GDP Growth Means Something Entirely Different in China

China is growing at a brisk pace but it's not 6+ percent

The Chinese economy is not growing at 6.5 percent. It is probably growing by less than half of that. Not everyone agrees that the rate is that low, of course, but there is nonetheless a running debate about what is really happening in the Chinese economy and whether or not the country’s reported GDP growth is accurate.

The reason for the widespread skepticism is the disconnect between the official data and perceptions on the ground. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s economic growth in every quarter last year exceeded 6.5 percent. While that is much lower than the heady growth rates China has experienced for most of the past forty years, it is still, by most measures, a very brisk rate of growth.

And yet, when you speak to Chinese businesses, economists, or analysts, it is hard to find any economic sector enjoying decent growth. Almost everyone is complaining bitterly about terribly difficult conditions, rising bankruptcies, a collapsing stock market, and dashed expectations. In my eighteen years in China, I have never seen this level of financial worry and unhappiness.

These concerns have even breached academia. One of my students told me yesterday that there was a huge increase last semester on the university website in the number of students selling their belongings because they are hard up for cash. They are selling their phones, computers, clothing, and lots of other possessions. He said the amount of selling is noticeably higher than last year, enough so that everyone is talking about it. And he indicated that this is apparently happening at other schools too. It seems that the poor and middle-class kids are squeezed for cash because they are getting much less money from home than they have in the past.

This isn’t what you’d expect to hear from an economy growing at more than 6.5 percent. So what does it mean exactly to say that China’s GDP is growing at that pace? It turns out that there are three completely different sets of problems that affect how China’s GDP growth statistics should be interpreted. Analysts must keep these three problems straight and make sure that they don’t confuse matters by conflating these separate issues.


The first set of problems relates to the meaning of GDP itself. This challenge affects not just China but the rest of the world as well. This is especially true for advanced economies with substantial technology and service sectors that employ technology whose value may be substantially understated by an inability to count it accurately.

GDP is typically assumed to measure the creation of real economic value. If a country’s GDP rises by 5 percent over the course of a year, for example, this is interpreted to mean that the amount of wealth the country produced in the last year is 5 percent greater than in the previous year. In other words, it would be assumed that the country’s ability to service debt would have increased by 5 percent, which means roughly the same thing.

But there is no way to truly measure a country’s creation of real economic value, as GDP is just a proxy for whatever it is thought to measure. Economists have agreed which measurements go into calculating GDP, and the resulting sum is referred to as a country’s aggregate GDP, or the value of everything produced locally in that economy.

Of course, not all value-creating activities are counted when GDP is measured. For instance, if you teach your friend Spanish for free, you add to the wealth of the economy, but you do not add to GDP. By contrast, if he does pay you, the country’s GDP does increase by the amount of money you are paid, even though you are adding exactly the same value to the economy itself whether he pays you or not. In addition, not all measured activity actually creates value: building a bridge to nowhere, for example, creates exactly the same increase in GDP as building a much-needed bridge.

No proxy of economic value is perfect, of course, but there are real questions about whether GDP is imperfect to the point of being useless as a proxy. Does GDP really do a good job of capturing all the value creation in an economy? While this is a serious problem everywhere, it may be even more of a problem in China because of the huge amount of investment in nonproductive activities that is counted in China’s GDP data even though this investment does not add to the country’s wealth or its debt-servicing capacity.


The second set of problems has to do with how carefully and faithfully Chinese statisticians at the National Bureau of Statistics are calculating the agreed-upon elements that go into measuring GDP. Do they tend to collect the data in the way that introduces mistakes that are systematically biased (upward, to show higher than actual GDP, I would assume)? Or are they actually lying to please their political bosses?

I am pretty sure that China’s economic data collection is distorted in ways that smooth out volatility, but otherwise I assume, at least until very recently, that the National Bureau of Statistics has followed generally accepted rules for calculating GDP more or less correctly. I don’t have a high level of confidence in my assumption though: as I pointed out earlier, it is hard to find any sector of the Chinese economy that is behaving the way you’d expect a country growing at more than 6.5 percent to behave. Furthermore, especially in recent years, it has been hard to reconcile other economic proxies with the GDP numbers. (See, for example, this article by Johns Hopkins University economists Bob Barbera and Yinghao Hu, which itself refers to a satellite imaging study.)

What is more, people whose work I greatly respect, like Anne Stevenson-Yang of J Capital, seem very much to doubt the data and argue that China’s actual growth rate is much lower than the posted numbers, largely because the data is falsified at some level of the collection process. But whatever the case may be, if there is indeed a substantial discrepancy between what the statisticians actually measure and what they are claiming to measure, it is very hard to make predictions about how long the overstatement will continue and how much of an adjustment it will eventually undergo.


The third set of problems with GDP occurs in a very limited number of cases globally (today, China is the main example). But the implications are much greater. This has to do with whether GDP is even being used as a proxy for economic activity. In China, reported GDP does not tell observers about the economy’s performance; rather, it tells people how rapidly Beijing thinks it can impose the necessary adjustments on the Chinese economy. This is because GDP means something different in China than it does in most other major economies.

