We’re experiencing a fundamental shift in the global economy, as wealth moves from West to East. As Asia and the Middle East assert themselves as the brightest prospects on the global landscape, in some ways we’re witnessing a return to the 16th–19th centuries, when the Chinese and Indian economies dominated world trade.
The scale of the shift is huge. In 1950, America was responsible for 27 per cent of the world’s GDP. China accounted for just 4.5 per cent and India, 4.2 per cent. Fast-forward to 2050 and the picture will look very different: forecasters say China will then be about to become the biggest economy in the world.
This economic shift, and the large implications for European businesses, was the subject of a recent report, Looking East, produced by The Futures Company for HSBC. The report included extensive analysis of the main drivers of change affecting the global economy to 2020, as well as a number of in-depth interviews with experts and businesspeople in a number of European countries.
It can seem as though this story is now a familiar one. But the research uncovered some striking findings, some of which go against the grain of popular conceptions about the rise of Asia. I was most struck, as we wrote the report, by these three:
- The ‘global financial crisis’ isn’t really global at all – it’s a manifestation of a longer term economic realignment. While Western economies stagnated through 2009-10, Asian economies are increasingly “decoupled” from the US, and have increasingly influential trade partners in other parts of the world – notably Africa and south America. China and India have continued to expand rapidly while Japan and several European economies have slipped into near-depression.
- Asia is no longer just a source of low cost labour – it’s increasingly a source of high value innovation. The model whereby the West does the research, development and design and the East took care of production is anachronistic. Lines have been blurred – as a result of a huge investment in education, countries like India and China are world leaders in areas such as software design and green technologies, and their multinationals are reshaping industries such as energy, steel and car making.
- There’s more than one way of running a successful economy. It’s easy to assume that the Washington consensus – open borders, economic liberalization, and free movement of capital, privatization – is the only way to run a successful economy. But these are largely a legacy of the ’80s, and an alternative model of ‘state capitalism’ developing in emerging economies. Companies are encouraged to exploit global capital markets and seek new opportunities abroad but are directed by the state and help to manage the domestic economy. This is most obvious in strategically important national industries: for example, 75% of the globally available crude oil reserves are in government hands. But it is also manifest in other industries: China Mobile, the world’s biggest telecommunications company, is listed on the NYSE, but controlled by a holding company owned by the government. In India, the central government has hundreds of state-run enterprises in diverse industries. Sitting behind the state capitalist model – in Russia and the Middle East as well as Asia – is the sovereign wealth fund, which invests globally for the benefit of the people but is managed and controlled by the state. These funds are increasingly active investors in the West.
The report – Looking East – was widely covered by (among others) the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and Business Week and can be downloaded online (opens pdf), free of charge.The picture at the top of this post is from the China Digital Times, and is used with thanks.