Some Simple Arithmetic on China’s Growth Slowdown

What does China’s growth slowdown mean to you?

I ask here not about the New World Order, Global Power Shifts, or whether the US retains its position as global hegemon. Nor do I mean the impact on the world economy, a colossal actual thing, but still a relatively abstract concept.

2015.01-Danny.Quah-China-GDP-rel-trend-IMF-WEO-2014.10No, I mean, what does this slowdown in 2015 mean for you, in the rest of the world, looking to China as an export market; or you, in China, seeking employment as your economy’s labour market adjusts to its New Normal.

In 2014 China’s GDP grew 7.4%, its slowest rate of increase since 1990. This seems an epic change from when that economy regularly turned in double-digit growth. The effect of this slowdown on those who sell to China and on those working in China must be extreme.

But maybe not.  Why? Let’s do the arithmetic.

Suppose the year is not 2015 but 2005, exactly a decade ago, and you’re an exporter, somewhere in the rest of the world, predicting China will grow, say, 12% over the coming 12 months. China’s GDP then was US$2.3tn at market exchange rates.

(Since you’re selling to China, you don’t care about Purchasing Power Parity correction. What matters to you are nominal values at market exchange rates, i.e., in this case the size of China’s footprint in the global market place at rates of exchange that see actual financial value changing hands.)

You expect China’s marketplace will increase by US$274bn (12% of US$2.3tn). Whatever fraction of that market you sell to, that’s what counts for your bottom line.

Now, fast forward to 2015. China’s growth might be as low as 7% these next 12 months. But, meantime China’s economy has become a lot larger than it was in 2005. How much larger? The IMF’s World Economic Outlook Oct 2014 forecast that for 2015 China’s economy, at market exchange rates, will come in at US$11.3tn. At this scale, growth of a mere 7% will increase the size of China’s footprint in the global economy by US$790bn over the next 12 months.

To put matters in perspective, this increase of US$790bn is 2.8 times the size of the increase of US$274bn 10 years ago. Thus, even at an expected growth rate a full five percentage points lower than that someone a decade ago might have optimistically forecast, China will generate economic growth in absolute magnitude almost 3 times larger than it did then.

But, wait, the world today overall, not just China, has changed. A representative exporter will gauge prospects for selling to China based not just on China’s scale, but also that of their own economy.  Let’s do the arithmetic on that.

Suppose you’re an exporting business in the US. Ten years ago US GDP was US$13.1tn; the IMF reckons that in 2015 the US economy will produce GDP equal to US$18.3tn. Relative to the size of the US economy, China’s expected 7% expansion in 2015 will be an increase in a potential export market of 4.3%; ten years ago, that same ratio was just 2.1%. Put differently, China’s expansion over the next 12 months – even at only 7% – will represent for a typical US exporter, relative to the economy he lives in, more than a doubling of the increase in size of this potential export market.

And what if you’re not in the US? If you’re in the EU, China’s expansion is even more of an increased opportunity. Only if you’re a fast-growing economy like the ASEAN-5, does China’s 7% growth mean something not quite so large. But even then, the worst you can say is that China’s 7% growth means you can expect simply the same relative increase in export business with China as you did a decade ago.  That’s hardly a catastrophe.

(The Table below traces out a range of numbers, confirming that the positive outcome I’ve just described for the US and the EU continues to hold even if China went to 6% growth, only a little bit less so.  Of course if China’s growth comes in at 8%, the news is correspondingly better.)

But, finally, what about the capacity of China’s economy to create jobs? In 2013, the latest year reported in the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, China’s labour force numbered 793.3mn. China’s average productivity (using IMF WEO GDP numbers) was, therefore, US$11,900; this had grown by 12% from the previous year. If productivity were to continue to grow at that same rate, then an expansion of China’s GDP by US$790bn will generate 53mn new jobs. Since China’s rural population is about 500mn (slightly less than half of its total population), if all those 53mn new jobs were urban, this would still absorb 10% of the rural population as migrants.

(Again, the Table below shows what would happen for variation around this scenario.)

The conclusion? China in 2015 is a very different economy from even just 10 years earlier. China has changed far more than the world has in this time. A 7% growth rate is obviously lower than an 8% one. So, whatever good comes from a 7% growth rate, at the margin a growth rate a little higher will be even better.  But, quantifying the changes that have taken place in the global economy, a 7% growth rate for China today means something even more positive than did a 12% growth rate ten years ago.

One can of course imagine scenarios where China’s slowdown ends up much worse for, say, ASEAN, than that indicated here. If spillovers (not from trade connections but something else) unfurled across the rest of the world as a consequence, then a China shock would come with far more damaging effects on the ASEAN economy. But just as plausibly a China slowdown might itself be caused by, perhaps, a resurgence in US manufacturing. Then the overall effects on ASEAN or anywhere else in the world will depend on the relative strengths of the two opposing effects: the US driving ASEAN exports against China slowing them.  However that unfolds, the final effect on ASEAN will not be caused by just a slowdown in China’s growth. Finally, if China’s growth slows from having switched to greater reliance on domestic consumption, then export opportunities for the rest of the world will simply be correspondingly larger.


* This first appeared in Brookings Future Development, 18 February 2015, as “The Simple Arithmetic of China’s Growth Slowdown”.

  1. Professor ,if I may ask , do you think that last year’s slowest rate of increase is more or less related to President Xi Jin Ping ‘s anti-corruption ( eg Zhou Yong Kang )? If yes , how much in arithmetic do you think it brought on our GDP ?Last year was a big change-over for China.What I saw is after anti-corruption , it struck restaurants , consumptions etc.

  2. China 7% in 2015 shakes the world | DQ-1s - pingback on 2015.01.27 at 928h

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