China's fans can now look forward to shouting, "We're No. 1" – at least when it comes to global economic rankings.
The Asian nation, already the key driver of global growth since the Great Recession flattened most Western economies in 2008-09, is poised to vault past the United States later this year and become the world's largest economy, when measured by the purchasing power of its currency.
That surprising forecast comes from the data crunchers who run the International Comparison Program, a coalition of major statistical agencies housed at the World Bank. Their new outlook slices five years or more off most economy watchers' estimate of the time it will take for China to ascend to the top spot.
But while the new calculation is bound to lift the spirits of Chinese officials wrestling with a dangerous financial bubble, endemic corruption and a slew of economic problems, it does not mean China has found a way to drive growth at a much faster pace than anyone thought. Nor does it signal that the Chinese have suddenly taken a giant step closer to the standards of living in developed countries.
What it does mean is that the boffins at the ICP have fiddled with their abacuses and come up with a new, improved way of measuring economic size.
Their revised methodology for calculating purchasing power parity – or what most of us would call the real cost of day-to-day living – led the ICP to conclude that large developing economies, led by China and India, were expanding a lot faster than previously thought.
Their estimate is based on a detailed analysis of global economic data for 2011. (No one can accuse the stats folks of rushing to judgment.) Based on its new improved methodology, the ICP figures that China's GDP had already reached 86.9 per cent of the U.S. level by that point.
Add in the International Monetary Fund's growth calculations for the two countries between 2011 and now – 24 per cent for China and a mere 7.6 per cent for the U.S. – and, presto, we are on the verge of having a new world title-holder for the first time since 1872.
Of course, that's assuming we trust the new measurement methods. The last time the ICP performed this exercise, using 2005 data, it had calculated that the Chinese economy was a mere 43 per cent the size of its U.S. counterpart. Even allowing for several years of impressive Chinese expansion and sluggish U.S. growth, the new estimate marks a major revision.
At actual market exchange rates, China's economy remains about three-fifths the U.S. size. By that standard, its people only have about 10 per cent of the spending capacity of Americans, putting them in the same ballpark as Iraqis and Bolivians, for now.
China itself, which has been known to employ a little legerdemain when it comes to meeting or exceeding mandated growth targets, wants nothing to do with the crown that the ICP has bestowed on it.
Beijing's National Bureau of Statistics "expressed reservations" about the methodology and "did not agree to publish the headline results for China," the World Bank report said. The lack of Chinese data didn't stop the ICP, which simply came up with its own estimates and then duly acknowledged that China's stats agency "does not endorse these results as official statistics."
There are good geopolitical reasons for China's reticence on this subject. It much prefers to be regarded as a still-developing country that can't afford the trappings and obligations that come with real-world economic power. The last thing it wants is more pressure to reform currency, investment and environmental practices.
On balance, the ICP's revised approach to comparing economies needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. It's not time just yet to order new ball caps printed with China and a big red No. 1.