China’s 2020 GDP means it will overtake U.S. as world’s No. 1 economy sooner than expected

January 18, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

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China’s standout economic growth in 2020’s pandemic-battered global economy has led analysts to update their forecasts for when China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy to as early as 2026.

On Monday, China reported a year-on-year increase of 6.5% for the fourth quarter of 2020 and a 2.3% increase for all of 2020, surpassing analysts’ forecasts and making China the the only major economy to log positive growth in 2020.

Nomura Holdings had estimated China’s economy would surpass the U.S.’s in 2030, but China’s economic performance in 2020 caused the firm to shorten that timeline to 2028, extrapolating from International Monetary Fund projections, or to as early as 2026 if renminbi appreciation continues.

The pandemic “dealt a much larger blow to the U.S. economy than to China’s economy,” the Nomura report said. “Time will tell, but in our view there is a high likelihood that 2026 will be the milestone at which China re-emerges as the world’s largest economy.”

Nomura’s estimate, like other analysts’ projections, measures when China will overtake the U.S. in market exchange rates. Economists use gross domestic product to measure the size of a country’s economy, and there are two ways to compare GDP figures: by using purchasing power parity (PPP), which compares the prices of goods in each country (the Big Mac Index, for example) or by using market exchange rates to convert a country’s nominal GDP in its own currency to a common one, in most cases the U.S. dollar.

In PPP terms, China’s GDP overtook the U.S.’s in 2017, according to Nomura, but using market exchange rates rather than PPP to compare economies is “a logical choice when financial flows are involved.”

The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), a U.K.-based think tank, similarly revised its estimate for when the Chinese economy would surpass the U.S. A late December report from CEBR said China GDP would eclipse U.S. GDP for the first time in 2028—five years earlier than the firm’s previous estimate—and said the pandemic prompted the revision.

“For some time, an overarching theme of global economics has been the economic and soft power struggle between the United States and China,” the CEBR report said. “The COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding economic fallout have certainly tipped this rivalry in China’s favor.”

While China’s domestic economy rebounds, other major economies, like the U.S., are struggling to control the spread of the coronavirus and return to pre-pandemic economic growth.

China’s GDP will grow 5.7% per year until 2025, followed by 4.5% annually until 2030, CEBR estimates, while the U.S. economy will grow 1.9% per year from 2022 to 2024 and then 1.6% per year “for the rest of the forecast horizon.”

Oxford Economics changed its prediction for when China’s economy will overtake the U.S.’s from 2030 to 2029 because of the pandemic. “China has coped with the pandemic better than the U.S.,” said Louis Kujis, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics.

Bruce Pang, head of macro and strategy research at China Renaissance, has a slightly longer timetable for the cross-over, but he also shortened his estimate because of the pandemic. Pang says it will be “ten years or longer” before China overtakes the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. Before the pandemic, Pang says, he had estimated it would take around 15 years.

“While the global backdrop continues to be uncertain and other hard-hit economies are still a long way off from returning to pre-pandemic growth levels,” said Pang, “we think China will act as the primary engine and vital stabilizer of the global economy.”

Yifan Zhang, an associate professor of economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, didn’t have an exact guess for the year China’s economy will become the world’s biggest. “Whether it’s 2026 or 2028 or 2030 matters less,” Zhang said. “On the day when China becomes the largest economy again, it signals there’s a shift of power between the East and West.”