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The Real Heroes of the Global Economy

PRINCETON – Economic policymakers seeking successful models to emulate apparently have an abundance of choices nowadays. Led by China, scores of emerging and developing countries have registered record-high growth rates over recent decades, setting precedents for others to follow. While advanced economies have performed far worse on average, there are notable exceptions, such as Germany and Sweden. “Do as we do,” these countries’ leaders often say, “and you will prosper, too.”

Look more closely, however, and you will discover that these countries’ vaunted growth models cannot possibly be replicated everywhere, because they rely on large external surpluses to stimulate the tradable sector and the rest of the economy. Sweden’s current-account surplus has averaged above a whopping 7% of GDP over the last decade; Germany’s has averaged close to 6% during the same period.

China’s large external surplus – above 10% of GDP in 2007 – has narrowed significantly in recent years, with the trade imbalance falling to about 2.5% of GDP. As the surplus came down, so did the economy’s growth rate – indeed, almost point for point. To be sure, China’s annual growth remains comparatively high, at above 7%. But growth at this level reflects an unprecedented – and unsustainable – rise in domestic investment to nearly 50% of GDP. When investment returns to normal levels, economic growth will slow further.

Obviously, not all countries can run trade surpluses at the same time. In fact, the successful economies’ superlative growth performance has been enabled by other countries’ choice not to emulate them.