The world economy-- Catching up is so very hard to do
The emerging economies have had a great decade. That was the easy part
Sep 24th 2011 | from the print edition
THIS month Italy’s government sold a slug of five-year paper at one of its regular bond auctions. There was barely enough demand for the bonds to meet supply, even at a steep interest rate. Contrast that with the sale in August of 20 billion yuan ($3.1 billion) of paper by China in Hong Kong’s fledgling offshore market. The yield was miserly yet there were more than four times as many bids as there were bonds for sale.
This tale of two bond auctions is a parable for the contrasting fortunes of near-stagnant rich economies and fast-growing emerging markets. Twenty of the 42 economies covered in the back pages of The Economist grew by 3% or more in the year to the latest quarter. Only two of these, Austria and Sweden, are from the traditional group of rich countries. The rest are developing economies, such as Brazil and Turkey, or newly rich ones, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. The IMF’s latest forecast is that emerging economies will grow by more than 6% in 2011 and 2012. But growth in the rich world is likely to be below 2%.
The other half lives
The rotten economic news over the summer and the deepening euro-zone mess mean it is easy to forget that countries that now account for half the world’s output and most of its population are doing rather well. That is the focus of our special report on the world economy this week. But it is equally easy—and unwise—to think that rapid and trouble-free growth in the emerging economies is assured for years to come.
It seems almost churlish to question the outlook for emerging markets after the great strides they have made. China and India are twice as rich as they were a decade ago, taking millions out of poverty. Nor is the good news confined to the two Asian giants. Even before the global financial crisis battered the rich world, dozens of emerging markets were growing at a faster rate than America, the world’s leading economy. The crisis has merely widened what was already a large gap.
Yet the growth of emerging economies is unlikely to continue at the same rapid pace or without occasional downturns. As economies become richer, they can rely less and less on the brute force of capital spending, coupled with a steady flow of cheap rural migrants, to fuel their expansion. They have a greater need of a skilled workforce and a modern financial system that is attuned to where the best returns might be found. Countries that have leant on exporting cheap goods to the rich world need instead to turn to internal sources of spending. That risks the ills that have felled emerging markets in the past: excessive credit, government spending and inflation.
Much depends on how well China manages its economic transition. The Hong Kong bond issue is one of the early steps China has taken to establish the yuan as a global standard. Further strides would be welcome: the financial crisis is proof that America cannot usefully recycle the world’s excess savings. The yuan’s acceptance among investors would also require the kind of reform China needs to wean its economy from its investment-heavy, export-oriented growth model.
The shift will not be easy. The coming decade is therefore likely to prove harder for the emerging markets. China and others are entering the tricky middle-income stage of development in which the big advances from absorbing rich-world technology start to run out. Trouble has a habit of striking places that avoided the previous crisis and became overconfident. A broad sell-off in emerging-market currencies in recent weeks may be an early sign of softer growth ahead. The weight of the world economy is moving, with remarkable speed, towards the populous emerging markets. But the transition is unlikely to be as smooth as many people assume.