Posts Tagged ‘industrial policy’

Joined-up economics

August 17, 2015

Here is a rare thing. A dynamic theory from an economist — whereby the solution to today’s problem may not be the solution to tomorrow’s problem. It’s David Dollar, former World Bank country chief for China talking about the role of institutions in development…

 

What institutions do Asian countries need to keep growing?

31 May 2015

Author: David Dollar, Brookings Institution

The notion of a ‘middle-income trap’ has entered the lexicon of policymakers in emerging markets in Asia and elsewhere. Many leaders of countries that have experienced fast growth — such as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang — worry that economic growth will come off the boil as their countries reach middle-income status.

Chinese workers construct residential buildings of a government-funded housing project in Tiemenguan city, China, 2 May 2015. (Photo: AAP).

Growth for virtually all advanced economies was slower in the 2000s than in the 1990s; meanwhile growth rates in poor and middle-income countries accelerated. But there is a lot of variation in these broad trends, especially for the middle-income countries. Some of the latter have seen very impressive growth spurts, while others have stagnated.

What explains why some countries grow fast and others languish? There is a strong empirical relationship between the quality of institutions (as measured by the World Governance Indicators’ Rule of Law index) and economic growth. But institutional quality does not change very much from year to year or sometimes even from decade to decade, which makes it hard to explain why countries have periods of high growth followed by low growth (or vice versa).

Institutions which are well-suited to one phase of economic development may be ill-suited to another. One way to resolve the paradox of persistence of institutions and non-persistence of growth rates is to focus on the quality of institutions relative to the level of development. It turns out this can help explain why China and Vietnam, for instance, have seen such high growth in recent times: they have relatively low institutional quality in an absolute sense, but they have above-average quality institutions given their stage of development, which might, for instance, help to attract foreign investment to China or Vietnam rather than other Asian countries with similarly low wage levels but weaker institutions.

Another question is whether authoritarian institutions are better for economic growth than democratic ones. It may depend on the stage of a country’s development. When we look at the historical experience, in countries that have a per capita income below US$8,000, authoritarian institutions seem more conducive to growth. But at higher levels of income, democratic countries are likely to see higher growth than authoritarian ones. Why might this be so?

One explanation might be that at low levels of income, the economic priority of government should be to establish basic law and order and an environment in which private investment, including foreign investment, can operate. This is a catch-up stage, in which innovation is not yet particularly relevant. But the usual economic strategy for authoritarian governments relies on capital accumulation, which becomes less effective as countries get richer. When an economy reaches the point where acquiring more and more capital is no longer sufficient for rapid growth, the need for political and economic institutions that promote competition, innovation and productivity growth becomes paramount.

Interestingly, it is about at the US$8,000 per capita GDP mark that two of East Asia’s great developmental success stories, Taiwan and South Korea, were also becoming free and open polities. By the early 1980s for Taiwan and the mid-1980s for South Korea, a move had been made away from authoritarian institutions, which continued until both reached fully democratic status as measured by Freedom House’s civil liberties metric.

Of the countries that have witnessed rapid growth in Asia recently, Vietnam has shown some steps towards political liberalisation, with its civil liberties score moving to five, which is slightly better than either South Korea or Taiwan at the same stage of development. But Vietnam is entering the stage of development where the line of thinking presented above implies a need for further political reform. Greater freedom will be necessary to strengthen property rights and the rule of law in order to bring about an environment for innovation and productivity growth.

China, on the other hand, has largely eschewed political reform. Although he has placed a lot of emphasis on the idea of implementing the ‘rule of law’ in China, President Xi Jinping has made it abundantly clear that he wants to pursue economic reform without political liberalisation; some observers even point to backsliding in recent years on the question of freedom of ideas and debate. The historical evidence would suggest that this will weigh on the growth of the Chinese economy in the future. At the stage of development at which China now finds itself, South Korea and Taiwan were on the way to becoming more or less free societies.

