What If China’s GDP Is Seriously Overstated?

Michael Pettis has released one of his carefully reasoned posts, this one on the dark art of guesstimating what China’s GDP really is, given the notorious unreliability of its official data.

The strength of Pettis’ approach sometimes works to his advantage. He does a great job in breaking down his arguments to clear, easy to understand, step-by-step reasoning. That tends to make his posts pretty long. In this case, that meant that the part I thought was most provocative came towards the end, when impatient readers might have figured they had gotten the drift of his gist and moved on.

In this one, he starts with the last GDP release, and in particular, the implications the fact that its alarmingly high investment rate continues to increase at a stunning clip. But he then turns to the rather tiresome debate as to when China’s economy will overtake that of the US, and discusses the possibility that the GDP figures touted now could well be overstated by a considerable degree:

What if China’s GDP numbers seriously overstate the true value of China’s economy?

There are at least two very good reasons to believe that they might. The first is environmental degradation. To understand why, it is worth remembering that if an individual earns $100, but in so doing destroys $100 worth of his own assets, then a strict accounting would say that he earned nothing.

The same is true with the environment…For example here is an article that came out four months ago on Bloomberg:

China, the world’s worst polluter, needs to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product a year — 680 billion yuan at 2009 figures — to clean up 30 years of industrial waste, said He Ping, chairman of the Washington-based International Fund for China’s Environment. Mun Sing Ho, a senior economist at Dale W. Jorgenson Associates and a visiting scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, put the range at 2 percent to 4 percent of GDP.

Failure to spend that much — equivalent to the annual GDP of Vietnam — may cost the Chinese economy half as much again in blighted crops, health costs and pollution-related expenses, He said: “The cleanup can’t catch up with the speed of pollution” if spending is less.

This article suggests that a significant portion of Chinese growth came with a destruction of value that should have been deducted from that growth. After all, if you create net $100 of chemicals, but in so doing you pollute a nearby river to the extent that future economic production associated with the river is reduced by $100 (there will be less fishing, perhaps, or less agricultural production, or less usable water, or more health care costs), then the net value you created is 0, not $100, although of course you as the polluter might earn $100 today while the rest of the country loses $100 over the future.

There is no objective way to figure out how much of Chinese GDP growth should be reversed because of environmental degradation (and in this China is simply an extreme case – most countries to a lesser extent have this problem), but there is no question that the number is big, and the result is that we overestimate China’s GDP growth today and will underestimate GDP growth tomorrow. In other words environmental degradation simply causes us to take future growth and count it today.

And it is not just environmental degradation that may require a downward adjustment in GDP. What about misallocated investment? Doesn’t that do the same thing?

Of course it does. If you invest $100 today to create only $80 dollars of value, you will show an increase in today’s GDP that is lower than the reduction in tomorrow’s GDP as you pay the capital cost of the investment…..This means, once again, that you would overstate growth today and understate it tomorrow.

Every country wastes investment, but China does it on a massive scale. I would argue that at least 1-2 percentage points of Chinese growth, perhaps even more, might consist of this kind of misallocated investment-driven growth.

When you add the impact of misallocated investment and environmental degradation, the necessary cumulative adjustment to Chinese GDP might be huge. For example, if the two adjustments combined range from 2 to 4 percentage points annually, over one decade China’s “true” GDP (whatever that means), would be below the official numbers by anywhere from 16-31%. Over twenty years official GDP would be overstated by 31-52%. That means that we are massively overstating GDP today and will experience very low apparent GDP growth for many years in the future as the official number returns to some reasonable approximation of the real number….

And this is not the first time we have played this game. Look at Japan. Fifteen to twenty years ago Japan’s GDP was officially 17-18% of the world’s GDP and it was rapidly catching up to the US. Today it is 8%, and there seems to be no chance of it every catching up.

But can this really be true? Or is it possible that Japan’s official GDP growth was vastly inflated by misallocated investment before 1990, and vastly deflated by the repayment of that investment after 1990?

I think it’s the latter. If you look at the growth in Japan’s household consumption, you will find that household consumption grew much more slowly than GDP before 1990, and much more quickly after 1990. Household consumption might be at least as good an indictor of the real growth in wealth as production-side GDP numbers. So might it not be true that Japan’s official GDP was too high before 1990, and it has been slowly adjusting since then? And if this could have happened in Japan, whose investment growth was high but way below China’s, why can’t it happen here?

Having worked with the Japanese in their bubble years, I may be too conscious of the parallels to both the hype and the conditions on the ground in China. China is under more pressure (due to the state of the global economy and the expectations of its people) to keep employment high, but in the long run, building cities and office buildings that sit largely or entirely vacant is ultimately as wasteful as buying white elephant golf courses and resorts abroad. The losses on lending against land, which went into stock market speculation and a foreign buying binge, blew back to the Japanese banking system. As discussed earlier, the Chinese banks recovered from their 2002-3 banking crisis at the cost of considerable economic distortions, and it does not appear the officialdom can rely on the same covert bailout strategy a second time. So if they are hit again with serious loan losses, the real economy impact is likely to be more serious than the China bulls believe possible.

Originally published at naked capitalism and reproduced here with permission.

One Response to "What If China’s GDP Is Seriously Overstated?"

  1. Scott D   May 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Interesting point regarding China's GDP. Wouldn't the huge underground economy, ie, corruption and bribery, that is not counted in GDP also have some sort of balancing effect counter to the points in the article? In the long run, the GDP is just a measurement. What really matters is the amount of money circulating in an economy, regardless of whether it's underground or mis-allocated that will ultimately lead to prosperity. GDP is just an attempt to measure it.

    When will we stop trying to measure GDP by country in a global interconnected economy? Since our economy is now "global", why don't we look more at global GDP as an indicator of production and progress and whether humanity is better off?