China weakness, not its strength, may pose more US risk

David MoonBlog

It’s taken a few decades, but I finally realized that Mark Twain was right; most of the things we worry about never happen. This axiom holds reasonably true with respect to economic matters, as well. The most threatening economic risk is seldom the thing that dominates the headlines.

If everyone is worried about a concern that is widely televised, those expectations are likely already built into consumer, employee and management behavior.

A year ago, news stories overwhelmingly warned that the world was headed for a recession. Those worries seemed to culminate in a July 7, 2023 CNBC headline that reported “Americans fear a recession may be as severe as 2008.” Instead, in the past year the U.S. economy has grown 2.5%. So much for worrying about the economy.

News reports now tell us that recession fears are easing, as the economy has been boosted by strong consumer spending.

I’m not forecasting anything, but as a contrarian by nature, I raise my recession antenna a little higher when no one is expecting a recession.

China concerns me, but not in the same way it seems to distress so much of permanent Washington. Elected officials and even corporate executives seem concerned that China might somehow flex either its economic or military muscle in order impose pain on the U.S. Policymakers and pundits seem fawningly deferential to China’s economic strength, but too few of them seem concerned that the opposite might be true.  Rather than focus solely on the prospect of China’s economic influence outpacing that of the U.S., what happens if China falls into a recession?

That is a real risk – and I suspect, much more likely than a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan or Ukraine.

China is our third largest trading partner, behind Mexico and Canada. In 2022, U.S. exports to China totaled $154 billion. (Imports into the U.S. from China were $536 billion.)

After reporting annual GDP growth of 10% for several decades, China’s economy grew only 3% in 2022. In the past 3 years, China’s stock market has declined 26%. Compared to the U.S. dollar, the Chinese yuan has fallen to its lowest level in more than 15 years.

Property values in China are in severe decline, which has a massive effect on consumers, as 70% of household wealth is in real estate. Meanwhile, youth unemployment has reached such dire levels that the government has simply stopped reporting it.

Yet the most common “China theme” presented by financial analysts is that China’s economic prowess is a significant threat to the U.S.

I suggest a bigger threat might be China’s economic weakness. It is certainly a less expected one.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.