In any economic system, GDP is supposed to be a measure of output, and in most countries that is exactly what it measures, however messily. The economy does what it does, in other words, and at the end of a given time period, statisticians measure the things economists agree to include in the relevant calculations, and they express the change over time as the scale of GDP growth for that period.

This is not what happens in China, where GDP is actually an input determined annually as the country’s GDP growth target. The growth target of a given time period is decided well ahead of time, and to achieve it, various entities, including local governments, engage in the requisite amount of activity, usually funded by debt. As long as China has debt capacity, and as long as it can postpone the writing down of nonproductive assets, Beijing can achieve any growth target it desires.

But this arrangement changes the meaning of GDP. Reported GDP in China is no longer a measure of economic growth, but rather a measure of political intention. As any systems theorist knows, input data reveals nothing about the performance of a system. So when analysts discuss what reported GDP indicates about the health of the Chinese economy, such thinking involves a very basic mistake in systems theory—a systems input can only offer insights about the goals of the operators, never about the performance of the system itself.

In practical terms, this means that once Beijing sets a GDP growth target, local governments are expected to generate enough economic activity to reach that target, and they are able to borrow as much as they need to do so. If this activity were productive, there wouldn’t be a problem, although it would be an amazing coincidence (or a truly incredible feat of prognostication) for the amount of productive activity truly to equal the growth target. What would be more likely in that case is that GDP growth would consistently exceed the target, which is indeed what happened until about a decade or so ago.

But if the economic activity isn’t productive, there are two requirements that allow China to set GDP growth as a systems input in a way other countries are unable to do. First, there must be no hard budget constraints, so as to allow economic entities to persist in value-destroying behavior year after year. Second, the resulting bad debt cannot be written down. Once these two conditions are met—and they are in China’s case—Beijing can set any growth target it likes and, as long as it has the necessary debt capacity, it can achieve that target.

But notice that achieving the target reveals nothing about the country’s real economic growth, for which GDP is supposed to be (however imperfectly) a proxy. Once GDP growth becomes a systems input, rather than an output, it does not indicate anything about the economy’s health or performance.


There is likely to be no end this year to the discussions about China’s economic growth rate and its relationship to GDP. By now, observers widely agree that China’s economy is not as strong as the GDP data suggests. And I suspect that only a handful of the least imaginative resolutely-mainstream economists (and, weirdly enough, this is more likely to be true of foreign than Chinese ones) still believe that China’s economy is as healthy and brisk as would be expected from a country whose GDP is growing at 6.5 percent and is expected to grow next year by more than 6 percent.

The problems facing the Chinese economy, and the worries expressed by Chinese leaders, are so deep that it no longer requires much imagination to figure out that reported GDP in China simply does not represent what we think it represents elsewhere. Yet some economists have not always understood the implications, and they often seem to refuse to adjust their methodologies to take into account the aforementioned problems with China’s reported GDP data. Yesterday, for example, I read a report written by an economist that discussed the implications of China’s PPP-adjusted GDP being the biggest in the world.

But any observers that are at all skeptical about the relationship between the Chinese economy and its reported GDP must dismiss the PPP-adjustment as almost complete nonsense. (I don’t mean that the PPP-adjusted data is less accurate for China than it is for other countries: I mean, quite literally, that it is almost complete nonsense). Any ratio based on reported GDP figures can only be comparably meaningful for China to the extent that China’s reported GDP numbers have the same relationship to the underlying economy—or to whatever GDP is thought to mean—as corresponding numbers in other countries do. But surely few observers still believe that.

The point is that if there has been a divergence between China’s reported GDP figures and the country’s underlying economy, there are at least three completely different ways that this discrepancy can manifest itself. Observers too often confuse the three, however. For example, I have said many times that I believe that if China’s GDP were to be expressed in a way that is comparable with that of other countries, it would be growing at less than half the current reported growth rate.

A lot of people interpret this to mean that I think Beijing is falsifying the data, but I don’t mean that at all. In my mind, the biggest problem is that China’s reported GDP is an input into the economic system, not a measured output. To make China’s GDP figures comparable to those of other countries, the input numbers would have to be adjusted with some relevant output, such as the amount of bad debt that should be (but isn’t) written down in a given time period. If this amount were subtracted from China’s nominal GDP growth rate, the resulting adjusted growth rate probably would be a lot closer to what economists think of as GDP than the country’s actual reported GDP data is.

Michael Pettis is a professor of finance at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets.

Source: Carnegie

  1. Godfree Roberts says

    Michael Pettis has been writing this article for 13 years. It’s always the same and it’s always turned out to be wrong.

    He is not alone. There are many Western trolls who make a good living pouring scorn on China’s achievements (and thereby hiding them from us until it is too late to do anything).

