Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The end of middle income trap

There is a lot of research about the middle income trap where the GDP of countries grows but stalls once it reaches the Middle Income group.

How the US kept its lead?
The US kept its lead by being at the frontiers of development. First it was the manufacturing productivity boom of the 1900s where Henry Ford found ways to deploy labour in a new way multiplying the productivity. The next few decades was more of no-competition-post-WW1-WW2 phase that created man-power shortage. The US kept its lead by bringing the women into workforce imitating the western Europeans. Over the next few decades, US deployed economies of scale to keep productivity high. This was the dawn of the technical age with new machines aiming for quality and speed. The next phase was information age. Again US companies leading the information era created unparalleled advantage using technology. 

What comes next, is the crucial question. It is not yet clear. However, what is clear is that it will definitely require more knowledge and technological input than previously. Can the silicon valley, which has delivered quite a few technological winners, give US the next advantage? The chances are getting smaller every day. But that is nothing to do with Silicon Valley itself, but the political climate in which it must operate. Stifling immigration laws that prevent talent from coming through, unfriendly tax regime that will definitely be a burden on small businesses, lack of science and math educated population and global reach of the VCs may thwart the leadership position of Silicon Valley. Further, technology now allows interactions across the globe allowing crucial connections between VCs and founders possible. There are two areas where size of investment could make a difference. These two areas would be renewal energy and water treatment.

The connection with Middle Income Trap
With the US and developed world acting as a source of demand, and simultaneously as a frontier of development, implied that middle income countries were reliant on currency valuations to ensure competitiveness. The currency strategy, it implies, were creating a ceiling for these countries in terms of incomes. Quite a few countries, like Malaysia, have little difference with US or other developed countries when it comes to actual productivity (as defined in engineering not economics). The lower economic productivity is a function on artificial factors.

I believe we are at a stage when technological edge of the developed countries is not substantial. It is possible that new developments will come from across the world and some other country, possibly China, will take a leadership role in the coming decades. As a corollary, it will escape the middle income trap. With this as an example, it will be possible for others to use similar strategy.

Developed world median-incomes may decline  
Concurrently, the median incomes in the developed world, may decline upsetting the conventional benchmarks for what is classified as a middle-income-group. The current crisis, is creating ample structural shifts to hasten this process. Soon, we will see a realignment of real wealth.