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Can Emerging Markets Save the World Economy?

MILAN – Over the past two years, industrial countries have experienced bouts of severe financial instability. Currently, they are wrestling with widening sovereign-debt problems and high unemployment. Yet emerging economies, once considered much more vulnerable, have been remarkably resilient. With growth returning to pre-2008 breakout levels, the performance of China, India, and Brazil is an important engine of expansion for today’s global economy.

High growth and financial stability in emerging economies are helping to facilitate the massive adjustment facing industrial countries. But that growth has significant longer-term implications. If the current pattern is sustained, the global economy will be permanently transformed. Specifically, not much more than a decade is needed for the share of global GDP generated by developing economies to pass the 50% mark when measured in market prices.

So it is important to know whether this breakout growth phase is sustainable. The answer comes in two parts. One depends on emerging economies’ ability to manage their own success; the other relates to the extent to which the global economy can accommodate this success. The answer to the first question is reassuring; the answer to the second is not.

While still able to exploit the scope for catch-up growth, emerging economies must undertake continuous, rapid, and at times difficult structural change, along with a parallel process of reform and institution building. In recent years, the systemically important countries have established an impressive track record of adapting pragmatically and flexibly. This is likely to continue.