China Infrastructure Investments Threaten Economic Growth

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New study from Saïd Business School, University of Oxford finds that low-quality infrastructure investments pose significant risk to Chinese economy.

‘Unless China shifts to fewer and higher-quality infrastructure investments the country is headed for an infrastructure-led national financial and economic crisis, which is likely to spread to the international economy,’ comments Dr Atif Ansar.

Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

A new study from Saïd Oxford argues that over half of the infrastructure investments in China have destroyed, not generated economic value.

The study – authored by Atif Ansar, Bent Flyvbjerg, Alexander Budzier and Daniel Lunn – is based on an analysis of 95 large Chinese road and rail transport projects and 806 transport projects built in rich democracies, the largest dataset of its kind.

‘From our sample, the evidence suggests that for over half of the infrastructure investments in China made in the last three decades the costs are larger than the benefits they generate, which means the projects destroy economic value instead of generating it,’ comments Dr Atif Ansar, co-author of the study.

‘Unless China shifts to fewer and higher-quality infrastructure investments the country is headed for an infrastructure-led national financial and economic crisis, which is likely to spread to the international economy,’ he adds.

The study, published in the Autumn Issue of The Oxford Review of Economic Policy, dispels the conventional wisdom that China has a distinct advantage over other countries in the delivery of large-scale infrastructure projects.

It found that:

  •     Actual infrastructure construction costs in China are on average 30.6% higher than estimated costs – a level consistent with global trends.
  •     75% of transport projects in China suffered a cost overrun.
  •     Traffic use of major road projects in China represent two extremes – two thirds of roads have low use (average shortfall of 41.2%), whilst one third are congested with an average traffic surplus of 61.4%; both extremes hamper economic growth.
  •     Road and rail projects in China took 4.3 years on average to build, compared to 6.9 years in rich democracies. However, a growing importance on issues such as cost, safety and the environment is lengthening construction schedules in China.

The pattern of cost overruns and benefit shortfalls in China’s infrastructure investments is linked with the country’s growing debt problem.

‘Our estimate is that infrastructure cost overruns have equalled approximately one-third of China’s US$28.2 trillion debt. The investment boom in projects with poor outcomes has created harmful macroeconomic consequences, with China being the most indebted of 25 emerging markets,’ said Dr Ansar.

The study concludes that a massive infrastructure investment programme is not a viable development strategy for other developing countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria or Brazil who may look to China as a model for economic development.

‘It is a myth that China grew thanks largely to heavy infrastructure investment. It grew due to bold economic liberalisation and institutional reforms, and this growth is now threatened by overinvestment in low-grade infrastructure. The lesson for other markets is that policy makers should place their attention on software and orgware issues (deep institutional reforms) and exercise far greater caution in diverting scarce resources to large-scale physical infrastructure projects,’ concludes Dr Ansar.

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The study, Does Infrastructure Investment Lead to Economic Growth or Economic Fragility? Evidence from China, can be downloaded from: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1609/1609.00415.pdf

Notes to Editors:
About Saïd Business School

Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford blends the best of new and old. We are a vibrant and innovative business school, but yet deeply embedded in an 800 year old world-class university. We create programmes and ideas that have global impact. We educate people for successful business careers, and as a community seek to tackle world-scale problems. We deliver cutting-edge programmes and ground-breaking research that transform individuals, organisations, business practice, and society. We seek to be a world-class business school community, embedded in a world-class University, tackling world-scale problems.

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Josie Powell
Saïd Business School University of Oxford
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