Piketty with Chinese Characteristics

HONG KONG – In his bestselling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty argues that capitalism aggravates inequality through several mechanisms, all of which are based on the notion that r (the return on capital) falls less quickly than g (growth in income). While debate about Piketty’s work has focused largely on the advanced economies, this fundamental concept fits China’s recent experience, and thus merits closer examination.

Of course, a large share of China’s population has gained from three decades of unprecedentedly rapid GDP growth. The fixed-capital investments that have formed the basis of China’s growth model largely have benefited the entire economy; infrastructure improvements, for example, have enabled the rural poor to increase their productivity and incomes.

As the investment rate rose to almost half of GDP, the share of consumption fell to as little as a third. The government, recognizing the need to rebalance growth, began to raise the minimum wage in 2011 at nearly double the rate of real GDP growth, ensuring that the average household had more disposable income to spend.

But property prices have risen faster than wages and profits in manufacturing, causing the return on capital for a select few real-estate owners to grow faster than China’s GDP. The same group has also benefited from the leverage implied by strong credit growth. As a result, China’s top 1% income earners are accumulating wealth significantly faster than their counterparts in the rest of the world – and far faster than the average Chinese.