Of course, just because no authoritarian country (apart from oil producers and, depending on how you classify it, Singapore) has reached more than 35 per cent of US GDP per capita does not mean that it will be impossible for China to do so. But the historical evidence should caution Chinese policymakers against thinking that the kind of political institutions that have facilitated China’s astonishing growth up to now will be sufficient or optimal for the next stage of its development.

David Dollar is Senior Fellow, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution. He was the former World Bank Country Director for China and Mongolia in the East Asia and Pacific Region.

This article summarises a paper prepared for the Pacific Trade and Development Conference in Singapore this week.

Possibly one of those days that the world changed (for the better)

November 12, 2014

This looks like very big news.

Obama and Xi Jinping have reached an understanding (no written agreement, mainly — I am guessing — because of the difficulty of ratifying one in a Republican-dominated congress) on curbing carbon energy emissions.

I am just pasting the New York Times coverage below. You can also click through to a supporting opinion piece by John Kerry.

Some immediate thoughts:

  1. China is promising that its carbon emissions will peak, at the latest, in 2030. Cynics will say the Chinese have not said what the peak will be, or limited it. However China’s carbon emissions per unit of GDP are already officially targeted to fall 40-45% 2020 vs 2005. And China has set and met/is meeting targets to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP 19% in 2005-10 and 16% in 2010-15. These targets were in the last two five-year plans and it would be hard to move away from what is now a 10-year trajectory line in cutting energy intensity in forthcoming five-year plans. In sum, I think the emissions peak by 2030 is a very meaningful target that will not be rendered meaningless by political jiggery-pokery.
  2. China also promised to make renewables 20% of total energy production by 2030. Last year was the first one in which Chinese installation of renewables’ generating capacity exceeded that of carbon electricity generating capacity. A cursory reflection on the numbers suggests to me that installation of power generation capacity going forward will, in just a few years, be almost all renewable in order to achieve the 2030 target. (If your ‘investment advisor’ has not already shorted the stock of Harbin Electric and Dongfang Electric, the two most exposed coal turbine and boiler makers, sack him/her. You probably don’t want to own Shanghai Electric either.)
  3. The US has promised huge cuts versus trend line carbon emissions, too. More cerebrally-challenged Republicans are already doing their nuts.
  4. Obama is back. He’s done healthcare. Now he might go down as the President who saved the planet. So much for playing too much golf…
  5. Xi Jinping’s domestic position goes from strength to strength. But it is a little frightening when one guy commands so much popular support in a society with too few checks and balances on executive power.
  6. Here’s a speculative thought. If the delivery of this understanding turns out to be as good as what appears to be written on the tin, the Nobel Committee will have to think very seriously about giving Obama and Xi a joint Peace Prize. At first blush that might seem a tough choice for the committee, given China’s human rights record and the anti-dissent crackdown under Xi. But should a prize be given, it would be even tougher on President Xi. How could he accept after Liu Xiaobo already got the prize in 2010? This is very premature, but I throw out the thought.

Meanwhile, make a note of where you were when you heard this potentially historic news. I was in the library.

U.S. and China Reach Deal on Climate Change in Secret Talks

By

NOV. 11, 2014

President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China were greeted by children during a ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. Credit Feng Li/Getty Images

BEIJING — China and the United States made common cause on Wednesday against the threat of climate change, staking out an ambitious joint plan to curb carbon emissions as a way to spur nations around the world to make their own cuts in greenhouse gases.

The landmark agreement, jointly announced here by President Obama and President Xi Jinping, includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions by the United States and a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.

Administration officials said the agreement, which was worked out secretly between the United States and China over nine months and included a letter from Mr. Obama to Mr. Xi proposing a joint approach, could galvanize efforts to negotiate a new global climate agreement by 2015.

