Economics focus: Growth tends to slow when GDP per head reaches a certain threshold. China is getting close

Published on The Economist, April 14, 2011.

THE economic crisis may have been debilitating for the rich world but for emerging markets it has been closer to a triumph. In 2010 China overtook a limping Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. It looks sets to catch America within a decade or two. India and Brazil are growing rapidly. The past few years have reinforced the suspicion of many that the story of the century will be the inexorable rise of emerging economies. If projections of future growth look rosy for emerging markets, however, history counsels caution. The post-war period is rich in examples of blistering catch-up growth. But at some point growth starts to disappoint. Gaining ground on the leaders is far easier than overtaking them … //

… Middle Kingdom, middle income: 

The authors are careful to say that there is no iron law of slowdowns. Even so, their analysis is unlikely to cheer the leadership in Beijing. China’s torrid growth puts it on course to hit the $16,740 GDP-per-head threshold by 2015, well ahead of the likes of Brazil and India. Given the Chinese economy’s long list of risk factors—including an older population, low levels of consumption and a substantially undervalued currency—the authors suggest that the odds of a slowdown are over 70%.

It is hazardous to extend any analysis to a country as unique as China. The authors acknowledge that rapid development could shift inland, where millions of workers have yet to move into manufacturing, while the coastal cities nurture an ability to innovate. The IMF forecasts real GDP growth rates above 9% through to 2016; a slowdown to 7-8% does not sound that scary. But past experience indicates that slowdowns are frequently accompanied by crises. In East Asia in the late 1990s it became clear that investments which made sense at growth rates of 7%, say, did not at expansion rates of 5%. Political systems may prove similarly vulnerable: it has been many years since China has to deal with an annual growth rate below 7%. Structural reforms can help to cushion the effects of a slowdown. It would be wise for China to pursue such reforms during fat years rather than the leaner ones that will, eventually, come. (full text).

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