How China Cooks its Books

We’ve commented from time to time on dubious Chinese data releases. But this report from Foreign Policy reports on an interest aspect: that the statistics are not manipulated only in the normal bureaucratic manner (fudging them) but also by getting companies to change behavior so it can be tallied in a more flattering fashion.

The story contains some real bombshells: unemployment is likely 40 to 50 million, as opposed to the widely reported 20 to 30 million; the statistical manipulations are a surprisingly broad-based initiative.

From Foreign Policy (hat tip reader Michael):

In February, local Chinese Labor Ministry officials came to “help” with massive layoffs at an electronics factory in Guangdong province, China. The owner of the factory felt nervous having government officials there, but kept his mouth shut. Who was he to complain that the officials were breaking the law by interfering with the firings, he added. They were the law! And they ordered him to offer his workers what seemed like a pretty good deal: Accept the layoff and receive the legal severance package, or “resign” and get an even larger upfront payment….

Such open-secret programs, writ large, help China manipulate its unemployment rate, because workers who “resign” don’t count toward that number. The government estimates that roughly 20 million migrant factory workers have lost their jobs since the downturn started. But, with “resignations” included, the number is likely closer to 40 million or 50 million, according to estimates made by Yiping Huang, chief Asia economist for Citigroup. That is the same size as Germany’s entire work force. China similarly distorts everything from its GDP to retail sales figures to production activity. This sort of number-padding isn’t just unethical, it’s also dangerous: The push to develop rosy economic data could actually lead China’s economy over the cliff….

Pressure to distort or fudge statistics likely comes from up high — and it’s intense…

But local and provincial governmental officials are the ones who actually fiddle with the numbers… “The higher [their] GDP [figures], the higher the chance will be for local officials to get promoted,” explained [Gary] Liu.

The story then goes through a good list of distorted and certain to be exaggerated figures, then returns to an assessment:

Still, it is possible to infer the severity of the gap between economic reality and China-on-paper by looking closely at monetary policy. China’s state-owned banks dramatically increased lending in the first half of 2009 — by 34.5 percent year on year, to more than $1 trillion. This move seems intended to keep growth artificially high until exports bounce back. Most analysts agree that it is leading to large bubbles in the stock, real estate, and commodity markets. And the Chinese government recently announced plans to raise capital requirements — an apparent sign it sees the need to reign in the expansion.

For the long term, China is banking on its main export markets — in the United States, Europe, and Japan — recovering and starting to consume again. The hope is that in the meantime, rosy economic figures will placate the masses and stop unrest. But, if the rest of the world does not rebound, China risks the bursting of asset bubbles in property and stocks, declining domestic consumption, and rising unemployment.

That’s when the Wile E. Coyote moment could happen. Once Chinese citizens no longer believe that the economy is doing well, social unrest and more widespread worker riots — already increasing in scope and severity — are likely. That’s something that China will have a harder time hiding. And then we’ll know whether China’s statistical manipulation was a smart move or a disastrous mistake.

Although it should have been blindingly obvious, it never occurred to me that the cheerleading via distorted numbers was to promote social cohesion.

Originally published at Naked Capitalism and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

3 Responses to "How China Cooks its Books"

  1. devils advocate   September 9, 2009 at 8:38 am

    wonderful perceptive post!the will to believe The Powers That Be – the Governments, Central Bankers, Company Mangaments – is unwavering because what choice is there?we have to follow our Leaders like a Pied Piperlike lemmings over the cliff aheadthe Powers that Be is playing out a movie for us, an audience totally immersed(with very few in the audience aware it’s just a movie that they’re watching)only something real and dangerous can break the mood, such as”Fire”! and the audience rushes out of the theatrenot much chance of a fire

    • devils advocate   September 9, 2009 at 8:47 am

      p.s.China/USA will continue to manipulate their #s, stimulating incentives,selling their citizens a rosy futuremany of the leaders of China are engineers and their infrastructure program is real and hugeand will continue for many years to come as their exports will remain weakmany investing see the implications