Guest Post: What Happens When China Goes “Gray”?

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Submitted by The Diplomat's  Mark W. Frazier, Professor of Politics and Co-Academic Director of the India-China Institute at the New School

What Happens When China Goes “Gray”?

Developed economies are beginning to struggle with aging populations and more retirees. China may soon join them.

As China's major trading partners try to control rising public pension and health care costs, they may not realize they also have an important stake in China's ongoing struggle to fashion a safety net for its own rapidly aging population. Many observers assume China has no pensions or healthcare insurance for the 185 million people over the age of 60 (13.7% of population), the highest official retirement age for most workers. They may well believe this explains why Chinese families save so much–more than 30% of household income–and therefore spend less on consumer goods, including imports from trading partners.

But this line of reasoning is faulty because China already has large and rapidly growing public pension and health insurance programs in the cities, and is in the process of extending them to rural areas. It's time that China's trading partners, especially the United States, understand what this means for China's economic future and, by extension, their own.

For all the criticism of outgoing President Hu Jintao for presiding over a “do-nothing” administration, he did manage to oversee a substantial increase spending on China's public support systems.As a result, pensions have now become the most expensive function of the Chinese government—which already spends a lot on infrastructure, housing and defense. In 2011, pension expenditures rose to 1.28 trillion renminbi (RMB, U.S.$205 billion), up from only 489 billion RMB in 2006. These and civil service pensions cover only about half of those over age 60, but at current rates of growth universal coverage—and vastly higher expenditures—are not far off. The number of urban workers (including migrants from rural areas who in theory are in the cities temporarily) contributing to the public pension system now exceeds 290 million, while rural pensions are also growing rapidly. With so many new people paying in, the government's future pension obligations are rising quickly. A recent report issued by the Bank of China and Deutsche Bank estimated that China’s pension system will have a U.S.$2.9 trillion gap between assets and liabilities by the end of 2013. By 2033 the gap is expected to reach U.S.$10.9 trillion, or 38.7% of GDP.

What happened in the past decade or so to cause China, with an annual per capita income of around $5,000 (adjusted for purchasing power), to begin to acquire pension burdens found in richer and heavily indebted industrial states? What will this mean for trading partners who keep urging the Chinese government to rebalance its economy toward greater consumption (and imports) and away from relying so heavily on exports?

Essentially what happened is that Beijing designed a pension system in the late 1990s that will leave households with much less to spend than many observers assume. Urged by World Bank economists and foreign pension experts, the Chinese government put in place a hybrid pension arrangement that relies on both traditional pay-as-you-go collections from employers and mandatory individual accounts, from which workers were to finance anywhere from one half to two-thirds of their retirement needs. (They also were expected to buy pension and annuity products from commercial providers). But that pension design has resulted in a double whammy: households consume less in order to save for retirement needs, while the government's long term pension debt is escalating rapidly because local governments raided the individual accounts to pay benefits to current retirees.

The central government has tried to prevent local governments from tapping current pension assets, but has done so only by allowing them to accumulate further debt. Moreover, many local administrations bristle under the requirement that pension assets must be invested in low-interest bonds and bank deposits. Don't be surprised if future pension scandals like the one that rocked Shanghai in 2006 are exposed as local administrations seek a higher, though riskier return on their pension assets.

As China's population ages, scholars and officials are seriously considering proposals to phase out the one-child policy that is beginning to curb the flow of new workers into the economy, as well as raise retirement ages (currently 60 for men, 5 or 10 years earlier for women). But such adjustments are just as politically difficult in China as in in Western democracies because, as it turns out, not wanting to work longer is a widely held preference. Many Chinese also view the relatively early retirement age as a way to make vacancies for the millions of young people who enter the labor market each year. If older workers continue working into their twilight years, young workers may encounter greater difficulty in trying to find employment. This would pose its own issues for the country.

What does all this mean for the Asian, European, and American economies that trade with China? First, they should understand that China's aging problem is a slow-motion fiscal crisis. China is not Greece, but local debt burdens are already enormous, and these calculations do not include the mounting pension obligations that local governments have incurred. Just as in America and Europe, the tendency in China is for local officials running state-level pension funds to ramp up current benefits and let future generations pay for them. China's National Social Security Fund is the largest in the world at $150 billion, but these assets (some of which are permitted to be invested in stocks) still fall well short of the liabilities racked up by provincial and city pension funds.

Second, we should realize that as China moves towards universal pension and medical coverage (a likely prospect under its 2010 Social Insurance Law), the effect on household savings will be limited. True, families may no longer need to save for the high costs of catastrophic illnesses. But it is quite plausible that any reduction in household savings arising from the new safety net will be offset by mandatory payments by both workers and employers into the new welfare programs. In other words, don't count on the new safety net to rebalance China's economy, because it won’t give discretionary income much of a lift. This means that countries that have large bilateral trade deficits with China should not expect a turnaround at some uncertain date when Chinese households suddenly have imagined new spending powers.

Finally, we must consider the larger implications aging has on China and major economies such as the United States, Europe, and Japan. Aging trends don’t make the decline of these economies inevitable, of course, but it is time to calibrate expectations. Aging will curb or even reduce household consumption, which is the primary driver of Chinese exports to industrialized economies and what many hope will fuel future exports to China. All these governments need to find ways to slow the growth of health care and pension costs. In the United States and China, for example, insurance and other financial services providers (state-owned in China) make large profits on fees and other administrative charges for handling the funds that pass through their accounts. Cutting these costs is essential. More broadly, all these societies will be compelled to rethink the outdated notion that work is over and retirement begins at some arbitrary age defined by law.

Aging and the policies to cope with a graying population are first and foremost domestic issues, but, as is so often the case, the consequences of Beijing’s pension policies will resonate far beyond its borders. Those who manage economic relations with China should focus less on trade deficits and exchange rates and spend more time thinking through the long-term implications of aging, and what it will mean for patterns of trade and investment among the world's largest economies.