The big question for the world: is China growing, slowing, or in recession?

Summary: China is both the key driver of the world economy and the least well known of the major nations. With unreliable economic statistics, a rapidly evolving economy that defies easy analysis, and deep corruption, it defies analysis. But its growth or recession might determine the course of the world economy during the next decade. This post provides a realistic outlook, debunking the dreamy consensus expecting continued rapid growth.

“God takes care that trees do not grow to the sky.”
— Ancient German proverb.

From Evercore: China might already be in a recession (red line)

Evencore: estimate of real China GGP

This graph is from a report by Evercore ISI), founded by Roger Altman (Asst Secretary of Treasury for Carter and Deputy Secretary for Clinton) — Excerpt…

“Our proprietary Synthetic Growth Index (SGI) fell 1.1% m/m in July, and was also down 1.1% y/y. No wonder global commodities are so weak. The most recent 18 months have been much weaker than the 2011-13 period. Even if we adjust our SG I upward (for too-little representation of Services — lack of data), we believe actual economic growth in China is far below the official 7.0% y/y. And, it is not improving, Most worrisome to us; the ‘equipment’ portion of Plant & Equipment spending is very weak, a bad sign for any company or country. Expect more monetary and fiscal steps to lift growth.”

A recession under way in China would explain the collapse of most industrial commodity prices (especially oil), and raise the risk of a global “recession” (usually defined as GDP growth slower than 2%). Fortunately, they are probably wrong about China’s current GDP. Such a fast slowing from 7% to -1% would create economics shocks impossible for even China’s government to hide. Like massive layoffs.

I believe their index shows the rising stress in China’s economy. See this anecdotal evidence in The Guardian: “China’s workers abandon the city as Beijing faces an economic storm. Labour disputes are rising and some workers are leaving for the country amid fears a crashing economy could cause political and social unrest.” However, I believe their underlying story is almost certainly correct: most estimates of China’s future growth are delusionally optimistic.

A recent paper by two eminent Harvard economists provides a more realistic forecast of much slower growth — which implies real recessions (falling GDP) for China, instead of just growth slowdowns. This is also likely for India. That would remove the steady wind that has helped power the world economy since 1990, with no obvious candidates to replace them as economic locomotives.

The top line in the below graph shows the common forecast that China will rule the 21st century, as its 6% or 7% GDP growth makes them number one. US GDP is almost $17 trillion, and growing at 2 – 3%, so China will equal us in roughly 10 years — if they can sustain such a high rate of growth. A transition to a slower rate of growth would change the world; doing so (as often happens) by a recession would rock the world.

NBER: Forecasts of GDP growth for China and India

Asiaphoria Meets Regression to the Mean

By Les Picker of National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
NBER Digest, March 2015 (red emphasis added)

Much analysis and forecasting treats a country’s past growth experience as the best source of information on its future growth prospects. Because of this tendency, Asiaphoria – a relatively uncritical enthusiasm for the growth prospects of Asian economies – has arisen repeatedly. This was observed with regard to Japan in the 1960s, and it is seen today with regard to China and India.

One OECD report forecasts per capita growth from 2011 to 2030 of 6.6% for China and 6.7% for India. The World Bank and the Development Research Center of the State Council of China project annual output-per-worker growth rates of 8.3% from 2011 to 2015, 7.1% from 2016 to 2020, and 6.2% from 2021 to 2025. In official projections through 2030, the U.S. intelligence community presents scenarios implying that China’s share of the world economy will grow from 6.4% in 2010 to between 17 and 23% in 2030. For India the estimates for the same periods suggest growth from 1.8% of the world economy to between 6.5 and 7.9% . Some other estimates of China’s and India’s growth rates are even higher.

In “Asiaphoria Meets Regression to the Mean (there is a later version for the NBER), authors Lant Pritchett and Lawrence H. Summers examine historical data on growth rates and conclude that with economic growth, as with investment returns, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. They demonstrate that regression to the mean is the single most robust and empirically relevant fact about cross-national growth rates. The lack of persistence in country growth rates over medium- to long-run horizons implies that a country’s current growth has less predictive power for future growth than many analyses assume.

Globe and China Flag

It might be the case that China will continue to experience annual per capita growth for another two decades at a 9, or even 7 or 6% rate. Given the regression to the mean present in the cross-national data, however, where growth rates historically have averaged 2% with a standard deviation of 2%, the authors conclude that continued rapid growth would be an extraordinary event. China’s super-rapid growth has already lasted three times longer than a typical episode and is the longest ever recorded. Similarly, while it might be the case that Indian growth will continue at 6% per year, this would also require a relatively rare degree of growth persistence.

