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The effect of exchange rates and varying living standards can also skew cross-border economic comparisons leaving us with a distorted
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worldview In theory, market exchange rates should adjust perfectly so that the same good and service have the same price in different countries But in practice, imperfect capital mobility (currency controls in the extreme case) and practical concerns such as transportation costs prevent exchange markets from working perfectly Each year the World Bank gathers data from countries in their local currency and adjusts that to a base value relative to US dollars If a country s currency weakens, like Argentina s did in 2001, for example, the economy looks dramatically different from just a year earlier Argentina s economy theoretically shrank by two-thirds in dollar terms from 2000 to the end of 2001 Does that mean that Argentina produced only one-third in 2001 of what it produced in 2000 No It is likely the amount of food consumed and things bought were about the same But in US dollar terms, the ultimate value was much less Conversely, a country whose currency is gaining against the dollar will see its economy grow dramatically To avoid this, several organizations, including the World Bank, have opted to look at economies on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis a measurement that equalizes the purchasing power of currencies in their home countries for a given basket of goods Of course, this causes concerns over what we include in this basket but still is probably more accurate than a GDP measurement at market exchange rates13 By de ning a set of comparable goods across countries and asking how many units of the local currency are needed to buy this in relation to a base currency (usually US dollars), PPP helps to avoid the aws of exchange markets When GDP is adjusted by this recalculated exchange rate, the gure is effectively adjusted to mirror the real purchasing power14 To see PPP in action, consider that the 2006 GDP per capita of Germany in USD market prices is 17 times that of China ($35,000 versus $2,000) However, taking proper account of the fact that the products and services people need to sustain their standard of living are substantially cheaper in China than they are in Germany and adjusting the GDP gures by this we nd that the PPP adjusted per capita GDP in Germany is only four times that of China ($31,000 vs $7,600)21 Indeed, the result of a PPP adjustment will most commonly be a reduction of the spread between rich and poor countries in terms of GDP levels
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Population Growth and Per Capita GDP
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Another simple but overlooked issue with GDP relates to population growth: The more a population grows, the more GDP grows Remember our earlier equation: GDP = Population Per Capita Output When a government reports its country s GDP has expanded 3 percent this year, if the population has also increased by 3 percent, per capita GDP is actually at In this respect, it is amazing that everyone on Wall Street frets and quibbles about whether real GDP growth will be fractionally positive or negative every 90 days Given that the US population is growing by roughly 10 to 15 percent a year, a GDP growth rate below that means the real per capita income is actually contracting Isn t this a more insightful way of looking at GDP If you look at a recent ve-year snapshot of a country s economic performance, you get a very different picture using per capita versus using aggregate data Comparing Japan and the United States from 2003 through 2007 reveals interesting results The popular perception is that the United States dynamic economy was outperforming Japan s While America s annualized GDP growth of 29 percent beat Japan s 21 percent, the per capita calculation adjusts GDP surprisingly The US population increased about 1 percent per annum during this period while Japan s was fairly at (and even began to shrink) Considering US population growth, Japan s economy actually grew slightly faster Moreover, using growth in GDP per capita rather than simple aggregate GDP growth reveals a strikingly different picture of other countries economic health For example, for the recent 2003 2007 period, Australia looked like it had one of the fastest growth rates among the major industrialized nations, expanding by 33 percent annually on average But Australia also had one of the biggest increases in population during these ve years When GDP is adjusted to a per capita gure, Australia and Japan actually grew at roughly the same pace Likewise, Spain has been perceived as one of the fastest growing economies in the Eurozone, but from 2005 2008 output per person grew more slowly than in Germany, which like Japan, was depopulating With similar population adjustments, even some lauded emerging economies in recent years look less attractive For example, Brazil s per capita expansion was only 23 percent per annum from 2003 2007
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