China has overtaken the US to become the world’s largest industrial producer

China has overtaken the US to become the world’s largest industrial producer

By John Ross

The period since the international financial crisis began has for the first time in over a century seen the US displaced as the world’s largest industrial producer – this position has now been taken by China. It has also witnessed the greatest shift in the balance of global industrial production in such a short period in world economic history. In 2010 China’s industrial output exceeded the US marginally but this has now been consolidated into a more than 20% lead with the gap still widening further.

In 2007, on UN data, China’s total industrial production was only 62% of the US level. By 2011, the latest available comparable statistics, China’s industrial output had risen to 120% of the US level. China’s industrial production in 2011 was $2.9 trillion compared to $2.4 trillion in the US – this data is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1
13 08 25 Chart 1 US & China Industrial Production

When the comparable data is released for 2012, China’s lead will have increased substantially– between December 2011 and December 2012 China’s industrial output increased by 10.3% whereas US industrial production increased by only 2.7%. Calculations based on estimates in the CIA’s World Factbook indicate in 2012 the value of China’s industrial production was $3.7 trillion compared to $2.9 trillion for the US – which would mean China’s industrial production was 126% of the US level.

Taking only manufacturing – that is excluding mining, electricity, gas and water production – in 2007 China’s output was 62% of the US level, by 2011 it was 123%. Again the gap has widened in 2012 and 2013.
No other country’s industrial production now even approaches China – in 2011 China’s industrial output was 235% of Japan’s and 346% of Germany’s.

World Bank data, using a slightly different calculation of value added in industry, confirms the shift. On World Bank data China’s industrial production in 2007 was only 60% of the US level, whereas by 2011 it was 121%.

Therefore in only a six year period China has moved from its industrial production being less than two thirds of the US to overtaking the US by a substantial margin. If China was the ‘workshop of the world’ before the international financial crisis it is far more so now.

The trends producing such dramatic shifts in such a short period are shown in Figure 2. In six years China’s industrial output almost doubled while industrial production in the US, Europe and Japan has not even regained pre-crisis levels. To give precise statistics, between July 2007 and July 2013 China’s industrial production increased by 97% while US industrial output declined by 1%. Industrial production data for July is not yet available for the EU and Japan, but between June 2007 and June 2013 EU industrial output fell by 9% and Japan’s by 17%.

Figure 2
13 08 25 Chart 2 China & Advanced Industrial Production

It is this enormous rise in China’s output which also drove the much discussed global shift in industrial production in favor of developing countries – in the six year period to June 2013, the latest date for which combined data is available, industrial production in advanced economies fell by 7% while output in developing economies rose by 65%.

As is clear from Figure 3, China accounted for the overwhelming bulk of the increase in the developing economies. Industrial production in Latin America rose by 5%, in Africa and the Middle East by 6%, and in Eastern Europe by 10%. But China’s industrial production in this period rose by 100% – industrial output in developing Asia as a whole rose by 65%, but the majority of this was accounted for by China.

Figure 3

13 08 25 Chart 3 Advanced & Developing Industrial Production

The quite literally historic scale of these shifts makes clear that by far the most important development in world industrial production in the last period is this extraordinary rise of China. Between 2007 and 2011 China’s industrial production rose by $1,465 billion, in current prices, while US industrial output rose by only $88 billion in current prices and declined slightly in inflation adjusted terms. China’s industrial production rose by 17 times as much as the US.

Such a rise in China’s industrial production has consequences spreading far beyond industry itself. Industry has easily the most rapid increase in productivity of any economic sector – notably compared to services. The decline of industrial production in the EU and Japan, and relative stagnation in the US, means China is cutting the productivity gap between itself and the advanced economies. This is crucial for progress in raising China’s relative GDP per capita and living standards.

This rising productivity also explains why China’s exports have been able to maintain their competitiveness despite substantial increases in the exchange rate of China’s currency the RMB. On Bank for International Settlements data, the RMB’s nominal exchange rate rose by 25% between July 2007 and July 2013. But China’s real effective exchange rate, that is taking into account the combined effect of the nominal exchange rate and inflation, rose by 31% But despite this major currency revaluation China’s exports continued to exceed its imports.

The ability of China to successfully absorb such high increases in its exchange rate, due to high levels of industrial productivity increases, directly translates into relatively lower prices for imports and improved relative living standards for China’s population.

This data also settles the dispute between who believed there was a major industrial revival in the US, such as the Boston Consulting Group, and Goldman Sachs and other analysts who correctly concluded no such major revival has occurred. Those in China, such as Lang Xianping, who wrote that a great US industrial revival was taking place and China’s industry was in crisis look foolish in the light of data showing China’s industrial output doubled in a period when US industrial production did not grow at all. The only reason US industrial performance does not appear very weak, with negative net growth over a six year period, is because of the even worse performance of a major decline in industrial output in the other advanced economic centers – the EU and Japan.

It is naturally important not to exaggerate this scale of advance by China in industrial production. China’s industrial output is now considerably larger in value terms than the US, but the United States retains a substantial technological lead which it will take China a considerable period to catch up with. Due to a long period of globalization and consolidation by US companies, both processes which are only at early stages in China, US manufacturing firms are still four times the size of China’s in terms of overall global revenue– although between 2007 and 2013 Chinese manufacturing firms overtook Germany to become the third largest manufacturing companies of any country.

The scale of these changes in world industrial production also make clear that in comparison to developments in China gas and oil ‘fracking’ in the US, which have attracted widespread media attention, is merely a statistical sideshow – as already noted overall US industrial production has not even recovered to pre-crisis levels.

For the first time for over a century the US has been definitively replaced as the world’s largest industrial producer. Such a once in a century shift can literally only be described as historic.


This article originally appeared in Key Trends in Globalisation