Tuesday, May 20, 2008

You have 7 years to learn Mandarin


Forget cheap imports. China's rise will soon be a force on Wall Street and Main Street and in Silicon Valley.

(Fortune Magazine) -- Back in 2001 when the International Olympic Committee chose Beijing as the site of this summer's games, the event was meant to mark China's debut as a player on the global economic stage. But a recent study by the economist Angus Maddison projects that China will become the world's dominant economic superpower much sooner than expected - not in 2050, but in 2015.

While short-term investors are already cashing in on China's growth by playing the global commodities boom, smart long-term thinkers are contemplating what happens when China matures from an exporter of cheap goods to a competitor in sectors where the U.S. is dominant - technology, brand building, finance. China has almost wiped U.S. makers of low-value items like toys and socks, but by 2015 it may threaten Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500), J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500), and Procter & Gamble (PG, Fortune 500). It will increasingly influence the S&P 500 and the mutual funds in our 401(k)s. So it's worth looking at how that will happen, what it means, and what anyone can do in the seven years before the baton is passed.

Just using the exchange rate to convert China's GDP into dollars isn't helpful in comparing the two economies, because China controls its exchange rate; by that method, China's economy might not pass America's for decades. Exchange rates apply only to tradable products and services; they aren't very useful in valuing nontradable goods in a country like China that is much poorer than the United States. So we need some way to compare the real value of China's economic output with America's, and economists have developed one. It is called purchasing power parity.

For example, Chinese construction workers earn a whole lot less than Americans do, yet they can still build top-quality buildings. If we used the exchange rate, the value of a new skyscraper in Shanghai would count much less toward China's GDP than an identical building in Chicago would count toward America's, which makes no sense. Purchasing power parity corrects the problem.

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