Mittwoch, 29. Juni 2011

Wohlstandsillusion auf Chinesisch?

Google-Translate bietet für den Begriff "Wohlstandsillusion" diese hübschen Zeichen an: 财富错觉

Michael Pettis von der Uni Peking erklärt es so (NPL sind "Non Performing Loans", oder "faule Kredite"):

So what is China’s real GDP?

This is hard to do, of course, but it eventually gets accounted for in the form of lower growth in the future. If farmers produce less tomorrow because water is polluted, then future economic value added is lower. If workers spend additional money on health care tomorrow, this money is transferred from other, more productive spending.

This happens everywhere, of course, but I would argue that in many countries, where environmental degradation has been less and has occurred over a much longer period, it is already showing up in lower GDP growth today, so it probably results in a much lower overstatement of growth. In fact in rich countries where environmental degradation has slowed sharply, or even reversed, it may be causing GDP growth to be understated.

The other source of GDP overstatement in China is misallocated investment. One way of thinking about it is that if NPLs were correctly identified, the annual accumulation of the non-collectible portion of NPLs should be deducted from current GDP growth numbers to arrive at a more accurate estimate of GDP. After all growth “created” by wasting money is not really growth, and NPLs represent the amount of money that has been wasted.

In order correctly to identify NPLs we would need to include loans that might not technically be NPLs at current interest rates, but would be if interest rates were raised (by at least 400-600 basis points) to their “correct” level. Why? Because these loans are benefitting from the implicit annual debt forgiveness granted to them by household depositors – and the fact that they can pretend to be performing with the help of massive debt forgiveness should not change the fact that they are nonetheless un-repayable.

The combination of these two sources of GDP overstatement – uncounted environmental degradation and ignored NPLs – is pretty substantial. To show how substantial, assume that GDP has been overstated by anywhere from 2 to 4 percentage points over the past ten to fifteen years. This would imply that China’s GDP today is actually about 55% to 85% of its stated size – or to put it another way, that China’s economy is anywhere from 15% to 45% smaller than we think.

This is a pretty big haircut. I have no idea what the correct deduction is (none of my numbers seem especially implausible), but even very rough ballpark numbers suggest that China’s GDP may be sharply overstated. At the very least they also suggest that all those breathless predictions about when China will have the world’s largest GDP may turn out to be as simple-minded as the same predictions made about the USSR in the 1960s or, perhaps a little more plausibly, about Japan in the 1980s. And for the same reasons: in each case we start from the assumption that the country’s real GDP, inflated as it is by misallocated environmental costs and overstated investment numbers, is much larger than it really is. Much, much larger.

By the way notice that if we discount GDP by 20-40%, the astonishingly low household consumption share of China’s GDP – 35% in 2009 – rises to 44-59% – still very low by global standards, but not quite as surreal. Could it be that much of China’s GDP really is overstated, and with it total savings too?

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