    Writing about his latest book, CHINA’S ECONOMY, here’s what economist Arthur K. Kroeber says:

    This book, like all works of practical economics, relies heavily on statistics. Most of the official Chinese government data are sourced from the CEIC database, which is the authorized online reseller for China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Some data not available from the CEIC is sourced from Chinese government publications, notably the yearbooks published by various agencies, the Ministry of Finance’s annual budget reports to the National People’s Congress, and occasional ad hoc reports that appear on government websites. …

    The unserious ones are those advanced by nonspecialists, typically analysts for hedge funds or other financial firms, alleging that Chinese data on GDP, or energy consumption, or inflation, or whatnot are falsified by the government in order to cover up some major problem. These claims, often hyped by the media, are best ignored. Economic data in all places are subject to various problems and distortions, which are addressed by the constant revision of published data and the underlying methods used by national statistical agencies, as well as by enormous volumes of academic econometric research that seek to refine our understanding of how numbers relate to reality. …

    Many serious analysts do believe that the government tends to smooth out the quarterly GDP growth numbers, underreporting growth when it is very hot and nudging the figures upward when it is cool. Most other data problems and inconsistencies can be explained by ordinary analytic econometric work, without resort to conspiracy theories about deliberate falsification. Those interested in making sensible use of Chinese data should consult Tom Orlik’s excellent Understanding China’s Economic Indicators (FT Press, 2012). …

    The falsification theory also fails a simple logical test. If the government publishes false data, it must either rely on this false data to make economic policy, or it must keep a secret set of true data. If it uses false data, economic policy will quickly run aground, as it did during the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, when reliance on bogus agricultural production numbers led within a couple of years to a catastrophic famine that killed tens of millions of people. …

    This leaves the possibility that the government uses a secret set of true data to form policy, while feeding lies to the public. No evidence has ever been presented that such a secret data set exists. There are certainly a few data series that are not published but are reserved for the internal use of government officials. What is interesting is how boring these prove to be when occasionally they come to light through a leak—as, for instance, when a classified unemployment figure was accidentally disclosed at a press conference. The figure was 5 percent, compared to the published “registered unemployment” figure of 4 percent. In any case, if the government really kept a full set of secret accounts, the falsity of the published data could be exposed by the same statistical tests used by forensic accountants to prove chicanery in corporate balance sheets. These tests have been applied, and have failed to show any evidence of systemic falsification. …

    The more serious claim, made by several economists, is that China’s long-run growth rate has been systematically overstated, not because China sought to bamboozle the world but because its statisticians employed faulty techniques. The most recent version of this argument is by Harry X. Wu of The Conference Board, who heroically reconstructed China’s national accounts for the sixty-year period 1952–2012 in order to arrive at a better understanding of long-term trends in productivity growth. Wu concluded that, thanks mainly to weaker than reported productivity gains, China’s average annual real GDP growth during the reform era (1978–2012) was 7.2 percent, well below the official figure of 9.8 percent. …

    This is an interesting exercise, but it raises some conceptual problems. If we assume that the size of the Chinese economy was accurately measured in 1978, then the lower growth rate compounded over thirty-four years implies that China’s economy in 2012 was less than half as big as the official data say it was. This is impossible, because the economy’s present size is roughly confirmed by a wealth of information, including the government’s own economic censuses, and indicators including exports, foreign exchange reserves and consumption of physical items such as automobiles, oil, steel, and cement that are independently verifiable and not subject to falsification. If, on the other hand, we assume that the economy’s reported size today is correct, then the lower growth rate compounded back thirty-four years implies that China’s economy was more than twice as big in 1978 as the government believed it to be. This is slightly more plausible than the first case, but not much. Alternatively, we can try to pick values for China’s 1978 and 2012 GDP that are not so obviously incredible, for instance that the economy was two-thirds bigger than reported in 1978 and one-quarter smaller in 2012 (in which case we need merely explain away $2 trillion—an India’s worth—of phantom output). Any way you slice it, it is quite hard to reconcile the arithmetic of these alternative growth calculations with observed reality. …

    To anyone who has spent much time in China since the 1980s, it is clear that (a) China has grown very rapidly for a long time; and (b) the speed and nature of that growth was roughly comparable to that of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, each of which uncontroversially grew at 8 to 10 percent a year for about a quarter-century in the post–World War II era. The reluctance of some observers to accept that China achieved similar results to those of its neighbors, using essentially the same economic playbook, is odd. It probably reflects the belief that because China’s government is secretive, authoritarian, and untrustworthy in many political matters, its economic data must also be untrustworthy. The feeling is understandable, but the conclusion is supported by neither logic nor the preponderance of evidence. A government so dependent on sustained economic growth for its legitimacy, and so keenly aware (thanks to its own recent history) of the disastrous consequences of relying on bad data, has a strong self-interest in maintaining statistics that are approximately right, at least with regard to trends, even if they do not meet the highest standards of modern statistical science. Like all economic data, China’s must be used with care; but they are useable.

    1. Carlos Santos says


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