And The Silver Medal Goes To China… Or Does It?

Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up

Ryan Avent at DiA at The Economist:

CHINA has, at long last, surpassed Japan in terms of nominal GDP, making the Chinese economy the world’s second largest. Second quarter output in China came in at $1.337 trillion, to Japan’s $1.288 trillion (Japan’s output was larger in the first quarter; for comparison, America’s second quarter nominal output was $3.522 trillion). The shift is sure to be widely discussed and widely misinterpreted. There are a few key things to mention.

First, while Chinese growth has been truly impressive in recent decades, the rapid overtaking of the Japanese economy also reflects years of disappointing growth there. This story is as much about Japan’s travails (and the risk to other rich economies facing a descent into Japanese-style stagnation) as it is China’s boom.

Second, China remains a very poor country in per capita terms. It uses over four times as many citizens as America to produce less than half America’s output. That’s a bit misleading—urban productivity in China doesn’t lag America by quite as much but is offset by the limited growth contribution of China’s hundreds of millions of rural poor. Still, the total output figures encourage observers to vastly overstate the developmental level of the Chinese economy.

Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy:

The world economy reached a major milestone Monday when China officially became the world’s second-largest economy, displacing Japan, which has held the title for more than four decades. The recognition of China’s new status came after the Japanese government reported that, after a quarter of slow economic growth, the country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated to be around $1.28 trillion, slightly below China’s $1.33 trillion. Do all countries use the same method for estimating GDP?

They’re supposed to. The System of National Accounts (SNA), a set of guidelines developed jointly by the United Nations, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the World Bank, specifies the methods by which countries measure the size of their economies.

There are two main methods for estimating GDP. One involves looking at production. This includes the value of the goods produced by all the firms in the country, the added value of government work projects, and — particularly in developing countries — the value of goods produced for personal consumption, like the crops grown by subsistence farmers. Not all wealth counts toward GDP. For instance, if you build a new house, that’s considered value added to the economy.  If a pre-existing house increases in value, the owner may be better off, but the country’s GDP is unaffected. Of course, companies often have a vested interest in exaggerating their profits, so reliable figures can sometimes be tough to calculate.

The other method of calculating GDP involves measuring total consumption of products by a country’s population. Since it relies mostly on household surveys, this method also has flaws. People tend to underreport the amount they spend on alcohol and cigarettes, for instance. But hopefully, the two measures should come up with close to the same number and when the results from the two approaches are compiled, they should give you a pretty good idea of the size of a country’s economy.

[…]

But for most countries, there’s no international legal authority to ensure that statistical offices are following the SNA guidelines, and international economists largely have to rely on self-reported numbers. While no one’s disputing China’s new status, the country has often been suspected of cooking its books. Although China is not a member of the OECD, it does cooperate with the organization in producing statistics according to the SNA guidelines.

Those guidelines are updated every few years. The most recent edition, which was made in 2008 and has so far only been implemented by Australia, was revised so that a firm’s investments in research and development are considered added value. This means that as the new standard is implemented worldwide over the next four years or so, many countries will see their GDP numbers increase by as much as 1 percent. That’s one way to stimulate growth.

Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider:

Let’s just put some of today’s headlines about Japan’s GDP being surpassed by Chinese GDP in perspective.

In the quarter, Japan had economic output of $1.28 trillion, or $10,085 per capital, based on a population of 127 million.

China?

It had economic output of $1.337 trillion for the quarter, but a population of about $1.3 billion, so per-capita output of… $1000, about a 1/10th as big.

Let us know when China passes Albania.

Derek Scissors at Heritage:

It’s true that simple GDP does matter. The increasing size of China’s economy means the entire world is now affected by its voracious demand for oil, iron ore, and other commodities, as well as its low-cost supply of consumer electronics, clothing, and other goods.

But for successful economic development, what matters far more is the wealth of individuals and families. Japanese economic weakness is not shown in its still impressive 3rd place in world GDP but in its roughly 40th place on measures of personal income. From an economy once thought better managed and better performing than the U.S., the average citizen of Japan is now poorer than the average citizen of Mississippi. American citizens are noticeably richer than citizens of most other developed countries, such as in the EU. But Japan, in particular, is moving backward.

In contrast to Japan’s 20 years of weakness, there has been stunning growth in Chinese GDP per capita for 30 years. Yet China is still a developing economy. Chinese GDP per capita, even adjusted for purchasing power, is about 15 percent the level of the U.S. Further, GDP per capita actually exaggerates China’s performance.

The PRC’s incomplete data revisions undermine comparisons but, from the middle of 2000 to the middle of 2010, GDP per capita increased by more than 9500 yuan or, at present exchange rates, another $2800 in annual income. However, urban disposable income increased less than 6800 yuan, or about $2000 in annual income. And rural income increased less than 2000 yuan, or $600 in annual income.

Razib Khan at Discover

Robert Reich at Wall Street Pit:

Think of China as a giant production machine that’s growing 10 percent a year (this year, somewhat less). The machine sucks in more and more raw materials and components from rest of world – it’s now the world’s #1 buyer of iron ore and copper, and close to the #1 importer of crude oil – and spews out a growing mountain of stuff, along with huge environmental problems.

But because the Chinese consume a smaller and smaller proportion of this stuff, it has to be exported to consumers elsewhere (Europe, North America, Japan) to keep the Chinese working. Much of the money China earns by selling it around the world is reinvested in factories, roads, trains, and power plants that enlarge China’s capacity to produce far more. Another big portion is lent to or invested in the rest of the world (helping to finance America’s budget deficit at very low cost).

But this can’t go on. China’s workers won’t allow it. Workers in other nations who are losing their jobs won’t allow it, either.

The answer is not simply more labor agitation in China or an upward revaluation of China’s currency relative to the dollar. The problem is bigger. All over the world, we’re witnessing a growing gap between production and consumption, while the environment continues to degrade. The Chinese machine is fast heading for a breakdown only because it’s growing fastest.

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