Jul 072012

Comparing the historical sizes of national economies is extremely challenging. Fortunately, Gapminder has attempted to do this by compiling GDP data for all countries in the world for the period since 1800. (For details, see here and here.) Gapminder’s approach relies on first obtaining for each country historical population size and Gross Domestic Product per capita (GDPpc) and then multiplying these to obtain the GDP. Gapminder relies on quantitative and qualitative data from hundreds of official and unofficial documents and a number of carefully documented assumptions.

Mexico’s total GDP has grown almost 60-fold since 1900 in inflation-adjusted constant 2005 dollars based on Purchasing Power Parity, which measures total goods and services produced by an economy independent of exchange rates. Growth started rather slowly, but accelerated very rapidly at mid-century. From 1940 to 1980, Mexico’s economy almost doubled each decade, moving up from $49 billion in 1940 to $637 billion in 1980, averaging about 6.6% per year. Of course, Mexico’s population was also growing rapidly during those four decades. Growth slowed to 2.0% per year in the 1980s but jumped up to 3.4% in the 1990s. From 2000 to 2008, growth slowed to 2.1% per year, partially as a result of the severe recession in the USA. Mexico’s economy is expected to grow significantly faster in this decade.

Growth of major world economies, 1900 to 2008 (Gapminder data)

(GDP in billions of constant 2005 US dollars based on Purchasing Power Parity)

Country19001930195019802008Growth/yr, 1900-2008
South Korea712161651,1774.9%

In 1900, Mexico’s total GDP of $23.3 billion was just ahead of Canada and over twice that of Brazil. However it was behind Indonesia and less than 5% of the USA’s world leading GDP. The Mexican economy was less than one tenth that of Germany and the UK, a seventh that of France and less than a third that of Japan and Italy. The table shows GDP levels for some of the world’s largest economies from 1900 to 2008.

The Mexican GDP expanded by 1.5% per year from 1900 to 1930 despite stagnation during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920. While this growth rate was better than UK, and tied with China, it was slower than the other countries in the table which expanded rapidly at the start of the 20thcentury. Brazil spurted ahead at 4.4% per year, edging past Mexico as Latin America’s largest economy. Canada expanded by 3.9% per year and doubled Mexico’s GDP. The USA grew by 2.8% per year becoming the first trillion dollar economy by 1923. France and Germany grew at about 1.6% per year, while Japan, Indonesia and Italy expanded by about 2.5% to 2.6%.

From 1930 to 1950, Mexico grew rapidly to $94 billion at a very impressive 4.9% per year, faster than all the other countries except Brazil at 5.3% per year. The USA (up 3.8% per year) and Canada (up 3.6%) also expanded rapidly, while the UK, Italy and Japan grew much slower, in the 1.5% to 1.7% range. The other countries struggled at rates around 0.5% or less. China’s GDP declined by a mind-boggling 4.1% per year during the 20 years from $497 billion down to $216 billion, more than a third less than what it had been in 1820! China’s economy seriously contracted over a 130 year period. The Great Depression hurt most economies; however World War II allies Japan (up 5.8% per year) and Germany (up 3.9%) grew relatively rapidly during the 1930s.

The 1940s and World War II had very dramatic impacts on the major economies. During the decade, Mexico’s GDP led the field with very impressive growth at 6.7% per year, closely followed by Brazil at 6.2%, USA at 5.2% and Canada at 5.0%. Wartime production was a major stimulus to these economies. On the negative side, several countries experienced dramatic war-related loses. China was at war throughout the decade and its economy declined by an incredible 7.0% per year during the 1940s, Germany was down by 3.5%, Japan by 2.6%, South Korea by 2.7% and Indonesia by 2.5%. Compounding these annual changes demonstrates their real significance. Mexico’s GDP almost doubled from $49 billion in 1940 to $94 billion in 1950, while China’s GDP dropped more than half from $447 billion in 1940 to $216 billion in 1950. By 1950, Mexico’s GDP was nearly half that of China and Japan, 1.7 times that of Indonesia and over six times that of South Korea. These four Asian countries would grow very rapidly during the “Asian Miracle” of the second half of the 20th century.

Mexico continued its dramatic growth expanding by 6.6% per year from 1950 to 1980. This was the “Mexican Miracle” which actually started in the 1940s. By 1980, Mexico’s GDP reached $637 billion, surpassing Canada and India; it was above one tenth of the USA’s GDP for the first time in over 100 years. All other economies also grew very rapidly during this thirty year boom period. Japan led the way with 7.9% per year, followed by Brazil at 7.5% per year. China finally broke from its 130 year slump growing at 4.9% per year; in 1956 it finally regained the GDP level it had in 1820. In 1980 Mexico’s GDP was about 70% that of China compared to only 7% in 1930 and 2% in 1820.

From 1980 to 2008, Mexico’s growth slowed a bit but still managed a very respectable increase of 2.7% per year which doubled its GDP from $637 billion to $1.334 trillion. This growth rate was better than that of Japan and all other large western economies (tied with Canada). But it significantly lagged behind four large Asian economies: China (up 8.4% per year), India (up 6.0%), South Korea (up 7.3%) and Indonesia (up 4.8%). China’s GDP increased almost ten-fold from 1980 to 2008. In 1980 India’s GDP was less than that of Mexico, but by 2008 it was over twice as large. Mexico’s GDP in 2008 of $1.3 trillion puts it in 11thplace, behind Italy and just ahead of Spain, Canada and South Korea.

Reviewing the entire 108-year period from 1900 to 2008 reveals the dramatically changes that can occur. Some Asian countries, especially China, really struggled for decades early in the century and then expanded extremely rapidly in recent decades. Compared to the other countries, Mexico did extremely well increasing at an average of 3.8% per year from $23 billion in 1900 to $1.3 trillion in 2008, a 57-fold increase. Brazil and Korea did considerably better, averaging 4.9% per year for 180-fold increases. Even the slowest growth country, the UK, grew by a respectable 2.0% per year for over an eight-fold increase since 1900. All major economies did well making the 20thcentury clearly the best century by far in terms of economic growth. The total GDP of 12 countries (Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, UK and USA)in the table with available data grew by 2.0% per year from 1900 to 1950 compared to a very impressive 3.8% per year from 1950 to 2008. The second half of the century was much better than the first; this indicates that economic growth is accelerating and accelerating fast. Will this continue in the decades ahead?


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