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  • Op-Ed Contributor: John Kerry: Our Historic Agreement With China on Climate ChangeNOV. 11, 2014

It was the signature achievement of an unexpectedly productive two days of meetings between the leaders. Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi also agreed to a military accord designed to avert clashes between Chinese and American planes and warships in the tense waters off the Chinese coast, as well as an understanding to cut tariffs for technology products.

A climate deal between China and the United States, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, is viewed as essential to concluding a new global accord. Unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, climate experts say, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions, and any meaningful worldwide pact will be likely to founder.

“The United States and China have often been seen as antagonists,” said a senior official, speaking in advance of Mr. Obama’s remarks. “We hope that this announcement can usher in a new day in which China and the U.S. can act much more as partners.”

As part of the agreement, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, Mr. Xi pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

Administration officials acknowledged that Mr. Obama could face opposition to his plans from a Republican-controlled Congress. While the agreement with China needs no congressional ratification, lawmakers could try to roll back Mr. Obama’s initiatives, undermining the United States’ ability to meet the new reduction targets.

Still, Mr. Obama’s visit, which came days after a setback in the midterm elections, allowed him to reclaim some of the momentum he lost at home. As the campaign was turning against the Democrats last month, Mr. Obama quietly dispatched John Podesta, a senior adviser who oversees climate policy, to Beijing to try to finalize a deal.

For all the talk of collaboration, the United States and China also displayed why they are still fierce rivals for global economic primacy, promoting competing free-trade blocs for the Asian region even as they reached climate and security deals.

The maneuvering came during a conference of Pacific Rim economies held in Beijing that has showcased China’s growing dominance in Asia, but also the determination of the United States, riding a resurgent economy, to reclaim its historical role as a Pacific power.

Adding to the historic nature of the visit, Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi were scheduled to give a joint news conference on Wednesday that will include questions from reporters — a rare concession by the Chinese leader to a visiting American president.

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Xi invited Mr. Obama to dinner at his official residence, telling his guest he hoped they had laid the foundation for a collaborative relationship — or, as he more metaphorically put it, “A pool begins with many drops of water.”

Greeting Mr. Obama at the gate of the walled leadership compound next to the Forbidden City, Mr. Xi squired him across a brightly lighted stone bridge and into the residence. Mr. Obama told the Chinese president that he wanted to take the relationship “to a new level.”

“When the U.S. and China are able to work together effectively,” he added, “the whole world benefits.”

But as the world witnessed this week, it is more complicated than that. Mr. Xi won approval Tuesday from the 21 countries of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to study the creation of a China-led free-trade zone that would be an alternative to Mr. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trading bloc that excludes China.

On Monday, Mr. Obama met with members of that group here and claimed progress in negotiating the partnership, a centerpiece of his strategic shift to Asia.

Negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership are much further along than those for the nascent Chinese plan, known as the Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific, and some analysts said the approval by the Pacific Rim nations of a two-year study was mainly a gesture to the Chinese hosts to give them something to announce at the meeting.

For all the jockeying, the biggest trade headline was a breakthrough in negotiations with China to eliminate tariffs on information technology products, from video-game consoles and computer software to medical equipment and semiconductors.

Tribute in the bag

August 8, 2014

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Thailand’s latest junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (aka National Council for Underdevelopment as Usual), has confirmed it is committing to a US$23 billion high-speed rail investment. Beyond this I can find very few concrete details. But the expectation is that much of the construction work, as well as the rolling stock, signalling equipment, and even quite basic industrial inputs will be supplied by China. Late last year, before the junta got rid of Thaksin’s little sister, Chinese premier  Li Keqiang was down in Bangkok doing the hard sell. When the junta boys grabbed the reins of power they made a show of putting the deal that was then shaping up on hold. But a few months later it is back in play, albeit possibly with some cuts to the project specification suggested by this Bangkok Post article (see the references to lower speed services).

