Wei hypothesized that an important social phenomenon is the primary driver of the high savings rate: for the last few decades China has experienced a significant 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 translates into cutting about one in five Chinese men out of the marriage market when this generation of children grows up. Three factors conspire to produce the imbalance. First, Chinese parents often prefer sons. Second, it has become increasingly inexpensive for even a relatively poor farmer to afford the $12 Ultrasound B, the most common technology used for learning the gender of a fetus.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, China’s stringent family planning policy limits the number of children a couple can have. The policy allows most couples to have only one child. But in some regions, if a couple’s first child is a daughter, the state permits the couple to have another child. Families with one daughter that become pregnant with another daughter are more likely to terminate the second pregnancy in hopes of producing a son later on. (India, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore also have sex ratio imbalances that favor male children despite the absence of these stringent family planning policies. It might be that in these countries people voluntarily want to restrict the number of children they have, and still prefer sons and have access to inexpensive selective abortions. The sex ratio imbalance is high in these countries but not as extreme as in China.)
“The increased pressure on the marriage market in China might induce men and parents with sons to do things to make themselves more competitive,” Wei says. “Increasing savings is one logical way to do that, to the extent that wealth helps to increase a man’s competitive edge. Parents increase household savings mostly by cutting down their own consumption.”
Wei worked with Xiaobo Zhang of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., to see if his hypothesis held up, comparing savings data across regions and in households with sons versus those with daughters. “We find not only that households with sons save more than households with daughters in all regions,” Wei says, “but that households with sons tend to raise their savings rate if they also happen to live in a region with a more skewed sex ratio.”
The effect is significant. The household savings rate in China rose from about 16 percent of disposable income in 1990 to over 30 percent today, which is much higher than most countries. About half of the increase in the savings rate of the last 25 years can be attributed to the rise in the sex ratio imbalance. “It’s a very high ratio of savings to income,” Wei says. “The comparable savings rate in the United States would be 2 or 3 percent before the crisis, and about 6 percent since the crisis.”
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.
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