20 March 2019

China may soon run its first annual current-account deficit in decades

The implications will be profound

That china sells more to the world than it buys from it can seem like an immutable feature of the economic landscape. Every year for a quarter of a century China has run a current-account surplus (roughly speaking, the sum of its trade balance and net income from foreign investments). This surplus has been blamed for various evils including the decline of Western manufacturing and the flooding of America’s bond market with the excess savings that fuelled the subprime housing bubble.

Yet the surplus may soon disappear. In 2019 China could well run its first annual current-account deficit since 1993. The shift from lender to borrower will create a knock-on effect, gradually forcing it to attract more foreign capital and liberalise its financial system. China’s government is only slowly waking up to this fact. America’s trade negotiators, meanwhile, seem not to have noticed it at all. Instead of focusing on urging China to free its financial system, they are more concerned that China keep the yuan from falling. The result of this myopia is a missed opportunity for both sides.

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