Q&A on Asian Economies and their Place in the World

The good folks at Icfai University Press and specifically the editor of the magazine The Analyst have queried me to answer some question on the Asian economies and their ascend to the top position (or not) of the global economy and what this means. They have shipped me some questions, given me a deadline and below I provide some answers in Q&A format. Enjoy!

Question: History reveals that every international crisis leaves a lasting mark on the world, once the crisis is over and the difficulties it brought have been encountered, things tend to change. Similarly, do you think that the current global economic crisis must lead to a fundamental reassessment of how power and influence is expressed through the world?

I belive that the current financial crisis have accentuated what we already knew and what has been present in the data and the discourse for some time. Specifically I am talking about the idea that big emerging markets such as India, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Chile, Turkey etc have slowly but steadily taken over as the global powerhouses in terms of economic growth and thus it is also natural that they are gunning for more political and institutional power. When it comes to financial crises in particular the latest batch of proposals from the Obama administration to regulate the financial industry is another and more micro oriented theme which is a recurring event in the context of economic crises. Crises are often, in this way, catalysts for abrupt discrete changes in the economic and political environment.

Ultimately then I think that this fundamental reassessment of power and influence in the world (both politically and economically) have not been initiated by this crisis but it may be reinforced.

Question: As the Great Depression paved the way to World War II and to a new world order, how far the present crisis produce grave repercussions on the global economic order?

This intimately depends on how you define world order naturally. If I have to point towards the most enduring change which appears to have come on the back on this crisis it is the attitude to debt and long term sustainability of public finances. Those of us who have been interested in demographics and its effect on macroeconomic processes have long been waiting for (and predicting) the inflection point where the mismatch between expensive welfare systems and the increasingly broken demographic structure as as result of persistently below replacement fertility. In this way, the ability to take on debt today as a liability for the future and despite the theatricals on sovereign spreads and CDS on Greek and Spanish government debt, are in fact fundamentally driven by long term liability problems. For an excellent excursion into this topic in the context of Australia/New Zealand and beyond I warmly recommend this one by John Hempton.

Extrapolating to the idea of a new economic order this brings us into a fundamental dilemma. With every part of the national identity overlevered [1] and in need to rebuild their balance sheet most economies are looking to the last part of the identity to make up for the shortfall of savings; the external balance. The problem is that not everyone can export excess savings (i.e. run a current account surplus) at the same time. In my opinion this is where the big new emerging economies come in and despite by personal skepticism towards China pulling the world anywhere it remains obvious that those who can reasonably be expected to run sustainable net external borrowing positions (i.e. current account deficits) are exactly those economies mentioned above who are about to ascend as the new drivers of economic growth. If they don’t, it is not easy to see where the growth is going to come from.

Question: The world financial crisis has been a defining moment in the ascension of emerging economies onto the international economic stage. Please comment.

Not really. In my opinion this goes back to the idea of decoupling from the US economy and how, before the crisis, many observers had their hopes pinned on the Eurozone (and the Euro) as well as Japan (and the JPY) to take over the baton from the US economy in steering forward global demand. In the context of Bretton Woods II this seemed a turkey shoot of an argument. Just de-peg from the US dollar and re-peg to the Euro and it is all engines go. Obviously, this was always going to be a mirage and essentially a smoke screen puffed up by those who have a fundamental desire to see the US economy fail and cave in on itself. So, why this detour in answering the question above?

Well, quite simply, the world “decoupled” for the US and indeed the advanced (G7) economies a long time ago.

From 1980 to 2008 the share of total world GDP made up by G7 economies declined from 51.33% to 42% and the corresponding figure for newly industrialised Asian economies rose from 7.17% to 21% and according to IMF this trend is set to continue. This is the real decoupling and it represents a major structural change in the global economy which goes far beyond the current financial and economic turmoil. Whether there will be anything particularly defining about the role of emerging economies as a result of the financial crisis is too early to say. A sovereing default in Greece or elsewhere in the Eurozone should increasingly make investors aware that global risk is not primarily present in emerging markets but actually right at the heart of the G7 and OECD edifice. Perhaps this will be a definining moment, but the general ascend of big emerging economies to the center of the world stage is not a product of the current turmoil.

Question: To what extent will emerging economies remain the drivers of global economic growth in 2010?

To a very large extent I would argue. In 2010 the IMF estimates (in their October 2009 Outlook) that the world economy will resume growing at an annual rate of 3.1% after having contracted by -1.06% in 2009. Breaking this up on the major advanced economies (G7) and developing and emerging economies the IMF estimates that the former will grow by 1.7% and the latter by 5.1% in 2010. Yet this difference does not tell the whole story. Consider then the fact that measured in US dollars (current prices) the share of world GDP made up by the G7 as well as the emerging and developing economies was 53.8% and 30.7% respectively. Yet still, and out of a total estimated value of 2010 world GDP growth at trn 3.267 USD the G7 is expected to contribute to this with only trn 1135 USD while emerging and developing economies are expected to contribute with trn 1674 USD.

More generally, this is a tendency we should expect to continue. Consequently and while global GDP forecasts into 2014 are quite fickle, forecasts by the IMF has the current price value of total world output (in USD) rising from trn 60.429 USD in 2010 to trn 74.660 USD in 2014. Out of these trn 14.165 USD, the G7 and the emerging and developed world are expected to contribute with trn 4886 USD and trn 7871 USD respectively.

In this way and I hope that my readers will forgive me the excessive arithemetic; if we take the IMF’s forecast to heart, emerging markets are definitely going to be the main drivers of global headline GDP growth in 2010 and beyond.

Question: As the evolving international order is going to be Asia centered and polycentric for a variety of reasons. Do you think that India is ready to play a larger role to ensure stability, security and peace in the world?

I sure hope so. A lot of the future stake of the global economy is pinned on India, China, Brazil, etc to develop and evolve both politically and economically. India already plays a very big role in the global economy, but is somewhat dwarfed (in terms of attention at least) by China. However, I believe this will change. Despite some well described and severe issues with a growing gender gap (which is also an issue in China) India is set to enjoy a much more stable and slow demographic transition into old age than China who will age very quickly due to its one child policy.

In this sense I forsee that India will slowly but surely take over from China as the big global emerging economy powerhouse. However, and beyond the obvious political responsibility this entails it also comes with an economic ditto. Thus, one of the biggest problems with China is that she will never be able to run a respectable external deficit that would resolve and alleviate global macroeconomic imbalances. A deliberate mercantilist policy and the effects of the one child policy which strips the economy of the capacity to suck up its own (let alone foreign) savings are two crucial factors here. In my opinion we have one shot to correct these global imbalance and much will hinge upon India (and the rest of the emerging pack) here. Specifically, India must ensure that the demographic transition is kept in check from below as well as, currently, from above. By this I mean that Indian must ensure that it does not fall into a fertility trap with total fertility rates lingering below 1.5 children per woman. Secondly, India should shy away from mercantilist policy. Standard economic theory tells us that external borrowing is not an ill if matched by a sound and long term oriented investment policy as well as capacity in the economy proxied by a large share of young to mature workers out of the total population.

Especially the argument on preventing fertility to fall too far and too rapidly is quite politically incorret at the current juncture with climate and overpopulation (still) dominating the discourse. However, it is crucial in my opinion that we are able to differentiate the debate to look at both sides of this coin. Otherwise, India and the rest of us will regre it.

[1] – (investments, consumption and the government)

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