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Tradable Prosperity

MILAN – The global economy is experiencing a major growth challenge. Many advanced countries are attempting to revive sustainable growth in the face of a decelerating global economy. But the challenges across countries are not the same. In particular, the tradable and non-tradable parts of a range of economies differ in important ways.

In the non-tradable sector (60-70% of the economy in advanced countries), the main growth inhibitors are weak demand, as in the United States following the financial crisis, and structural and competitive impediments to productivity, as in Japan. In the tradable sector, growth depends on a country’s productivity relative to incomes and competitiveness. At the global level, there can also be a shortage of aggregate demand on the tradable side.

The Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow has shown that growth comes from three sources: the working population, capital investment, and technological progress. A growing young population helps to maintain fiscal balance and ensure intergenerational equity, but it does not by itself increase incomes. On the other hand, economic growth below the sum of growth in the working population and the labor-saving part of technological change fuels unemployment.

Developing countries, once they enter rapid-growth mode, generate growth from capital deepening via investment, in a sense making up for past underinvestment. And it is possible for advanced countries to fall behind by under-investing, particularly in the public sector, relying instead on less sustainable debt-fueled means of generating demand. So a legitimate part of a strategy to restore growth is investment.