Global economic growth is going to depend more and more on Chinese consumers and their growing buying power. So it would be nice if we felt like could rely on official figures about consumption in China. An article in the latest edition of The Economist raises some doubts: In 2012, according to estimates by Jonathan Garner and Helen Qiao of Morgan Stanley, a bank, the Chinese spent over 2.3 trillion yuan ($370 billion) on domestic tourism alone. And yet China’s GDP statistics captured only a tiny part of that spending, they argue, as well as missing spending on financial services, health care and housing. As a result, official figures show private consumption languishing at around 35% of GDP. Morgan Stanley’s “bottom-up” calculations, by contrast, imply that it has grown since 2008 to almost 46% of GDP (see chart). Mr Garner and Ms Qiao draw on company reports and industry studies to fill gaps in the official data, which, they say, undercounted consumption by $1.6 trillion in 2012, more than Australia’s entire GDP. Their calculations echo earlier studies, which also found that official statistics undercount consumption, albeit by a smaller margin. As well as stuff bought offshore, spending online is also undercounted, the two economists argue. On a single weekend in November, Chinese consumers spent more than $3 billion on two websites, Taobao and Tmall (both part of Alibaba, an online giant), in celebration of “singles’ day”, the bachelor’s equivalent of Valentine’s day. But official statistics have failed to keep pace with changing consumer habits, Ms Qiao argues, neglecting entire categories of e-spending. Online gaming, for example, is largely missing. Yet it amounted to 53 billion yuan ($8.5 billion) last year, according to Morgan Stanley’s tally of revenues earned by online gaming firms. China’s statistics have long been viewed with scepticism or worse. Some economists worry that they fail to reflect reality, others that they slavishly reflect political imperatives. In 2002 Thomas Rawski of the University of Pittsburgh complained about a “tornado of deception”. Five years later Carsten Holz, then of Princeton University, said that official statistics should be taken with a “rock of salt”. When Li Keqiang, now China’s prime minister, was party chief of Liaoning province in 2007, he called the province’s output figures “man-made” and “for reference only”. Read Bottums up here .
Filed under: GDP, consumer spending, consumption, global economy, growth, emerging economies, The Economist, China, statistics, long term growth, structural change, Chinese consumers, World GDP