China And Electricity Usage

I’m beginning to sound like a broken record on the subject of growth in China’s economy, so I promise this will be the last I write about it. Unless, of course, I find something really compelling.

John Gould at the Atlantic takes up the same meme I’ve been pounding on — the growth numbers are hard to buy when you look at energy usage.

Until recently, we’ve been pretty sanguine about China’s statistics. However, the International Energy Agency has recently cast doubt on China’s official 6.1% on-year GDP growth for Q1 2009 as being at least a little sketchy in light of a 3.5% drop in China’s oil demand in the same quarter. This followed earlier skepticism about the Q4 2008 numbers, which showed GDP up 6.8% from the same period in ’07, even though indicators like construction, car sales, and tax revenue showed decline. Now, according to an IEA report being presented to G8 energy ministers over the weekend, global electricity consumption will fall this year for the first time since 1945 (!) — a contributing factor being a 2% drop in China, where, the Financial Times notes, “power use is seen as a more reliable barometer of economic activity than official economic measures.”

I expect these inconsistencies would be pretty interesting to anyone looking to find a place in the Chinese economy. For that matter, I expect they’d be of interest to anyone exposed to the Chinese economy at all. China-focused exchange-traded funds (e.g., FXI, PGJ, GXG), for instance, have done impressively well year-to-date. But given the new IEA report, I’d have to ask myself how much of this rally is based on Chinese government stats — and if I had money in those ETFs, how much of it I’d want to leave on the table.

There may be an explanation for this but I’ve yet to hear it stated. It’s also entirely possible that growth was less in the first quarter and China finds a way to bust out sooner than the rest of the world. Until either I hear a good rebuttal or China does show some reliable growth numbers, I’m going to maintain my skepticism.

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