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经济广角:中国消费者的需求究竟有多大?

来源:天星 更新日期:2009-10-24 点击:

QUESTIONS REMAIN OVER CHINA'S CONSUMER POWER

Anyone scanning recent business headlines in China would not recognise the country where people supposedly save and never spend. In September, China Mobile's customer base crossed the half-billion mark – a powerful symbol of the awesome size of the nation's consumer market.

China has also become the biggest vehicle market in the world this year. Car sales expanded by 78 per cent last month from a year ago. Over the National Day holiday in early October, retailers reported a rush for large flat-screen televisions.

Throughout the biggest external crisis to hit the Chinese economy in at least a decade, one of the most surprising features has been the apparent strength of consumer demand. The headline figure for retail sales has increased in real terms by 16.5 per cent in the first three quarters of 2009 – at least two percentage points faster than last year before the crisis.

With Beijing insisting it wants to shift its economic model towards greater domestic demand, and with many foreign governments urging China to rely less on exports, consumer spending is central to the post-crisis fate of both the Chinese and global economies.

The buoyant retail figures raise three questions. Is the increase real? Is it sustainable? And does it reflect a genuine rebalancing of the economy away from investment and exports?

While officials trumpeted the latest jump in retail sales yesterday, economists are sceptical of the figures. One problem is that official National Bureau of Statistics data include some government purchases, which are bound to have surged this year due to aggressive stimulus spending.

Government economists have played down the idea of booming consumer demand. A central bank report in August said urban residents' “impressions” about their incomes were at the lowest level since 1999. Meanwhile, Xu Xianchun, a vice-commissioner of the statistics bureau, published an article saying real consumption growth was well below the headline rate.

Even if the growth rate has been exaggerated, there is plenty of evidence from specific industries of stronger consumer demand, especially in rural areas.

“Rural residents have much more income than they did when I opened this store in 2003,” says Ge Zhongqiang, who runs an electronics shop in Xinba, a village in Jiangsu province. “They are spending a lot more on home appliances.”

Some people doubt whether rising demand can be sustained, pointing to several one-off incentives. Rural people have been offered subsidies to buy “white goods”, and taxes on small cars have been cut. JD Power, the auto consultancy, thinks the car-sale growth rate will fall sharply to 2-3 per cent next year.

Less temporary forces are at work, however. In recent years, the government has raised spending on health and education in the countryside, and is starting to introduce rural pensions.

Urban demand, meanwhile, is being boosted as millions move into the $4,000-$6,000 income bracket and shift from spending only on essentials to being able to afford more expensive items such as cars.

Chinese officials say such consumer demand is helping to rebalance the economy away from exports. They point to the fact that the current account surplus as a proportion of gross domestic product is likely to be much lower this year.

However, the latest data show that public investment has been the driving force behind the recent rebound. Yasheng Huang, an expert on China's economy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that before the government's stimulus spending, consumption accounted for only about 33 per cent of GDP, the lowest among the world's leading economies.

By increasing social spending, the leadership has started to repair some of the damage from the 1990s, when rural incomes barely grew. “But there is far too much emphasis on social transfers and not enough on the economic liberalisation that will really raise incomes,” says Prof Huang. And, he adds, China has still to get over its “investment fetish”.

一眼近期中国商业新闻的头条,人们会认不出这个国家,因为中国人理应是只会储蓄、从不消费的。9月份,中国移动(China Mobile)用户数突破5亿大关,这是一个强有力的象征,凸显中国消费者市场令人敬畏的巨大规模。

今年,中国还已成为全球最大的汽车市场。上月汽车销量比去年同期增加78%。据零售商介绍,在10月初的国庆黄金周,顾客曾踊跃购买大屏幕平板电视机。

在至少10年来最大外部危机冲击中国经济的整个期间,最令人意外的现象之一是,中国的消费者需求明显保持强劲。在2009年头三个季度,整体零售额按实值计算增长了16.5%,比去年危机爆发之前至少高出两个百分点。

目前中国政府坚称,它希望把经济增长模式转向更大的国内需求,而许多外国政府也敦促中国减轻对出口的依赖。在此之际,对中国乃至全球经济在危机过后的命运来说,消费者支出都是十分关键的。

高涨的零售数据带来三个问题。这种增长是真实的吗?它能够持续吗?它是否反应了真正的经济平衡调整,即减轻对投资和出口的依赖?

尽管官员们昨日对零售数据再次攀升大肆宣扬,但经济学家们对相关数据表示怀疑。问题之一是,中国国家统计局(National Bureau of Statistics)的官方数据中,包括一些政府部门的采购,由于大力度的刺激支出,这方面的采购今年肯定会激增。

若干政府经济学家对消费者需求旺盛的说法予以淡化。8月份中国央行在一份报告中表示,城市居民对自己收入的“感受”处于1999年以来的最低水平。与此同时,国家统计局副局长许宪春撰文指出,实际消费增长远低于整体增长率。

即使增长率被夸大,但仍有来自特定行业的充分证据表明,消费者需求更强了,尤其是在农村地区。

“与我2003年开设这家店的时候相比,农村居民的收入现在要高得多,”在江苏省新坝村开有一家电子产品商店的葛忠强(音译)表示。“他们在家用电器上的支出增加了很多。”

对于需求上升能否持续,有些人表示怀疑。他们指出,政府出台了多项一次性的鼓励消费措施,包括向农村居民提供补贴,鼓励他们购买“白色家电”,以及减免小排量汽车的购置税。汽车业咨询公司JD Power认为,明年中国汽车销量增幅将大幅降至2%到3%。

不过,更为持久的力量也在发挥作用。近年来,中国政府增加了在农村地区的医疗和教育支出,并且正开始建立农村养老金制度。

与此同时,随着数以百万计的城市居民进入4000至6000美元的收入档次,随着他们的消费习惯从只买必需品转向购买汽车等比较昂贵的物品,中国城市的消费者需求正得到提振。

中国官员表示,这种消费者需求正帮助中国经济进行调整,减轻对出口的依赖。他们指出这样一个事实,即中国今年经常账户盈余占国内生产总值(GDP)的比例,很可能会大幅降低。

不过,最新数据显示,公共投资是近期反弹的主要推动力量。美国麻省理工学院(MIT)的中国经济专家黄亚生(Yasheng Huang)表示,在政府刺激支出出台之前,消费仅占中国GDP的约33%,在全球主要经济体中是最低的。

中国领导层通过增加社会性支出,已开始修复上世纪90年代留下的一些损害,当时,农村收入几乎没有增长。“但是,对社会性转移的注重太大了,而对真正能够提高收入的经济自由化不够重视,”黄亚生表示。还有,他补充说,中国仍必须摆脱“投资迷恋”。

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