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December 22, 2008

Why China couldn't decouple

Yasheng Huang, a professor of international management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has an interesting article in WSJ.
The fundamental problem, and a mortal bias of economists, is a fixation with simple measurements -- especially GDP data. Ask a professional economist how many provinces China has and you are likely to draw a blank stare. But ask him what the GDP growth of China has been and he'll quickly be able to tell you that China has grown at a double-digit rate for 30 years and that at this rate China will overtake the U.S. by 2035 (or some other date). GDP-centrism is endemic, and often comes at the expense of deeper analysis. Just look at the enthusiasm with which economists and analysts greeted Goldman Sachs's famed "BRIC" report forecasting dramatic booms in Brazil, Russia, India and China -- a report based on little more than fifth-grade mathematics.

This obsession with China's impressive GDP growth often ignores discussion of what's causing that growth and whether it's self-sustained. This is where the decoupling enthusiasts stumbled, and where policy makers can still go seriously wrong. Consider, for example, data about the very slow growth of household incomes in China. This is particularly apparent in rural households. For the past 20 years or so, rural household income has grown at a rate half that of GDP growth. The slow household income growth, combined with rapid GDP growth, means that China has created a huge production capacity but it has done so at the expense of its own consumption base. This fact alone should have disproved the decoupling hypothesis. All the new "excess" production had to go somewhere, i.e., to the U.S. What's more, the persistence of this gap suggests that over time, China's growth has become more, not less, a derivative of America's consumption appetite.

...But China is not exempt from a basic economic principle: A cost to one person is an income to another. The fact that factory owners and developers in China incur lower costs means that the income to some other economic participant is low. Those who derive low income in China happen to be the majority of the population, especially the rural Chinese who have little political power to protect themselves. Thus one sure mechanism of private wealth creation -- urbanization achieved when small landholders sell out to developers at market prices -- is almost completely missing in China despite the fact that the country is urbanizing at a dizzying rate on the surface.

Arun Natarajan is the Founder & CEO of Venture Intelligence, the leading provider of information and networking services to the private equity and venture capital ecosystem in India. View free samples of Venture Intelligence newsletters and reports. Email the author at arun@ventureintelligence.in