Sunday, March 14, 2010

Measuring Economic Weight

The Economist recently ran a story on putting the rise of Asia in perspective it's worth a read and is a useful corrective to many of the arguments that think the future is already here! The Balance of Economic Power: East or Famine The Economist.

There are two main ways to measure the size of economies. We can convert the value of Chinese gross domestic product (GDP), for example, into US dollars and compare it to the GDP of other countries. The advantage of this method is that it provides a neat comparison of a particular country with any other country at any particular time. But the problem with this measure is that it varies with the dollar–renminbi exchange rate and doesn’t accurately reflect the cost of things within the Chinese economy. If the renminbi was revalued this would immediately increase the measured size of the Chinese economy. This is not completely spurious because a higher valued renminbi would enable the Chinese to buy more goods and services on the international market and would increase their ability to invest in other countries. When exchange rates do vary considerably over time, such as the dollar–yen exchange rate since the 1970s, this method may be a problem. For example compare the difference in size of the Australian economy when measured at a time when the Australian dollar was 47.75c against the US dollar in April 2001 to when it reached 98.49c against the US dollar in July 2008. Although for measuring purposes the exchange rate is averaged over a period, variation still poses obvious problems.
Such discrepancies have led to the increased use of an alternative method of measuring the size of economies based on the concept of purchasing power parity (PPP). Statisticians measure purchasing power within individual economies and then makes comparisons on that basis. PPP measures GDP adjusted to reflect different costs of living and production within different economies. Goods and services and production costs are considerably less in China than they are in the United States. We all know that our currency goes further in some countries and less in others. You can live, for example, much more cheaply in Indonesia than you can in Sweden! A popular representation of PPP values is the Economist magazine’s tongue-in-cheek Big Mac Index, which compares the price of Big Mac’s around the world. A Big Mac in Sweden ($4.58) will cost you a lot more than a Big Mac in Indonesia ($1.74) or even the United States itself ($3.45). According to PPP theory, the cost of Big Macs should be the same across countries once local currencies are converted to US dollars. In these February 2009 prices, the Index suggests that the Swedish Kroner is overvalued against the dollar and the Indonesian rupiah is substantially undervalued. Big Macs are not really a good marker of PPP because they are generally considerably more expensive than local-food items in developing countries! There is also now an iPOD Index, which does the same thing, but with a high technology, tradeable item rather than a basic food item. This is significant because products that can be easily traded should, through the process of arbitrage, end up with the same price (allowing for exchange rates).

If we compare what a given amount of dollars will buy in the Chinese economy and compare it to what a given amount of dollars buys in the US economy we can, according to advocates of this approach, get a better idea of the size of an economy. The problem with this method is calculating the different costs of production and living on an ongoing basis. To do a proper analysis of PPP, the World Bank compares a large range of goods and services. It is very difficult to get a comparable basket of goods for diverse countries with substantially different cultures and consumption norms. In December 2007, the International Comparison Program co-ordinated by the World Bank revised down its PPP estimate of China’s economy by 40 per cent making a considerable difference to the measured size of the Chinese economy in 2005!

The best solution to the problem is the messy one of considering both measures together. Table 3.1 below shows that the United States accounted for 21.1 per cent of global GDP on a purchasing-power-parity basis in 2007, down from 23 per cent in 1995 and 24.5 per cent in 1980. China has rapidly caught up, accounting for 10.1 per cent in 2007 (revised down by the Bank by 6 per cent from earlier 2007 estimates!), up from 5.7 per cent in 1995 and 2.2 per cent in 1980. Measuring shares of global GDP by converting a country’s GDP to US dollars at market exchange rates produces very different results. On this basis, as Table 3.2 shows, in 2007 the United States was more than four times larger than China, accounting for nearly 25.3 per cent of global GDP, compared to 6.0 per cent for China. In 1995, according to this measure, the United States was 10 times larger than China. On an exchange basis, Japan’s relative position increased significantly between 1980 and 1995, with the increased value of the yen in the mid-1990s improving Japan’s position. On an exchange basis, Japan’s share of the world economy declined by half between 1995 and 2007. On a PPP basis, Japan’s economy has declined by a much smaller amount. These tables show that US decline has been gradual and that China’s rise has been mainly at the expense of Japan.
In 2006, the developing world accounted for more than 50 per cent of global GDP (measured on a PPP basis), signalling its growing importance. Developing countries grew at a faster rate between 1995 and 2005 than they did during the previous two decades and considerably faster than developed countries. In 2006, developing countries accounted for 43 per cent of world exports, up from 20 per cent in 1970; half of the energy consumption; and 70 per cent of currency reserves. Many see India as a major challenger to China’s mantle as the most important developing country. While China causes considerable anxiety in the developed world about its growing domination of manufacturing, India creates concerns because of its competitiveness in higher paid service and technology jobs. Outsourcing to India will increase in coming years and become even more important as a topic of debate.

