Posts Tagged ‘contraction in international trade’

China’s retail sales growth figures are not consumption growth figures

Michael Pettis discusses China’s retail sales numbers (not a proxy for consumption) and the mounting trade tensions between China and the U.S. – Ilene

China’s retail sales growth figures are not consumption growth figures

china tradeCourtesy of Michael Pettis at China Financial Markets

A lot of people, via emails, letters and phone calls, have been asking me how I can be so pessimist about consumption growth in China given the spectacular consumption growth figures coming out of China – 15.4% year to date.  An editor who asked me for a piece, after reading it also wondered if my view – that China’s GDP growth would be constrained by its consumption growth – was such a worrying thing given China’s 15% growth rate of consumption. 

The problem is that these are not consumption growth figures.  They are retail sales figures.  Fair enough, you might think, but the retail sales growth rate should still be a reasonable proxy for consumption growth.  It isn’t.  Among lots of other noise retail sales figures include government purchases and shipments to retailers even before these shipments are sold to consumers.  That makes it a very bad proxy for consumption.

Take a look why.  I took the following chart from the September 14 issue of Jim Walker’s excellent Asianomics report.  This shows retail sales for the past decade.  As you can see, first of all, for all the excitement there has not been much of a surge in retail sales.  Secondly, retail sales have been supposedly growing between 13% and 24% for the past six years, which even on an inflation-adjusted basis (I assume it is inflation that explains the late 2007 and early 2008 surge) significantly exceeds GDP growth.  But if retail sales were really a decent proxy for consumption growth, it would be hard to tell from this graph that consumption has plunged as a share of GDP.

China retail sales 

But it has.  Consumption has been growing over the past several years by about 8-9% a year, while GDP has been hurtling forward by 10-12% a year and, not surprisingly, this implies arithmetically that consumption is declining as a share of GDP.

This is supposed to be a short entry, but before closing I should discuss the recent 35% tariffs on Chinese tires imposed by the Obama administration, especially since that seems to have been one of the hottest topics of conversation today. 


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