The Wall Street Journal – After decades of blistering construction, China could overtake the U.S. as the world’s wealthiest nation in terms of built assets as early as next year.
That’s one of the findings of the Global Built Asset Wealth Index, a study that compares 30 countries in terms of their roads, airports, power plants, apartment buildings, malls and other structures.
According to the study, the U.S. had the largest stock of built assets in 2012 at $39.7 trillion, while China came in a close second with an estimated stock of $35.4 trillion.
“China is rapidly gaining on the USA and could become the owner of the world’s biggest built wealth as early as 2014,” proclaims the study, conducted by U.K. property and construction firm EC Harris with help from the Center for Economics and Business Research.
Billed as an alternative economic indicator to measure a country’s performance, the index quantifies the accumulated wealth of a country’s infrastructure, as well as its public and private property.
Built asset investment in China is projected to grow at an average rate of 6.1%, which would mean the size of the country’s built asset stock will more than double from $35.4 trillion last year to an estimated US$75.7 trillion in 2022, the report said.
Emerging markets are seeing rapid growth compared to developed economies especially in Europe, where built asset growth is expected to be around 2.7% in the next decade.
With concerns mounting about China’s heavy reliance on investment — and with fears of an asset bubble rising — the notion that China could soon take the No. 1 spot from the U.S. might not strike everyone in the country as good news. Despite efforts to reduce the role of investment in driving GDP, the share of investment in growth has risen to 53.9%, up from 51.2% in the first half of last year.
The study implies fears of an impending crisis may be somewhat overblown, arguing that the “the Chinese economy is expanding its investment largely in line with what could reasonably be expected” in light of the size of the country’s economy.
China does not appear to have overinvested in built assets compared with the other countries within the sample. In 2012, China’s built asset stock was roughly 286% of GDP, compared with an international average of 284%.
“This would indicate that arguments suggesting China is over investing may be misplaced, at least for now,” the study said – and yet, “if investment continues to expand at a high rate, as we expect it to, overinvestment becomes a growing concern.”
Chinese property developers and government officials looking for reasons to keep investing might be encouraged by the fact that, in per capita terms, the country doesn’t appear even close to overbuilt.
China’s built asset wealth per person stood at only $26,000 in 2012, which ranks No. 24 worldwide and is only slightly more than a fifth of the U.S. per capita figure. By 2022, the study said, China’s built asset wealth per person will still be 61% lower than that of the USA.
Of course, if the bubble does burst, the value of China’s built assets could fall dramatically, in both absolute and per capita terms.