China: how will its mass urbanization impact the global economy

China’s impact on the global economy is hard to overstate.

Not only is it the world’s second largest economy (by country, not region), but also the source of a huge amount of incremental growth over the last 15 years.

I’ve seen estimates that over 50% of the demand for iron ore and copper comes from China. Almost 50% of worldwide steel is produced in China. I once read that China has used as much concrete in 2011 and 2012 as the U.S. used in the 20th century! I don’t know if such estimates are specifically accurate, but their magnitude gives you a flavor of how China has impacted the global economy. In short, the economic crisis since 2008 would have looked a lot worse without China.

Given that, it’s important to consider the impact of China on future economic growth. 

One of the dynamics going on in China is the move from a more production-based to a consumption-based economy. China is approximately 34% consumer-based versus 70% in the U.S. China has built an economy, predominantly from the top down, that has mostly produced goods for other countries, like the U.S., Europe and Japan. But that source of growth was limited. You can only take market share for so long before you need to become your own source of growth.

China is trying to make that transition, but getting a command and control economy to do that without large disruptions is very difficult. 

One aspect of such a transition is having hundreds of millions of Chinese farmers move from the hinterland to cities. In cities, they can work in factories and produce much more than they can on the farm. That higher productivity leads to higher consumption, thus achieving China’s goals. 

But, how do you move hundreds of millions of people from farm to city. In the west, and Japan, that transition took place over many decades, and mostly organically (by organically, I mean through free market forces, not through government fiat). Those transitions led to disruptions, just as it will in China.

China, however, is trying to do this much more quickly and on a much more massive scale. China wants to move around 235 million people to cities over the next 20 years. For perspective, that’s the size of the 10 largest cities in the world now (from Tokyo at 37 million to Mexico City at 20 million). Can you even imagine trying to regrow 10 of the largest cities in the world, over the next 20 years? (for more information, read Stratfor’s article on the subject)

Achieving such a task is Herculean, and it will impact the global economy.

How? I don’t know. It could all happen smoothly, which I consider unlikely. It could occur with either international or domestic war, as such pressures have created throughout history. It could happen in fits and starts with massive swings in economic growth from boom to bust. No one knows, really, but it bears watching.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

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China: how will its mass urbanization impact the global economy

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