Thursday, July 21, 2011

Who is rich?

How do we determine which nation is richer? Normally, we use metrics like GDP, GDP per capita etc. By many metrics the west and developed countries are rich. But are they really rich? I am not sure.

We evaluate wealth or richness at a point in time. As a concept, we have create this utopian set of goods and services that the richest nation must ideally consume. This rich consumption basket includes high quality healthcare, regular electricity supply, cars and automobiles etc. In other words, this basket comprises necessities and comforts. We measure how much a nation needs to spend to achieve this utopian consumption basket, how much it earns and that difference gives us how rich it is.

I disagree.
Let us imagine a nation of chronically ill people. The median income in this nation is 100 units. However, their illness implies that they require 110 units for consumption - 10 units for their needs and 100 units for medications. Now since all the other nations earn a maximum of 20 units, we can say this nation is rich. But other nations are healthy and they only need 10 units - they save 10 units of their earnings. In this case, the other nations are actually richer. Very simply, a nation of savers should be richer than nation of borrowers.

I think at all times, we should be net savers, in high investment phase, the level may be low or nearly zero with positive bias. I think a nation of savers has the option to stop consuming comfort goods while those who borrow set in motion a negative spiral that reduces jobs, hence consumption potential of both comforts and necessities. Importantly, it impairs repayment potential. It is difficult to initiate a turn around.

Asset ownership and dispersion - median asset ownership
Another aspect of debate is asset ownership dispersion as against asset ownership alone. This works just like employment intensity. The more dispersed the asset ownership within the country richer the country. Ideally, median household asset ownership makes more sense. If we look at asset ownership of household and find income generating assets then the country is definitely richer. These could be, saving deposits, equity shares (positive on MTM or yielding reasonable dividends), house that can be rented (fully paid up or rent greater than mortgage payment), vehicles for hire, etc. The consumption goods are TV, computer (used as consumption good rather than income generating asset), vehicle (personal use - not for hire), etc. These consumption goods should be expensed rather than be treated as assets.

Thus, a nation that has higher net assets (total assets less debt) at a median level should be richer.