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Back to Fundamentals in Emerging Markets

CAMBRIDGE – Following 15 years of hype, a new conventional wisdom has taken hold: emerging markets are in deep trouble. Many analysts had extrapolated rapid growth in countries such as Brazil, Russia, Turkey, and India into the indefinite future, calling them the new engines of the world economy. Now growth is down in almost all of them, and investors are pulling their money out – prompted in part by the expectation that the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates in September. Their currencies have tumbled, while corruption scandals and other political difficulties have overwhelmed the economic narrative in places like Brazil and Turkey.

With hindsight, it has become clear that there was in fact no coherent growth story for most emerging markets. Scratch the surface, and you found high growth rates driven not by productive transformation but by domestic demand, in turn fueled by temporary commodity booms and unsustainable levels of public or, more often, private borrowing.

Yes, there are plenty of world-class firms in emerging markets, and the expansion of the middle-class is unmistakable. But only a tiny share of these economies’ labor is employed in productive enterprises, while informal, unproductive firms absorb the rest.

Compare this with the experience of the few countries that did emerge successfully, “graduating” to advanced-country status, and you can see the missing ingredient. South Korea and Taiwan grew on the back of rapid industrialization. As South Korean and Taiwanese peasants became factory workers, the economies of both countries – and, with a lag, their politics – were transformed. South Korea and Taiwan eventually became rich democracies.