India vs. China: Whose Economy Is Better?

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Workers install scaffolding at a construction site in Suining, Sichuan province, China, on Jan. 25, 2010

In the inevitable comparisons that economists and businesspeople make between Asia's two rising giants, China and India, China nearly always comes out on top.

The Chinese economy historically outpaces India's by just about every measure. China's fast-acting government implements new policies with blinding speed, making India's fractured political system appear sluggish and chaotic. Beijing's shiny new airport and wide freeways are models of modern development, contrasting sharply with the sagging infrastructure of New Delhi and Mumbai. And as the global economy emerges from the Great Recession, India once again seems to be playing second fiddle. Pundits around the world laud China's leadership for its well-devised economic policies during the crisis, which were so effective in restarting economic growth that they helped lift the entire Asian region out of the downturn.

Now, however, India may finally have one up on its high-octane rival. Though India still can't compete on top-line economic growth — the World Bank projects India's gross domestic product (GDP) will increase 6.4% in 2009, far short of the 8.7% that China announced in mid-January – India's economy looks to be rebounding from the downturn in better shape than China's. India doesn't appear to be facing the same degree of potential dangers and downside risks as China, which means policymakers in New Delhi might have a much easier task in maintaining the economy's momentum than their Chinese counterparts. "The way I see it is that the growth in India is much more sustainable" than the growth in China, says Jim Walker, an economist at Hong Kong–based research firm Asianomics.

India's edge is due to the different stimulus programs adopted by the two countries to support growth during the downturn. China implemented what Walker calls "the biggest stimulus program in global history." On top of government outlays for new infrastructure and tax breaks, Beijing most significantly counted on massive credit growth to spur the economy. The amount of new loans made in 2009 nearly doubled from the year before to $1.4 trillion – representing almost 30% of GDP. The stimulus plan worked wonders, holding up growth even as China's exports dropped 16% in 2009.

But now China is facing the consequences of its largesse. Fears are rising that Beijing's easy-money policies have fueled a potential property-price bubble. According to government data, average real estate prices in Chinese cities jumped 7.8% in December from a year earlier — the fastest increase in 18 months. The credit boom has also sparked worries about the nation's banking system. Many economists expect the large surge in credit to lead to a growing number of nonperforming loans (NPLs). In a November report, UBS economist Wang Tao calculates that if 20% of all new lending in 2009 and 10% of the amount in 2010 goes bad over the next three to five years, the total amount of NPLs from China's stimulus program would reach $400 billion, or roughly 8% of GDP. Though Wang notes that the total is small compared with the level of NPLs that Chinese banks carried in the past, she still calls the sum "staggering." Policymakers in Beijing are clearly concerned. Since December, they have introduced a series of steps to cool down the housing market and restrict access to credit by, for example, reintroducing taxes on certain property transactions and raising the required level of cash that banks have to keep on hand in an effort to reduce new lending.

India, meanwhile, isn't experiencing nearly the same degree of fallout from its recession-fighting methods. The government used the same tools as every other to support growth when the financial crisis hit – cutting interest rates, offering tax breaks and increasing fiscal spending – but the scale was smaller than in China. Goldman Sachs estimates that India's government stimulus will total $36 billion this fiscal year, or only 3% of GDP. By comparison, China's two-year, $585 billion package is roughly twice as large, at about 6% of GDP per year. Most important, India managed to achieve its substantial growth without putting its banking sector at risk. In fact, India's banks have remained quite conservative through the downturn, especially compared with Chinese lenders. Growth of credit, for example, was actually lower in 2009 than in 2008. As a result, economists see continued strength in India's banks. A January report by economic-research outfit Centennial Asia Advisors noted that based on available data, "there was no sign that domestic banks' nonperforming assets were deteriorating materially." Nor do analysts harbor the same concerns that India's monetary policies are sending prices of Indian real estate to bubble levels. "India's growth, though less stellar, does have the reassuring factor that the [risks of] asset price bubbles are less," says Rajat Nag, managing director general of the Asian Development Bank in Manila.

India maintained robust growth without Beijing's hefty stimulus in part because it is less exposed to the international economy. China's exports represented 35% of GDP compared with only 24% for India in 2008. Thus India was afforded more protection from the worst effects of the financial crisis in the West, while China's government needed to be much more active to replace lost exports to the U.S. More significantly, though, India's domestic economy provides greater cushion from external shocks than China's. Private domestic consumption accounts for 57% of GDP in India compared with only 35% in China. India's confident consumer didn't let the economy down. Passenger car sales in India in December jumped 40% from a year earlier. "What we see [in India] is a fundamental domestic demand story that doesn't stall in the time of a global downturn," says Asianomics' Walker.

The Indian economy is not immune to risks. The government has to contend with a yawning budget deficit, and last year's weak monsoon rains will likely undercut agricultural production and soften rural consumer spending. But rapid growth is expected to continue. The World Bank forecasts India's economy will surge 7.6% in 2010 and 8% in 2011, not far behind the 9% rate it predicts for China for each of those years. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when speaking about his country's more plodding pace of economic policymaking, has said that "slow and steady will win the race." The Great Recession appears to have proved him right.