Will China’s growth continue forever?

July 23, JDN 2457958

It’s easy to make the figures sound alarming, especially if you are a xenophobic American:

Annual GDP growth in the US is currently 2.1%, while annual GDP growth in China is 6.9%. At markte exchange rates, US GDP is currently $18.6 trillion, while China’s GDP is $11.2 trillion. If these growth rates continue, that means that China’s GDP will surpass ours in just 12 years.

Looking instead at per-capita GDP (and now using purchasing-power-parity, which is a much better measure for standard of living), the US is currently at $53,200 per person per year while China is at $14,400 per person per year. Since 2010 US per-capita GDP PPP has been growing at about 1.2%, while China’s has been growing at 7.1%. At that rate, China will surpass the US in standard of living in only 24 years.

And then if you really want to get scared, you start thinking about what happens if this growth continues for 20, or 30, or 50 years. At 50 years of these growth rates, US GDP will just about triple; but China’s GDP would increase by almost a factor of thirty. US per-capita GDP will increase to about $150,000, while China’s per-capita GDP will increase all the way to $444,000.

But while China probably will surpass the US in total nominal GDP within say 15 years, the longer-horizon predictions are totally unfounded. In fact, there is reason to believe that China will never surpass the US in standard of living, at least within the foreseeable future. Sure, some sort of global catastrophe could realign the world’s fortunes (climate change being a plausible candidate) and over very long time horizons all sorts of things can happen; but barring catastrophe and looking within the next few generations, there’s little reason to think that the average person in China will actually be better off than the average person in the United States. Indeed, while that $150,000 figure is actually remarkably plausible, that $444,000 figure is totally nonsensical. I project that in 2065, per-capita GDP in the US will indeed be about $150,000, but per-capita GDP in China will be more like $100,000.

That’s still a dramatic improvement over today for both countries, and something worth celebrating; but the panic that the US must be doing something wrong and China must be doing something right, that China is “eating our lunch” in Trump’s terminology, is simply unfounded.

Why am I so confident of this? Because, for all the proud proclamations of Chinese officials and panicked reports of American pundits, China’s rapid growth rates are not unprecedented. We have seen this before.

Look at South Korea. As I like to say, the discipline of development economics is basically the attempt to determine what happened in South Korea 1950-2000 and how to make it happen everywhere.

In 1960, South Korea’s nominal per-capita GDP was only $944. In 2016, it was $25,500. That takes them from solidly Third World underdeveloped status into very nearly First World highly-developed status in just two generations. This was an average rate of growth of 6.0%. But South Korea didn’t grow steadily at 6.0% for that entire period. Their growth fluctuated wildly (small countries tend to do that; they are effectively undiversified assets), but also overall trended downward.

The highest annual growth rate in South Korea over that time period was an astonishing 20.8%. Over twenty percent per year. Now that is growth you would feel. Imagine going from an income of $10,000 to an income of $12,000, in just one year. Imagine your entire country doing this. In its best years, South Korea was achieving annual growth rates in income comparable to the astronomical investment returns of none other than Warren Buffett (For once, we definitely had r < g). Even if you smooth out over the boom-and-bust volatility South Korea went through during that period, they were still averaging growth rates over 7.5% in the 1970s.

I wasn’t alive then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Americans back then were panicking about South Korea’s growth too. Maybe not, since South Korea was and remains a close US ally, and their success displayed the superiority of capitalism over Communism (boy did it ever: North Korea’s per capita GDP also started at about $900 in 1960, and is still today… only about $1000!); but you could have made the same pie-in-the-sky forecasts of Korea taking over the world if you’d extrapolated their growth rates forward.

South Korea’s current growth rate, on the other hand? 2.9%. Not so shocking now!

Moreover, this is a process we understand theoretically as well as empirically. The Solow model is now well-established as the mainstream neoclassical model of economic growth, and it directly and explicitly predicts this sort of growth pattern, where a country that starts very poor will initially grow extremely fast as they build a capital base and reverse-engineer technology from more advanced countries, but then over a couple of generations their growth will slow down and eventually level off once they reach a high level of economic development.

Indeed, the basic reason is quite simple: A given proportional growth is easier to do when you start small. (There’s more to it than that, involving capital degradation and diminishing marginal returns, but at its core, that’s the basic idea.)

I think I can best instill this realization in you by making another comparison between the US and China: How much income are we adding in absolute terms?

US per-capita GDP of $53,200 is growing at 1.2% per year; that means we’re adding $640 per person per year. China per-capita GDP of $14,400 is growing at 7.1% per year; that means they’re adding $1,020 per year. So while it sounds like they are growing almost six times faster, they’re actually only adding about 40% more real income per person each year than we are. It’s just a larger proportion to them.

Indeed, China is actually doing relatively well on this scale. Many developing countries that are growing “fast” are actually adding less income per person in absolute terms than many highly-developed countries. India’s per capita GDP is growing at 5.8% per year, but adding only $340 per person per year. Ethiopia’s income per person is growing by 4.9%—which is only $75 per person per year. Compare this to the “slow” growth of the UK, where 1.0% annual growth is still $392 per person per year, or France, where “stagnant” growth of 0.8% is still $293 per person per year.

Back when South Korea was growing at 20%, that was still on the order of $200 per person per year. Their current 2.9%, on the other hand, is actually $740 per person per year. We often forget just how poor many poor countries truly are; what sounds like a spectacular growth rate still may not be all that much in absolute terms.

Here’s a graph (on a log scale) of GDP per capita in the US, Japan, China, and Korea, from World Bank data since 1960. I’d prefer to use GDP PPP, but the World Bank data doesn’t go back far enough.

As you can see, there is a general pattern of growth at a decreasing rate; it’s harder to see in China because they are earlier in the process; but there’s good reason to think that they will follow the same pattern.

If anything, I think the panic about Japan in the 1990s may have been more justifiable (not that it was terribly justified either). As you can see on the graph, in terms of nominal GDP per capita, Japan actually did briefly surpass the United States in the 1990s. Of course, the outcome of that was not a global war or Japan ruling the world or something; it was… the Nintendo Wii and the Toyota Prius.

Of course, that doesn’t stop people from writing news articles and even publishing economic papers about how this time is different, not like all the other times we saw the exact same pattern. Many Chinese officials appear to believe that China is special, that they can continue to grow at extremely high rates indefinitely without the constraints that other countries would face. But for once economic theory and economic data are actually in very good agreement: These high growth rates will not last forever. They will slow down, and that’s not such a bad thing. By the time they do, China will have greatly raised their standard of living to something very close to our own. Hundreds of millions of people have already been lifted out of abject poverty; continued growth could benefit hundreds of millions more.

The far bigger problem would be if the government refuses to accept that growth must slow down, and begins trying to force impossible levels of growth or altering the economic data to make it appear as though growth has occurred that hasn’t. We already know that the People’s Republic of China has a track record of doing this sort of thing: we know they have manipulated some data, though we think only in small ways, and the worst example of an attempt at forcing economic growth in human history was in China, the so-called “Great Leap Forward” that killed 20 million people. The danger is not that China will grow this fast forever, nor that they will slow down soon enough, but that they will slow down and their government will refuse to admit it.

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