About those calls for the Chinese to save less…

Most economists think China runs an excessively large current account surplus, and also invests too much.  To reduce both investment and the CA surplus at the same time they’d have to massively reduce saving. Meanwhile, back in the real world:

Policy makers and economists have long been worried about the financial burden of China’s expanding patchwork of pension schemes, but those concerns have recently escalated as its rural pension scheme took off in the past three years.

The funding shortage is daunting: economists say it could blow out to a whopping $10.8 trillion in the next 20 years from $2.6 trillion in 2010, towering over China’s $3 trillion onshore savings, the biggest hoard of domestic savings in the world.

Time is not on China’s side. Its fast-maturing society and economy — thanks to a one-child policy and a rapid rise in living standards — demand better pension coverage in future.

Yet China is already straining to hold things up.

Funding capacity is not keeping pace with swift growth in pension coverage as China sticks to safe but low-yielding investments for its pension funds.

To make bad matters worse, retirements are getting pricier on an ageing population, a shrinking work force, longer life expectancies, early retirements and generous pension payouts.

So pressing are China’s pension problems that analysts say they can no longer be ignored. Xi Jinping, China’s president-in-waiting, must raise retirement ages and supply pension funds with state assets for financing after he takes power next year.

.  .  .


The number of Chinese over 65 years of age, at 123 million, virtually matches Japan’s total population, and is rising fast due to the one-child policy Beijing adopted in the 1970s.

According to the World Bank, China is ageing so rapidly it grayed in the last 40 years, whereas ageing societies in the United States and the United Kingdom took a century to form.

The problem of growing old, fast, is most acute in the countryside, where thousands of villages are “hollowed out” as working adults abandon farms to migrate to cities in search of better lives, leaving the young and old behind.

The old-age dependency ratio, or the number of elderly people as a share of those of working age, will hit 34.4 percent in rural China by 2030, compared to 21.1 percent in urban areas, and up from 13.5 percent in 2008, the World Bank said.

.  .  .

Many analysts believe China’s labor force will shrink from 2015, hurt by stubbornly low birth rates and an ageing populace, a trend expected to drive up wages in the world’s factory floor in years ahead, and henceforth global inflation.

To beat the demographic challenge, Beijing hastened the roll-out in 2009 of a voluntary pension scheme for 657 million rural residents, the equivalent of two United States.

To get a minimum 55 yuan a month in retirement, or a tenth of last year’s average monthly wage in the countryside, rural workers must pay at least 100 yuan a year for 15 years.

In China’s richer eastern provinces, payouts are much higher because workers pay more, and local governments and private firms have the means to match payments. In cities, for example, the monthly pension is 28 times higher at an average 1,531 yuan.

But whatever the payout, most of the financial burden falls squarely on the government. State subsidies accounted for 61 percent of total rural pension revenues in 2011, with personal contributions making up the rest.

“The ageing population in the countryside is rising faster than urban areas, which could pressure the premature rural pension system,” said Cai Fang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a respected government think-tank.


At face value, China’s pension system should not drain state coffers since payouts start low. Yet, an OECD study of global pension systems ranked China’s as among the most generous and least sustainable, after the Philippines.

China’s pension benefit as a share of retirees’ average lifetime wages, also known as replacement rate, stands at 78 percent for male workers, above an OECD average of 57 percent, France’s 49 percent, and the United States’ 39 percent.

The replacement rate climbs to 98 percent for low-income earners, much higher than the United States’ 52 percent in that category.

Early retirement, especially for women, further bulks up the pension bill at a time when people are also living longer. Blue-collared female workers retire from 50 years old in China, a decade earlier than a minimum 60 in the west.

And there is the problem of finding the cash to pay for retirees. Beijing only allows rural pension funds to invest in one-year deposits, whose paltry returns lag wage growth.

In China’s fragmented urban pension funds that manage over 1.1 trillion yuan in 2010, real returns were as dismal as under 1 percent for some.

Trapped by rising costs and deficient funding, China spends about 40 percent of state earnings on pension, compared to under 15 percent in Japan and the United States, the OECD said.

Stretched, China’s local governments are widely believed to be emptying 2.2 trillion yuan worth of pension accounts of young working adults today to pay for current retirees, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said.

But such financial wizardry does not get rid of the crater in China’s pension budget, said economists Ma Jun and Cao Yuanzheng from Deustche Bank and Bank of China respectively.

Funding shortfalls hit 16.5 trillion yuan in 2010, the two economists said, and will quadruple to a stunning 68.2 trillion yuan by 2033. That is about 40 percent of China’s gross domestic product, assuming its economy grows 6 percent a year.

Unless China diverts 80 percent of dividends from listed state firms to pension funds to balance the pension account by 2050, they said, the nation may suffer “enormous fiscal stress”.

For migrant worker Li Mei, however, the problem is less abstract. Corruption that has pilfered the nest egg of some retirees is her biggest worry.

“I didn’t join the rural pension system and will not in future. It’s safest to put my money in my own pocket,” 40-year-old Li said. “I prefer to trust myself over others.”

Given the advice China is getting from Western economists, that’s probably a wise move by Ms. Li.

PS.  Commenter Rob lives in the same part of Beijing where I stay when I visit.  He left the following comment:

Southern Haidian near Shijinshan(actually right on the border, the school I teach at is in Haidian and my apartment is in Shijinshan). I am always amazed at how the PPP figures don’t seem to do justice to the difference in purchasing power, and that is given that I am living in on of the most expensive cities in China. I’ve also spent some time in Xuchang which was significantly cheaper than Beijing(prices for food and services were probably less than half). The size of the underground economy in the capital city also suggests that GDP figures grossly underestimate standard of living.

That’s why I think China’s economy is already about the same size as the US economy.



6 Responses to “About those calls for the Chinese to save less…”

  1. Gravatar of Bosco Ho Bosco Ho
    6. October 2012 at 06:47

    Corruption is probably one of the biggest problems – if not the biggest problem – undermines the modernization of China in every way

    Unfortunately, the Gu and Bo case demonstrate the pervasiveness of the practice and it is a near impossibility for the pot to be the overload of kettle on moral grounds

    Sadly, considering the size of its economy, especially if the conjecture that it is on the par with the US’s is correct, its corruption problem will have serious repercussions worldwide

  2. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    6. October 2012 at 07:08

    The question is, will China’s Social Security bring down its government before America’s Social Security brings down its government?

  3. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    7. October 2012 at 08:07

    Noah Smith points out on Twitter that China’s capital/labor ratio is still low, another good reason to save.

  4. Gravatar of Ritwik Ritwik
    7. October 2012 at 13:28


    The point is not that the Chinese should save less. But that they should consume more. You don’t see a massive AD failure in a country that has so many poor people and yet has to find international markets for its production?

  5. Gravatar of Ritwik Ritwik
    7. October 2012 at 13:30

    Sorry, I meant ‘so many people yet to reach a half-decent level of consumption’ instead of ‘poor people’

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. October 2012 at 08:26

    Ritwik, That’s a defensible argument, but what about the demographic time bomb? When they look to Europe right now, what do the Chinese see in places like Greece, which pursued a high consumption policy that successfully boosted the incomes of the poor much more than those of the wealthy (until 2008.) Yes, it sounds good, but what about Greece?

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