In my recent research paper with Xiaobo Zhang (Wei and Zhang 2009), we hypothesised that a social phenomenon is the primary driver of the high savings rate. For the last few decades China has experienced a significant rise in the imbalance between the number of male and female children born to its citizens.
There are approximately 122 boys born for every 100 girls today, a ratio that means about one in five Chinese men will be cut out of the marriage market when this generation of children grows up. A variety of factors conspire to produce the imbalance. For example, Chinese parents often prefer sons. Ultra-sound makes it easy for parents to detect the gender of a foetus and abort the child that’s not the “right” sex for them, especially as China’s stringent family-planning policy allows most couples to have only one or two children.
Our study compared savings data across regions and in households with sons versus those with daughters. We found that not only did households with sons save more than households with daughters on average, but that households with sons tend to raise their savings rate if they also happen to live in a region with a more skewed gender ratio. Even those not competing in the marriage market must compete to buy housing and make other significant purchases, pushing up the savings rate for all households.
While the conventional explanations for the high savings rate all play a role, this new research indicates those explanations are not as important as people previously thought. While sociologists and other social scientists have looked at the gender ratio imbalance as a social problem, they have not looked at it in relation to the high Chinese savings rate. Similarly, as economists and policymakers have looked with concern to the large Chinese current account surplus and large US current account deficit, or global imbalances, much of their discussion has focused on changing exchange rate policy.
None of the discussion about global imbalances has brought family-planning policy or women’s rights to the table, because many do not see these issues as related to economic policy. Our research suggests that this is a serious omission. You can only implement the right policy when you have the appropriate diagnosis, and fruitful policy dialogue has to include discussion on these issues.
A fascinating and thought-provoking paper indeed.