(Bloomberg View) — People in the West, certainly Americans, have long had a fascination with the East, with many predicting an inevitable “Asian century” marked by economic and market dominance. I have long disagreed with the consensus on China and other Asian Tigers, and others are beginning to agree. Many problems stand in the way of the “Asian century.”
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Japan dazzled Westerners with the speed of its recovery from the ashes of World War II. Japanese purchases of U.S. trophy properties such as the Pebble Beach golf resort in California and Rockefeller Center in Manhattan in the 1980s, on top of the leaping property and equity prices in Japan, convinced many in the West that Japan would soon take over the world.
Japan’s economic decline in the early 1990s did not curb fascination with Asia. It simply shifted to the rapidly-growing developing economies, the Asian Tigers. The original four, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, were later augmented by the likes of Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and, of course, China — and more recently, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
The late-1990s Asian financial crisis only temporarily disrupted Western fascination with the East and the prospects for an “Asian century.”
The 2007-2009 Great Recession and financial crisis ended rapid economic growth in Western countries and, therefore, the robust demand for exports that were the mainstay of developing economies. Still, Western zeal for Asia persisted and many, for no logical reasons, believed emerging countries could independently continue to grow rapidly and, indeed, support economic activity in the sluggish U.S. and Europe.
Chinese real economic annual growth rates nosedived from double digits to a recessionary 6.3% during the worldwide downturn, but then revived due to the massive 2009 stimulus program. Easy credit fueled a property boom and inflation, and excessive infrastructure spending replaced exports as the growth engine. As with the Asian Tigers earlier, many thought Chinese growth was self-sustaining and unrelated to ongoing sluggish economic performance in North America and Europe, especially after Chinese GDP topped Japan’s in 2009.
There are five main reasons why it won’t get any easier for Asia:
1. Globalization is largely completed.
There isn’t much manufacturing in North America and Europe left to be moved to lower-cost developing economies. At the same time, the West is basically saturated with Asian exports, and those countries are competing fiercely among themselves for limited total export demand. Also, exports are shifting among those countries as low-end production moves from China to places such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, much as they shifted out of Japan in earlier decades. As economies grow, a greater share of spending is on services and less on goods. This reality is a long-term drag on almost all the other Asian lands, except India, due to their goods-export orientation. This will temper long-term growth for Asian goods exports even after rapid economic growth resumes in the U.S. and possibly other Western economies.
2. The shift from being export-led economies to ones driven by domestic spending, especially by consumers, has been slow.
Chinese leaders want this transition, but it is moving at glacial speed. At 37%, Chinese consumer spending as a share of GDP is well below major developed countries such as the U.S. at 68.1%, Japan at 58.6%, and even Russia at 51.9%.