An error occured. Details Hide
You have unsaved pages. Restore Cancel

Which is the world's largest economy, China or the United States? As is usual in the field of economics, “It depends.” It depends on the methods used to estimate the size of an economy and to compare one economy to another. Despite modern discussions on refining the calculation of gross domestic product (GDP), the standard measure of an economy’s size and performance, to be more inclusive of economic factors that have been ignored to date, such as environmental and natural resource depletion, there is no commonly accepted alternative to GDP. There are, however, at least two commonly used approaches to cross-country comparisons of GDP.

Method 1 - Current exchange rates. The GDP of two economies measured in each country’s national currency can be compared by converting the value of each GDP into a common third currency, such as US dollars, based on the current exchange rate. While the more popular approach, it is flawed. Official exchange rates differ from the real value of national currencies because currencies are not only exchanged to buy and sell goods and services in trade but are also used as investment instruments. As investment tools, currency valuations thus fall prey to speculation and irrational expectations of investors versus pure market fundamentals that are the basis for official rates.

Example. Based on the current ¥/$ exchange rate, if a bottle of Coca-Cola costs $1 in the United States it would cost ¥6.63 in China. Only, it wouldn't actually cost that much because the real value of the yuan relative to the dollar differes from the official exchange rate.

Method 2 - Purchasing power parity. Alternatively, the values of the national currencies of two economies can be converted to a single international currency — known as international dollars — using purchasing power parities (PPPs). PPPs are essentially the currency conversion rates that eliminate differences in price levels between countries and equalize the purchasing power of different countries. It is calculated as the ratio of the price of the same good in different countries in local currencies. 

Example. If a bottle of Coca-Cola costs ¥3.5 in China and $1 in the United States then the PPP for Coca-Cola between these countries is ¥3.5/$1 = 3.5.

If you calculate the PPP for every good and service produced and average the values, you can calculate the PPP for the GDPs between two countries. Let’s return then to the question of whether the US or China has the larger economy. According to the IMF, in 2016, the PPP between China and the US was ¥3.5 per international dollar. As such, China’s GDP of ¥74.6 trillion would be worth $21.3 trillion in the United States (¥74.6/3.5). That’s $2.7 trillion, or nearly 15 percent, more than the US GDP of $18.6 trillion in 2016.

So, to answer the original question, China is the world's largest economy, followed by the United States ... if you compare GDPs based on PPP.

 

Related Data Insights

United States: Moving Toward Economic Recession in 2019?

One could argue that in a world subject to the inevitability of business cycles, the United States is overdue for a recession. During the 60 year period from 1950 to 2010, the US economy experienced 10 recessions, averaging one recession every six years. In contrast, the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth was just shy of 10 years. The US is now in the midst of nine years of economic growth with the last "Great Recession" a fading memory for some. Will 2019 bring recession to the US?With the potential exceptions of asset prices and the yield curve—now at its lowest level since the last recession—standard...

The Shadow Economy in Europe and OECD Countries in 2003-2015

The $9.7 trillion global shadow economy is the second largest economy in the world after the United States, according to the 2010 estimates of the black market for 162 countries. Still, as for the more recent study, the size of the underground economy in European and other OECD countries have been decreasing steadily since 2009 and continued shrinking in 2015 averaging to 16.7 percent of official GDP. But this development was not uniform across individual countries: 10 out of 36 OECD countries experienced an increase in the black market size in 2015. The most significant upsurge of the unreported share of economic...

The History of the Economic Forecasts

Each year several influential global agencies publish their views on the economic situation in the world. We have collected end-of-year baseline forecasts of the 5 largest agencies (IMF, World Bank, OECD, UN and the European Commission) for each available country since 1998 into the one dataset. In this page, you can observe forecasts for 2014-2017, which were made by each of those agencies in previous years, and analyze the accuracy of the forecasts from the historical perspective. It is hard to believe, but the data clearly shows that even the near-term forecasts were not considerably better than the simplest possible...

Revision of World Economic Outlook from IMF, April 2018

On April, International Monetary Fund released the new edition of its World Economic Outlook (WEO). According to the updated estimates, global economic growth in 2018 will grow to 3.94 percent from 3.76 percent in 2017. This is a upward revision relative to the previous October's estimate in which world's GDP growth was expected to rise this year. Released twice a year, in October 2017 and April 2018, WEO contains projections of key economic and financial indicators such as GDP, inflation, unemployment, the balance of payments, government finance, trade, and major commodity prices at the global level and in many...