Although we know nothing of the Chinese financing terms, it looks like the Celestial Empire has done an effective number on its traditional south-east Asian tribute states. First they leaned on the Laotians, the poorest and most biddable group, to agree to the first leg from Kunming through their territory. Now they have the Thais in the bag. Officially, the Malaysians say high speed rail is too expensive for them. But my guess is that the Malaysian government will fold once construction starts on the Kunming to Bangkok legs and sign a deal. The Chinese an easily twist their arms by threatening to buy their palm oil and gas somewhere else. (When I saw Mahathir late last year in KL he told me that he personally he is already in favour of a Chinese high-speed deal, so Beijing has one still-loud voice singing its song already.)

Who is all this investment good news for? It is good news for China’s rail equipment and rail construction firms, into which Beijing has sunk vast sums in order to master high-speed rail technology. And it is good news for bourgeois types like myself, who want fast, clean travel between their preferred Nanyang beaches and mountain retreats and the panda lairs of south-west China.

But we shouldn’t pretend it is good news for south-east Asian economic development. By the time there is a high-speed link all the way from Kunming to Singapore — which could now easily be completed within 10 years — the projects will have cost at least US$60 billion in today’s money. That expenditure will have done almost nothing to increase south-east Asia’s grasp of manufacturing technology, or even its project management capacity, because all the value-added goes to China. At a time when south-east Asia desperately needs to increase manufacturing employment to provide jobs for countries’ young populations, the China high-speed rail deals instead reveal the developmental bankruptcy of regional politicians. Their only strategy in addition to being a proto-colonial resource base for China, is to become a tourist destination for a new Chinese middle class.

 

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This from Geoff Wade at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, though I am not convinced all the numbers quoted are accurate.

What is not to like?

July 31, 2014

Summer in Taiwan. I came out two weeks ago with two kids and flew on to Penghu — the ‘Pescadore’ islands between Taiwan and China. Fortunately not on the flight that crashed that week. Clean air, clean beaches, and a diet of oysters and the odd beer.imageimageimage

Then we moved back to Taipei. Fantastic public transport, reasonably priced Chinese language summer camp, sitting in the hot springs at Beitou with a bunch of old boys and girls with flannels on their heads, wandering through night markets and shooting balloons with air pistols, chewing the fat with thoughtful, relaxed, helpful people. Chinese people at ease with themselves. Imagine that!

They tell me they lost the development race with Korea. Not really, I say. You lost the economic development race. But you won the overall development race. In Seoul they are all pissed out of their heads from Monday till Sunday, working 50 hours a week. Here, people are drinking fresh fruit juice and iced tea, eating the best food in east Asia, going to the temple or church, planning a holiday in Laos or Myanmar (it is striking how many people are wholly uninterested in visiting the mainland), reading a good book.

To be sure, I exaggerate for effect. But I honestly suspect that Taiwan is presently the most liveable place in east Asia. The parks, the public pools, the transport system, the schools all work in the general interest. Taipei retains the architectural charm of Tokyo because there are narrow streets but little high-rise construction, but it is more interesting because the Chinese are always up to something. It’s individuality with social responsibility. The losers are males of working age who are compelled to go to the mainland for work. But everyone else is here having a nice time. And there are pleasantly few gweilos of the irritating sort, because they have moved to China, or else stayed in Hong Kong or Singapore in order to better pool their wisdom and thereby earn their clients less money than the market index pays.

image image

Thinking back to Indonesia and Jokowi, if he wants to see what a manufacturing-plus-infrastructure strategy could do for his country, he should pop up here before he assumes the presidency. This is south-east Asia with dignity, built by small-time manufacturers like Jokowi. The Vietnamese, who are the only south-east Asian state on track to replicate this model, might also come over to remind themselves of the future. It ain’t too shabby.

Choosing poverty

July 2, 2014

Egypt’s General el-Sisi is retaining Tony Blair to advise on economic development. The bill will be picked up by offshore financial centre, the United Arab Emirates. A supporting act will be played by what used to be called Booz and Co., now comically rebranded as Strategy&.