The authors’ findings suggest that in projecting a country’s growth rates over the long term, forecasters should give heavy weight to the growth rates of all countries, rather than to the historical growth experience of the country being studied. They believe that, historically, most economic forecasting errors have come from placing excessive weight on a country’s recent past. This can explain why official forecasts usually miss discontinuities in a nation’s growth trajectory.

While the post-financial crisis recovery in the United States has been slower than many initially expected, and the recovery in Europe is even slower and weaker, Pritchett and Summers note that the fallout for the global economy has been much less than feared. This has been due in large part to sustained growth in China and India, which has generated positive spillovers for other economies.

Though the prevailing view in many quarters today is that rapid global growth will continue with Asia as the engine, the authors point out that that Asiaphoria proved unrealistic following the rise of Japan, the growth of the Asian Tigers (Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong), and the emergence of the Asian Dragons (Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand). Continuation of rapid growth in Asia is only one possible path forward, and the authors call attention to the substantial possibility that the global economy will follow another one.

Typical degrees of regression to the mean imply substantial slowdowns in China and India relative even to currently cautious forecasts. They also observe that high-growth episodes often end with full, and abrupt, regression to the mean.

China Rising.

For More Information

Other articles about China from great sources…

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and post your comments — because we value your participation. For more information see all posts about China, especially these…

6 thoughts on “The big question for the world: is China growing, slowing, or in recession?”

  1. Three thoughts:

    1) The US experienced a similar rapid expansion during the Gilded Age (powered by plentiful natural resources, immigration, and very generous government policies), the first shockwave that signaled the end of the era was the 1890’s (aka the roaring 90s) which experienced five massive economic shifts in outlook, bust-boom-bust-boom-huge bust. China may experience something similar as the leaders try to squeeze the last bit of good news out of the nearly empty toothpaste tube.

    2) One of the biggest difficulties in measuring the Chinese economy is that although it is centrally led, the provincial leaders have no hesitation in lying to their leaders to make themselves look better and/or hide personal dealings. This means that the central leaders are doing their best when they make decisions but their data is not a lot better than ours, which must be a great source of concern to them.

    3) China and India do not have to have linked futures. A Chinese recession does not necessarily mean an Indian recession (although it could not possibly be good for India). The two countries have developed in different ways (China=roads, ports, dams, and industry, India has more services and telecommuting).

    But, immediately after making the statement, I need to state that Indian economic growth does not impress me. It feels like it depends too heavily on the being a cheap knock-off of China and on capitalists in other countries being generous to India. Also the Chinese government looks pure and innocent compared to Indian corruption.

  2. “A recent paper by two eminent Harvard economists”. Did these eminent gentlemen successfully predict the recent collapse of their own economy – one with which they are intimately familiar? I’m guessing ‘no’.
    What chance, then, do they stand of predicting an economy that is no more like their own that the Chinese ideography is like written English?
    I’m guessing ‘none’.
    Predicting bad things for China’s economy is a cottage industry employing hundreds of full- and part-time knowledge workers throughout the Capitalist world. I have no quibble with them. Indeed, were I offered a think tank sinecure to do the same I would probably accept it modestly and deliver Sino-Jeremiads to order.
    But there is a real, national price to pay for such willful ignorance: rightly understood, China’s growth model contains the seeds of our economic deliverance. But we cannot learn from something we refuse to understand.
    We have made a dreadful mistake by allowing all such public information to be privatized and, ergo, censored, by unknown private parties for their own, unknown ends.
    We are within 5 years of becoming irrelevant to the great events of the world through pure, willful ignorance.

  3. This (as are your other pieces) is appreciated and appears insightful to me. My experience (which may be countered by my lack of expertise) leads me to expect a slowdown for similar and other reasons as well.

    Individuals material goods and community infrastructures have grown so fast and come so far in a such a short time, so that current leverage must be strained. I base this on my experience in some of the lesser traveled parts. I saw lots of cars, none old – because they didn’t have them before. Buildings and infrastructure increasing like crazy. Lots of expensive luxury goods suddenly available and widely consumed.

    But while they seem to have a good handle on new construction, their maintenance efforts appear woefully inadequate. You see normal wear and tear not being addressee and greatly worsening. Fairly new places beginning to fall apart. Can you leverage and build an infrastructure and not maintain it while continuing to expand the economy. Over-optimism for the future would be my assessment as well.

  4. Short version of Asiaphoria is a good read, short measured and reasonable. No one can say for certain really, mean regression is certainly always around but when ….? And Summers says it is abrupt.

    Wonder what Ray Dalio would say….Ray is not to be missed when he opines, IMO.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: