Wednesday, 13 January 2010

$123,000,000,000,000 question

Will China's economy be worth $123 trillion by 2040? The Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Fogel says yes. In the journal Foreign Policy he writes,
In 2040, the Chinese economy will reach $123 trillion, or nearly three times the economic output of the entire globe in 2000. China's per capita income will hit $85,000, more than double the forecast for the European Union, and also much higher than that of India and Japan. In other words, the average Chinese megacity dweller will be living twice as well as the average Frenchman when China goes from a poor country in 2000 to a superrich country in 2040. Although it will not have overtaken the United States in per capita wealth, according to my forecasts, China's share of global GDP -- 40 percent -- will dwarf that of the United States (14 percent) and the European Union (5 percent) 30 years from now. This is what economic hegemony will look like.
A big call, but not one I would argue is necessarily wrong. China has been growing fast and will continues to do so. But there are problems ahead: rising income inequality, potential social unrest, territorial disputes, fuel scarcity, water shortages, environmental pollution, and a still-rickety banking system, for example.

For Fogel there are five main reasons for thinking China can overcome these problems and become a world economic superpower.
The first essential factor that is often overlooked: the enormous investment China is making in education. More educated workers are much more productive workers. (As I have reported elsewhere, U.S. data indicate that college-educated workers are three times as productive, and a high school graduate is 1.8 times as productive, as a worker with less than a ninth-grade education.) In China, high school and college enrollments are rising steeply due to significant state investment. In 1998, then-President Jiang Zemin called for a massive increase in enrollment in higher education. At the time, just 3.4 million students were enrolled in China's colleges and universities. The response was swift: Over the next four years, enrollment in higher education increased 165 percent, and the number of Chinese studying abroad rose 152 percent. Between 2000 and 2004, university enrollment continued to rise steeply, by about 50 percent. I forecast that China will be able to increase its high school enrollment rate to the neighborhood of 100 percent and the college rate to about 50 percent over the next generation, which would by itself add more than 6 percentage points to the country's annual economic growth rate. These targets for higher education are not out of reach. It should be remembered that several Western European countries saw college enrollment rates climb from about 25 to 50 percent in just the last two decades of the 20th century. [...]

The second thing many underestimate when making projections for China's economy is the continued role of the rural sector. When we imagine the future, we tend to picture Shanghai high-rises and Guangdong factories, but changes afoot in the Chinese countryside have made it an underappreciated economic engine. In analyzing economic growth, it is useful to divide an economy into three sectors: agriculture, services, and industry. Over the quarter-century between 1978 and 2003, the growth of labor productivity in China has been high in each of these sectors, averaging about 6 percent annually. The level of output per worker has been much higher in industry and services, and those sectors have received the most analysis and attention. (I estimate that China's rapid urbanization, which shifts workers to industry and services, added 3 percentage points to the annual national growth rate.) However, productivity is increasing even for those who remain in rural areas. In 2009, about 55 percent of China's population, or 700 million people, still lived in the countryside. That large rural sector is responsible for about a third of Chinese economic growth today, and it will not disappear in the next 30 years.

Third, though it's a common refrain that Chinese data are flawed or deliberately inflated in key ways, Chinese statisticians may well be underestimating economic progress. This is especially true in the service sector because small firms often don't report their numbers to the government and officials often fail to adequately account for improvements in the quality of output. In the United States as well as China, official estimates of GDP badly underestimate national growth if they do not take into account improvements in services such as education and health care. (Most great advances in these areas aren't fully counted in GDP because the values of these sectors are measured by inputs instead of by output. An hour of a doctor's time is considered no more valuable today than an hour of a doctor's time was before the age of antibiotics and modern surgery.) Other countries have a similar national accounting problem, but the rapid growth of China's service sector makes the underestimation more pronounced.

Fourth, and most surprising to some, the Chinese political system is likely not what you think. Although outside observers often assume that Beijing is always at the helm, most economic reforms, including the most successful ones, have been locally driven and overseen. And though China most certainly is not an open democracy, there's more criticism and debate in upper echelons of policymaking than many realize. Unchecked mandates can of course lead to disaster, but there's a reason Beijing has avoided any repeats of the Great Leap Forward in recent years. [...]

Finally, people don't give enough credit to China's long-repressed consumerist tendencies. In many ways, China is the most capitalist country in the world right now. In the big Chinese cities, living standards and per capita income are at the level of countries the World Bank would deem "high middle income," already higher, for example, than that of the Czech Republic. In those cities there is already a high standard of living, and even alongside the vaunted Chinese propensity for saving, a clear and growing affinity for acquiring clothes, electronics, fast food, automobiles -- all a glimpse into China's future. Indeed, the government has made the judgment that increasing domestic consumption will be critical to China's economy, and a host of domestic policies now aim to increase Chinese consumers' appetite for acquisitions.


Tim Worstall said...

by 2040?

That's a brave call.

However, if we look at the forecasts the IPCC uses (from the SRES) to look at economic growth and thus emissions paths, if we have a capitalist, globalised, world then World GDP should hit $550 trillion in 2100.

China, purely based upon population share (ie, not adjusting for Africa being poorer etc), would be 15-20 % of that. $110 trillion or more.

So not out of order by any means, it's the 2040 bit that is brave, not the size of the economty.

Paul Walker said...


I agree, its about timing rather than whether or not the Chinese economy will get that big. 2040 is a big call, but its not impossible. If China keeps growing as it has over the last 20 years, $123 trillion is on the cards.