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Fake China data: was it just one province?

March 13, 2017

Sceptics about China’s economic statistics have taken a special pleasure in revelations of faked data in the north-eastern province of Liaoning dating at least to 2011. Along with an officially reported contraction in its economy last year, they have given the impression that Liaoning’s economy is unusually troubled. That impression may be unfair to Liaoning.

In 2007 when he was party secretary of Liaoning, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made waves when he declared China’s gross domestic product figures “man-made”

Even president Xi Jinping weighed in on Liaoning’s data-faking last week, telling the province’s delegation to China’s annual legislative meeting that “the practice must be stopped”.

But is Liaoning the only province to have doctored its statistics? The map below shows the share of metals and mining (a category that includes crude oil output) in the nominal gross domestic product of Chinese provinces in 2011. China stopped publishing this data in 2012, the same year the commodity cycle turned sour.

The FT examined four provinces that are more reliant than Liaoning on the coal, steel and oil industries. Shanxi, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia comprise China’s coal heartland; Liaoning and Hebei together account for almost one-third of China’s steel output. 

In regions where resources or steel dominate, the commodity cycle is more extreme. Booms inflate the service sector, consumer spending and property prices; busts have an outsized effect on employment and government finances. “China has a rust belt just like the US or UK,” says Andy Rothman, investment strategist at Matthews Asia. 

Here is a look at coal, oil and steel prices since 2012.

These benchmarks were multiplied by each province’s reported output of coal, oil and steel, and charted against the reported growth in GDP. Here is Liaoning. Strangely, when it admitted to a contraction in 2016, steel, coal and oil were already recovering. 

The other provinces show a similar pattern in the three key industries. Output values weakened in 2012, briefly recovered in the second half of 2013 and then took a deep dive. Here is Hebei, home to one-quarter of Chinese steel production:

The worse period was the winter of 2015-2016, followed by a recovery in 2016, as we can see in Shaanxi . . .

. . . and Inner Mongolia . . .

This pattern diverges from reported GDP figures, which show growth speeding up from early 2015. Here’s Shanxi, the most mining-dependent of all Chinese provinces. Metals and mining (mostly coal) made up 62 per cent of its industrial output in 2011, and 37 per cent of GDP.

Did Liaoning actually underperform last year, or were its reported data suddenly brought back in line with reality? And what does that imply about the other rust-belt provinces?

“Liaoning is the most developed and diversified of the three north-eastern provinces, therefore it should have been performing better, not worse,” says Andrew Batson, economist at research group Gavekal Dragonomics who keeps a close eye on the economy in China’s beleaguered north-eastern provinces.

Observers must await the release of five years of corrected data from Liaoning — if indeed it is divulged — if they are to find out what really happened to northern China’s economy when the economic books were being cooked. 

Twitter: @HornbyLucy

Via FT