The failure of the Arab Spring in Egypt is complete. Get ready for more poverty, more underdevelopment, and a few multinational companies picking off choice contracts. And then, of course, there is the continuing terrorism that all this implies.

If General el-Sisi wants a book by a general about the basics of effective economic development, he can get a copy of Park Chung Hee’s Our Nation’s Path, and preferably The Country, the Revolution, and I as well, from a decent second-hand bookseller. Indeed there is/was a tattered copy of both, plus Collected Speeches, here for US$33.

On reading these slim but cogent volumes, General el-Sisi would realise the first thing he needed to do was to get rid of Blair, the UAE and Strategy&. Ideally, he’d let Blair come over and then lock him away, thus protecting the rest of the Middle East.

But of course el-Sisi will do no such thing because he’s not in the business of developing the Egyptian economy. He’s in the business of Egyptian business as usual, and killing to that end. Tony’s advice on the Mayfair property market may well be useful.

But mind the bomb.

Sounds like my book

October 31, 2013

A long trip through Malaysia, Indonesia and China leaves me more convinced than ever that east Asia has two distinct destinies in economic development terms, and that the south-east Asian states are on the wrong side of the tracks.

I start off in Malaysia, where the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) holds power despite winning a slightly smaller vote share than the opposition in May’s elections. The effect has been a skittish, neurotic administration confronted with deep-seated developmental problems it has no desire or capacity to address. The government commissions reports from the likes of McKinsey as if believing foreign management consultants are likely to come up with some brilliant idea to solve the nation’s problems. In reality, locals know all too well what the issues are — a coddled plantation sector and ignored smallholders in agriculture, low levels of indigenous industrial competitiveness, an untamed army of oligarchs that does almost nothing to promote national economic development and recycles its cash flows offshore, a financial system that pushes out consumer debt rather than supporting industrial development, and resurgent speculation in high-end real estate. Despite oil and gas revenues that cover around two-fifths of the national budget, the government still runs a budget deficit of 5 percent of GDP as it strives to buy off discontent.

In Malaysia today, there is a general sense of malaise, compounded by a recently much increased crime rate — particularly theft, burglary and violent crime. This was never a country that you associated with crime (other than expropriation by godfathers), but that seems to have changed.

On 9 October, a nearly 90-year-old Mahathir was kind enough to grant me a meeting. After corresponding with him during the writing of How Asia Works, I was looking forward to sitting down with him. However the experience did nothing to change the conclusions I had already reached.

Here are the highlights: On agriculture, Mahathir insisted that plantations always produce better yields than smallholders. On Malaysia’s tycoons staying out of manufacturing and not contributing to industrialisation, he commented: ‘They do what they think they can do best. We don’t direct them.’ On the future of economic development, he said he never did, and does not now, see ASEAN as a vehicle for economic policy cooperation and joint development. ‘Economic cooperation is secondary in ASEAN,’ he said. Instead Mahathir talked of the tourism potential of millions of Chinese visitors and of China as a source of cheap manufactured products for Malaysia; he favours buying a Chinese high-speed rail line to run the length of the country.

For me, the takeaway was that Mahathir doesn’t think a country like Malaysia ‘ought’ to be able to compete with a country like China. His parting shot was to say that it was unfair of me to compare the manufacturing development of Malaysia and Korea in How Asia Works: ‘We are not a single ethnic country. We are a multi-ethnic country. That makes it more difficult. They [Malaysia’s ethnic groups] are not at the same level.’ It was the race-based outlook that I describe in How Asia Works as having been so devisive and detrimental to effective policy in every south-east Asian country.

Would Indonesia be any different? I spoke at an event generously hosted by Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, who read How Asia Works soon after it was published and announced himself ‘a fan’. However, while he might agree with the analysis of south-east Asia’s problems, at the event he offered no clear statements as to policy changes he believes are required if Indonesia is to improve its development prospects. All I picked up in Jakarta was the same, general sense of discontent after 15 post-Asian crisis years of partial economic recovery based on commodity trade (principally with China) and zero industrial progress.

