Not that long ago, international comparisons of income levels and so on were always done using market exchange rates. If this were still the standard practice, there would be some surprising news to report. On an exchange rate basis, Australia has a higher GDP per person than does the US (I’d guess the same would be true of more relevant measures like national income per person, though the gap would be a bit smaller because of our greater indebtedness).
Currently US GDP per person is around $US 44000. Australia’s is about $A51 300, which at a market exchange rate of 0.93 converts to about $US47700.
Before we break out the champagne, I’ll point out that these exchange rate comparisons aren’t really useful – this is obvious given that the $US/$a rate was heading for $0.50 not long ago, and is now headng for parity . Standard practice these days is to use a “Purchasing Power Parity” measure, based on the estimated relative cost of a standard bundle of goods and services. The estimated $UA/$A rate is around 0.70 which leaves us a fair way behind the US.
Although PPP estimates are better than those based on market exchange rates, they shouldn’t be treated as exact. They are statistical estimates, with a large margin of error, and the underlying economic theory (revealed preference) implies that even with perfect data, there is always a range of possible values for index numbers like this. Typical international comparisons should be taken to have a margin of error of 10 to 20 per cent.
In passing, a useful tip for students of the economy. If you want a round number estimate of the magnitude of any economic variable, you can approximate GDP as $1 trillion, population as 20 million, and income per person as $50 000. These will be accurate to within 10 per cent for another year or two.
Update In comments, Matthew Turner reminds me that he’s been making this point for years. I think I came up with it independently, but he was certainly first. Interestingly, Matthew calculates that the critical value for the euro/$ exchange rate, at which euro GDP per person exceeds US is $1.46. Yesterday, it hit 1.457.