The Olympic economy

The Olympic economy
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First Published: Mon, Aug 11 2008. 10 04 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Aug 11 2008. 10 04 PM IST
Never in the history of sports has so much money been spent in 15 days.
The $43 billion official bill for this month’s Beijing Games is one-and-a-half times bigger than the previous five Olympics’ bills added together.
And that is just the official spending. Beijing has laid down a lifetime of infrastructure in just three years, including several new metro lines, and a rather fabulous new airport terminal. Then there are the other, less obvious, costs, including the several hundred temporarily shuttered factories, the tens of thousands of labourers unceremoniously sent home, and a huge security budget. No expense has been spared for the Beijing Olympics. Literally.
Despite all this, for us economists, the Olympics is one big non-event. We will enjoy the sports—especially the beach volleyball in Chaoyang Park—as much as the next spectator. But a couple of weeks of sports, even on this scale, will not boost China’s growth or cause the economy to slow when it finishes.
To understand why, think about that $43 billion in context. Official investment spending in China in 2007 totalled $1.6 trillion. So, assuming Olympic investment spending was spread out over three years, it hardly reaches 1% of annual investment spending. Many of the projects, such as the metro, were needed anyway—and that will remain the case in 2009 and beyond.
Much the same can be said about the Olympics’ effect on consumption. Beijing expects around 500,000 visitors. But again, that figure pales in contrast to the 11.6 million documented visitors China hosted in August last year—without the attraction of the Olympics.
All that said, the Games do come at an interesting time for Beijing and China’s economy, more broadly. Economic growth is clearly slowing, but official figures put consumer inflation above 7% annually. Real investment growth has declined (particularly in the construction sector) and the stock market is some 50% off its peak.
The state council last week restated its commitment to combating inflation. That means that most of the controls on bank lending will likely stay in place for a while, causing continued pain for a large chunk of corporate China. And it has made a lot of folks nervous that the tightening policies rolled out in October last year are now overstaying their welcome, particularly as the global economy slips.
Compared with the rest of Asia, China isn’t as vulnerable to a global economic slowdown. Still, exports have powered a good chunk of China’s double-digit growth in recent years. If export growth fell to 7% year-on-year from 21% last year, as we forecast, China’s economy would lose 2-2.5 percentage points of growth. Then there are the second-round effects of an export slowdown on investment and consumption.
China’s economy isn’t on the brink of collapse. The economy will likely expand by more than 8% next year, and employment will continue to rise. If the global slowdown takes a turn for the worse, Beijing could launch a fiscal stimulus package, cut interest rates and encourage banks to lend. That said, no one really knows what two or three years of much slower global growth would mean for China. And there is clearly a rising risk of mismanaging policy in this more challenging environment.
None of this hinges on the Olympics. The Games may have sped up infrastructure spending and given a temporary boost to Beijing’s bottom line, but that will be it, as far as the economics go. The challenge for China’s economy comes from other quarters. The Olympics is the least of their worries.
The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Stephen Green is head of China research at Standard Chartered Bank. Comments are welcome at
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First Published: Mon, Aug 11 2008. 10 04 PM IST