国公司债务的四分之三。政府无需清楚说明自己站在它们背后,投资者知道这一点。西方国家的公司债券价格骤降(反映出对企业偿付能力的担忧),而在中国只是稍有下跌。在临港自由贸易区,顾长石特别强调官方补贴主要针对私营企业,它们比国有企业更难获得贷款。

For officials the most worrying trend is a sharp rise in joblessness. The unemployment rate in urban areas jumped nearly a full percentage point to 6.2% in February, the highest on record. And this rate fails to capture the tens of millions of migrants who are still in their hometowns, waiting for the economy to perk up before returning to cities for work. So the government is cautiously rolling out some stimulus. On March 20th it pledged to increase financial support for the unemployed.

对于官员而言,最令人担忧的趋势是失业率急剧上升。2月,城市地区的失业率跃升了近一个百分点,至6.2%,创历史新高。而这尚未统计数千万仍然滞留家乡,等待经济回升之后返城工作的流动人口。因此,政府正在谨慎地推出一些刺激措施。3月20日,它承诺增加对失业者的经济援助。

More help may be on the way. The government has given provinces more leeway to raise funds for such things as infrastructure and buildings. Spending of this kind has been a cornerstone of China’s past stimulus packages. But now it is proceeding gingerly. It fears that unleashing more of it could push up debt levels, which are already dangerously high. Most crucially, for all their talk about restarting the economy, China’s leaders are wary of letting growth rip until they are certain that a boom in business will not also bring a resurgence of covid-19. “We want to reduce risk to the absolute minimum and will not count the cost of that,” says Mr Gu. The economic rebound can wait. ■

可能还会有更多救助措施出台。政府已经给了各省更多的余地来筹集资金,用于基础设施和建筑等。此类支出过去一直是中国经济刺激方案的基石。但现在它小心翼翼地推进,担心进一步释放这类支出会推高已经相当危险的债务水平。最重要的是,尽管把重启经济挂在嘴边,中国领导人对于尽快促进经济增长态度谨慎,直到他们确信商业繁荣不会同时带来疫情反弹。 “我们希望将风险降到绝对最低,不计代价。”顾长石说。经济复苏还可以等。■