On this topic, I spent the day before the Trade Ministry event at what used to be called IPTN in Bandung, now known as Indonesian Aerospace. People I asked in Jakarta assumed that the aircraft-building industrial policy adventure sponsored by BJ Habibie — which the IMF insisted be cut off from further state funding as a condition of providing credit to Indonesia in 1998 — is long dead.

But not so. IPTN/IAe lends a little support to my assertion in the book that even failed industrial policy will produce some tangible benefits (just very expensive ones compared with well organised industrial policy). Up in Bandung, IPTN had 15,600 employees, including 3,500 engineers, before the Asian crisis hit. The firm was receiving monthly government remittances to cover development costs for Indonesia’s indigenous N-250, 50-seat turbo-prop aircraft. With almost no cash reserves, when the cash was cut off the firm went into freefall. Management did not stabilise the business until the headcount had been cut by more than 12,000, to just 3,000. They did so by turning what had been an aircraft building business into a low-cost parts supplier, particularly to Airbus.

Today, the two N-250 prototypes sit disconsolate in a parking area of the 80 hectare site (the one at the bottom is three metres longer and can seat 70, so was really the N-270, as in two engines, 70 seats). Suharto himself launched the first prototype in 1995, naming it Gatotkoco after a character in Hindu-Javanese legend. Something of the order of US$1 billion had been pumped into the N-250 programme by 1998. The renamed Indonesian Aerospace kept flying its prototypes — racking up 1,200 test hours — until 2007 in the vain hope of finding cash to finish the project. The outside technical reviews were generally positive, but the will and capacity of the government to back the project were gone.

IPTN N250 GatotkocoIPTN N250IPTN N270

After the state cash flow was cut, Indonesian Aerospace first obtained work making wing ribs for the Airbus A380. Then it obtained contracts for the A320, and for Boeing and other aircraft. There was no way for the firm itself to invest in development projects because residual government debt made it unbankable. Only in 2011 did the government agree to a debt write-off (technically a debt-equity swap). This was followed in 2012 by a Rupiah1.2 trillion (circa US$100m) ‘goodbye’ capital injection from the state.

Indonesian Aerospace continued to assemble small aircraft after the crisis that it had assembled before 1998 in a joint venture with a Spanish firm — now owned by Airbus Military. Gradually it has managed improve the terms of its cooperation with Airbus, moving, for instance, to profit sharing on the most popular model it builds. Critically, the post-crisis era focused Indonesian Aerospace on selling aircraft as well as making them. It currently exports around one-fifth of the small aircraft it assembles — to Thailand for rain-seeding, to South Korea for coastal surveillance, to Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey. Exports, however, are still nowhere near as strong as they were in Embraer’s formative stages in Brazil, before that firm went on to be truly globally competitive. Indonesian non-weaponized defence procurement is the current backbone of Indonesian Aerospace’s order backlog, which stands at US$1 billion.

Perhaps most interesting is that the firm, after conducting five years of market studies (what would have been an unthinkably long period of analysis in the pre-crisis era when it was rushing straight from the N250 to the N2130, a 130-seat jet aircraft), has committed to develop a new civilian aircraft of its own. Indonesian Aerospace managers say they have 150 non-binding commitments for a very small, 19-seat passenger aircraft designed for low-cost travel between second-tier cities in the provinces. Indonesia, like the rest of south-east Asia, already has a booming low-cost sector between key cities based on Boeing and Airbus aircraft. This is an attempt to grab a bit of market share below the radar of the big boys. The aircraft will work off short landing strips, be able to carry substantial amounts of freight relative to passengers, and is designed for use with minimal air traffic control; a prototype will fly in 2015.

Indonesia’s industrial policy was badly conceived, with too little competition, no involvement of leading entrepreneurs, and almost zero export orientation. Even today Indonesian Aerospace has failed to build a supplier cluster around Bandung. But it looks like the firm may in the end produce a marketable aircraft worthy of the name of indigenous technological capacity.

