[Viewpoint] Coping with U.S.’s zombie consumers

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[Viewpoint] Coping with U.S.’s zombie consumers

Asia needs a new model consumer. A post-crisis generation of “zombie consumers” in the United States is likely to hobble growth in global consumption for years to come. And that means that export-led developing Asia now has no choice but to turn inward and rely on its own 3.5 billion consumers.

Of course, this is not the first time Asia has had to cope with the walking economic dead. Japan’s corporate zombies were at the epicenter of its first “lost decade” in the 1990s. Sclerotic companies were put on life-support credit lines by their zaibatsu, delaying their inevitable failure and perpetuating inefficiencies and disincentives that resulted in a post-bubble collapse in productivity growth.

Similarly, the crisis of 2008-2009 led to zombie-creating bailouts in the West. The U.S. was quick to rescue corporate giants that would have failed otherwise. Britain and Europe did the same. In the West, the excuse was “too big to fail.” How different is that from Japan’s mind-set nearly 20 years ago?

But the most prominent zombie may well be American consumers, still suffering from the ravages of the Great Recession. Afflicted by historically high unemployment, massive under-employment and relatively stagnant real wages, while burdened with underwater mortgages, excessive debt and subpar saving, U.S. consumers are stretched as never before.

Yet the U.S. government has tried virtually everything to prevent consumers from adjusting. Going well beyond the requisite extension of unemployment-insurance benefits, the safety net has been expanded to include home-foreclosure containment programs, other forms of debt forgiveness, and extraordinary monetary and fiscal stimulus.

Compassion is part of the moral fabric of any society. But a fine line separates it from the “creative destruction” that is essential to purge a post-crisis system of its excesses. Japan crossed that line in the 1990s, as its corporate zombies prevented the painful but necessary adjustments in its post-bubble economy. That could happen in the U.S.

Notwithstanding government life-support initiatives, U.S. consumers seem headed for years of retrenchment. Consumption’s share of U.S. GDP currently stands at 70 percent. While that’s down from the high of 71.3 percent in early 2009, it remains fully four percentage points above the 66 percent norm that prevailed in the final quarter of the 20th century.

Reversion to that earlier share is likely as U.S. consumers transition from the insanity of the boom to the sanity required of the bust. That spells subdued growth in U.S. consumption for years to come - with a predictably massive impact on global consumption. While the U.S. has only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, its consumers spend $10.3 trillion annually - by far the most in the world.

So, with U.S. consumption growth likely to be restrained, who will take America’s place? Europe? Japan? I wouldn’t bet on either.

That’s where Asia fits into the equation. As an export-led region, Asia remains heavily dependent on end-market demand from consumers in the developed world. The export share of developing Asia’s 12 largest economies rose from 35 percent of pan-regional output in the late 1990s to 45 percent in early 2007. Little wonder that every economy in the region either fell into recession or experienced sharp slowdowns when global trade plunged in late 2008. Decoupling was not an option.

Nor should Asia draw a false sense of security from all the hype currently being accorded to the hopes and dreams of a so-called “two-speed world.” Heavily dependent on Western markets, Asia must seek support from a new source of demand.

It should start by looking in the mirror. For developing Asia as a whole, internal private consumption currently stands at a record low of just 45 percent of GDP - down ten percentage points from the 55 percent share prevailing as recently as 2002.

It’s not as if Asian consumer demand is dormant. But economic growth is heavily skewed toward exports and fixed investment as the primary means of absorbing surplus labor and spreading prosperity. In a post-crisis world, impaired by America’s zombie consumers, export-led Asia is in serious need of a pro-consumption rebalancing.

Nowhere is that more evident than in China. With private consumption at a record low of 35 percent of GDP in 2008 (ten percentage points below the Asian norm), China faces major rebalancing imperatives - all the more urgent if post-crisis consumption growth in the West remains weak.

The good news is that China appears to have arrived at a similar conclusion. Its 12th Five-Year Plan is focused on three major pro-consumption initiatives: jobs (especially labor-intensive services); wages (underscored by accelerated urbanization); and a reduction of fear-driven precautionary saving (arising out of a broadening of the social safety net). If China delivers on each of these three fronts - as I suspect it will - private consumption’s share of Chinese GDP could rise by as much as five percentage points between now and 2015.

That would be good news for East Asia’s other economies - namely, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. With relatively small populations, these countries have no choice but to rely on exports and external demand to drive growth. In all three cases, China has replaced the U.S. as their major export market.

That shift came just in the nick of time. If China is successful in implementing its pro-consumption agenda, the rest of Asia will be well positioned to avoid the fallout from America’s new generation of zombie consumers. How the United States copes is a different matter altogether.

*Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
The writer is a member of the faculty at Yale University and Non-Executive Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and author of The Next Asia (Wiley 2009).

By Stephen S. Roach
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