But as The Economist reports:
Since 1995 Asia’s real GDP (even including less sprightly Japan) has grown more than twice as fast as that of America or western Europe. Morgan Stanley forecasts that it will grow by an average of 7% this year and next, compared with 3% for America and 1.2% for western Europe.
Yet a closer look at the figures suggests that the shift in economic power from West to East can be exaggerated. Thanks partly to falling currencies, Asia’s total share of world GDP (in nominal terms at market exchange rates) has actually slipped, from 29% in 1995 to 27% last year (see chart 1). In 2009 Asia’s total GDP exceeded America’s but was still slightly smaller than western Europe’s (although it could overtake the latter this year). To put it another way, the output of the rich West is still almost twice as big as that of the East.


As the graphic makes clear, Asia's (especially) China's growth is considerably more significant when it comes to measurements based on PPP. China's currency is kept artificially low and if allowed to rise China would increase its economic weight, but at the same time it would slightly undermine China's export growth potential as Chinese exports became relatively dearer on global markets.

So what about Asian exports? The Economist reports
the region’s 31% share of world exports last year was not much higher than in 1995 (28%) and remains smaller than western Europe’s. Indeed, the shift towards Asia appears to have slowed, not quickened. Its share of world output and exports surged during the 1980s and early 1990s. Although China’s share has grown since then, this has been largely offset by the decline in Japan, whose share of output and exports has halved.
A renewed emphasis on exports by the US could be an outcome of the economic crisis and the Obama administration aspires to doubling US exports in 5 years. (See "Can Obama Really Double Exports in Five Years?".) This doubling figure of course also requires some unpacking. It would be more meaningful if it meant a doubling of exports in comparison to the rise of GDP rather than a simple doubling of the USD figure.

What about the financial sphere?
Asian stockmarkets account for 34% of global market capitalisation, ahead of both America (33%) and Europe (27%). Asian central banks also hold two-thirds of all foreign-exchange reserves. That sounds impressive, but their influence over global financial markets is more modest, because official reserves account for only around 5% of the world’s total stash of financial assets. The bulk of private-sector wealth still lies in the West. The fact that Asian currencies make up only 3% of total foreign-exchange reserves indicates how far Asia still lags in financial matters.
While there is no doubt that on a PPP basis Asia has been expanding enormously, it's important to remember that Asia's international transactions are mainly conducted in USD. Asia (once again especially China) consumes considerably less than Western countries.
What really matters to Western firms is consumer spending in plain dollar terms. Although over three-fifths of the world’s population live in Asia, they only account for just over one-fifth of global private consumption, much less than America’s 30% share. But official figures almost certainly understate consumer spending in emerging Asia, because of the poor statistical coverage of spending on services. Figures from the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of The Economist, suggest that Asia accounts for around one-third of world retail sales. Asia is now the biggest market for many products, accounting for 35% of all car sales last year and 43% of mobile phones. Asia guzzles 35% of the world’s energy, up from 26% in 1995. It has accounted for two-thirds of the increase in world energy demand since 2000.
Many Western firms are more interested in Asia’s capital spending than its consumption, and here Asia is undoubtedly the giant. In 2009, 40% of global investment (at market exchange rates) took place in Asia, as much as in America and Europe combined. In finance, Asian firms launched eight of the ten biggest initial public offerings (IPOs) in 2009 and more than twice as much capital was raised through IPOs in China and Hong Kong last year as in America.
Finally, The Economist, contains a graphic illustrating just how far Asia fell from its historical position of dominance up until 1800.



This graph, however, provides a lesson that The Economist, perhaps did not intend. Despite its continuing dominance of the world economy until the early nineteenth century, from the mid sixteenth century Europe - led by Spain and Portugal, followed by Holland and England - is clearly in the ascendancy. Gross economic weight is clearly not everything.

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