The big point of contemporary comparison, of course, is China. Earlier in 2013 there was a mild panic among foreign observers that that country’s accumulation of bad debt — largely a result of the aggressive industrial policy orientation of its financial sector — could lead to imminent financial melt-down. But not so. Unlike Indonesia, which had no capital controls in 1997, China is protected from changes of sentiment about its banks by capital controls that trap money in the country and keep the system liquid. China’s capacity to grow away from debt is declining as its growth rate gradually falls, but the basic fact of capital controls still meant that this year’s panic was a storm in a teacup. There is always a lot of waste involved in industrial policy, but control of the domestic financial system allows a government to socialise the cost.

Riding the high-speed rail system (HSR) from Shanghai to Suzhou to Xuzhou to Beijing, visiting firms, I also reflected how massively greater is China’s technological capacity today than was Indonesia’s when that country hit the skids in 1997-8. The entire Chinese economy makes stuff that the world economy is willing to pay for. Manufacturing activity is not confined to one or two bellwether projects like IPTN or Malaysia’s Proton. If crisis struck China today, the country would be way more competitive, in more value-added activities, once the crisis abated than was Indonesia after 1998. And China doesn’t face a crisis today because it has not been dumb enough to abandon capital controls. I suspect the country only has one more economic cycle to go before its control over capital is insufficient to escape crisis — the irony of its present stage of development is that China must begin to deregulate finance in order to waste less capital in an era of slowing growth. But by the time crisis does strike, China’s technological competitiveness and its roster of globally competitive large firms will be substantially higher again that it is today.

So what I came back to England thinking is that there is just a lack of political will and political self-belief in south-east Asia to do things differently. I am not sure it was ever really any different. Even Mahathir, who talked the best game in the region in terms of promising a shift to a Japanese-Korean model when he was premier, says that Malaysians cannot really follow the model because they are not racially up to it. On that view, you have lost before you start.

We like dull

November 8, 2011

Three recent articles make me think how dull and conservative good industrial policy in developing countries needs to be. And how China is proving the point.

The first piece reveals that only 106 plug-in electric cars were bought in the UK in the third quarter of the year. The second indicates that after biding its time, General Electric is making a move into the solar industry (FT sub needed) — but not into the poly-silicon technology that has dominated thus far, instead into the thin film approach that grew out of the US semiconductor business. The third article concerns GE’s third quarter results (FT sub needed), which were none too bad but which were not helped by falling wind turbine prices, a business where GE is already very active.

China has designs on all these green energy businesses. It also has large domestic firms in each sector which are screaming for subsidies. The government could have thrown its money at the most exciting technology — electric vehicles — or at the one where Chinese scientists lead the world — poly-silicon solar. But instead it chose to place its big bets on wind turbines, where the technological path is most established and the cost of green energy lowest, throwing billions of dollars at the construction of Chinese wind farms. It was the boring choice, but it looks like having been the right one — hands down.

As recent press shows, the market for electric vehicles remains tiny. If China had gotten too far ahead of the demand curve, the country could have wasted vast sums on e-vehicle technologies that fizzle. In the solar business, where private Chinese companies dominate global production of poly-silicon cells, there is a real risk that poly-silicon is not going to be the winning long-run technology.

The shape of the evolving wind turbine market, by contrast, is easier to see. It is largely a matter of making the same turbines bigger. In this context, China has created some of the world’s largest wind turbine producers in the space of a few years and there is little chance going forward that they will be ‘technologically disrupted’. They are competing first on price — hence the pressure mentioned by GE in its third quarter results — capturing market share, over-running the entire production value chain so as to ‘own’ the technology, and they will then start to compete on quality and service later.

Sensible industrial policy in a developing country involves plucking low hanging technological fruit. Then you bring cheap capital — human and financial —  to bear.


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