In the late 1970s, Beijing decided that its central planning model of economic development wasn’t working because the domestic economy had become too complex. It reluctantly shifted to the model Japan had used to recover from WWII–concentrating on export-oriented manufacturing, offering cheap labor in exchange for technology and industrial craft skill transfer. China became an increasingly large user of natural resources (oil and metals) as it created industrial infrastructure, industrial plants and provided housing and other public services for its large population.
Maybe ten years ago China realized that it was soon going to run out of low-wage farm workers willing/able to switch to manufacturing in order to sustain the export-oriented model. Associated pollution and other environmental problems were also becoming more acute. So the natural resource intensive, export path to growth was nearing an end.
Five years or so ago, China, now out of cheap labor, began the shift to a consumer-oriented, domestic demand approach to GDP growth. Government stimulus to offset the negative effects of the recent recession gave exporters one final surge of vitality. Still, for years manual labor-intensive businesses have been leaving China for, say, Vietnam or Bangladesh. Beijing has also been cracking down on relatively primitive steel and aluminum processing operations.
Politically and socially, as well as economically, this is a difficult transition to make, because rich and powerful forces of the status quo don’t want things to change. Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong (multiple times) have made the shift; Malaysia, Thailand and much of South America have not.
One of the main characteristics of this period of change is a slowdown in demand for base metals and other industrial inputs. For China, which had been the dominant customer for almost any base metal, the transition comes just as global mining companies have made (inexplicably, to my mind) huge additions to productive capacity.
The result of increasing supply at a time of flagging demand is easily predictable–lower prices.
Why write about this?
Many financial markets commentators have been pointing to low base metals prices as evidence of cyclical economic weakness in China. That may ultimately turn out to be the case. But it’s equally a sign of: 1) structural change in the Chinese economy, which would be a good thing, and 2) witless mining companies. So it’s by no means a sure thing that bears on China are correct.
By the way, the last global collapse in base metals prices came in the early 1980s. That followed a decade-long period of mine expansion that was based on the idea that the United States couldn’t grow economically without using copper, lead, zinc and iron in amounts that would increase in a straight line with GDP expansion. In hindsight, what a mistake! Although Peter Drucker had been writing about knowledge workers from the 1950s, no one put two and two together. It took almost two decades for world growth to absorb the excess capacity that miners added back then.