Speech, Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture 2009, 7 April 2009
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It is a great honour to be given the opportunity to deliver the Trotter Lecture… This evening I am going to speak about the accelerating economic convergence taking place globally as the living standards of the 5 billion people living outside the historically rich part of the world rapidly catch up with income levels in the West. I am going to talk about why this process will be so transformational and why its essential nature is often misunderstood.
The first draft of this speech was prepared before it was clear that the global economy is enduring the deepest and most coordinated recession since the 1930s. The crisis is disorientating in its power and speed. A wit in Moscow recently asked me: what is the difference between a Gulfstream business jet and Aeroflot economy class? In my case, he said, about 3 weeks!
The crisis makes the concept of accelerating economic convergence even more relevant now than six months ago. One of the primary underpinnings of the current turmoil is the enormous excess of savings in the major emerging markets and oil producing nations which has effectively financed an equally enormous excess of consumption in the rich countries of the world. This imbalance is in part a symptom of both the rapid economic ascendance of the emerging markets and the relative decline of the West. I doubt that this is the last crisis that will be rooted in this historic shift in economic power.
Moreover, emerging markets are likely to converge more rapidly after the crisis than before. Generally speaking, the rich countries went into the crisis with bigger fiscal and current account deficits, lower savings rates, bigger governments and less flexible labour markets than their emerging market peers.
They are also experiencing more lethal impairment of their banking systems than countries with less developed financial intermediation. In recent years emerging market GDP growth rates have exceeded those in the rich world by about 5 percentage points; not surprisingly, the IMF expects this differential to increase in 2009.
To provide the context for the concept of accelerating economic convergence it will be helpful to summarise the generally accepted historical data on the origins and geographic focus of global growth. What is less well understood is where the current frontiers of this process lie.
Here I will draw heavily on my own experience living and working for the last 17 years in two of the least expected but most successful economic transformations underway today – those in the former Soviet Union and sub-Saharan Africa.
Working as a young policy analyst in Treasury during New Zealand’s liberalization programme from 1984 I received as rigorous a grounding in microeconomics as anyone could hope for. But my experience in the 1980s was grounded in a particular institutional and historical context, much of which we could afford to take as given. There was probably even an implicit assumption that Western-type institutions were in some sense superior to those in poorer parts of the world.
My experience working in the former Soviet Union and in sub-Saharan Africa has changed my views in this regard. I have seen first hand how economic performance can be dramatically improved under a wide range of institutions and styles of government. I have learnt just how difficult it is for outsiders to understand why particular arrangements have evolved in particular countries and why they “work” in those specific circumstances. I have become strongly opposed to what I term “missionary economics”, the attempt to preach the unadulterated adoption of institutions and forms of government that have developed in totally different historical, economic and social contexts.
But the most dramatic lesson I have learnt is that we are living in a world where most low income countries are transforming themselves in a manner and at a pace that confounds the economic missionary view of the world. As a businessman I have seen at very close range how this process has resulted in the development of highly successful new business models and concepts.
I will also touch on the threats and opportunities that a world of accelerated economic convergence presents for New Zealand.
2.0 The Beginnings of Viral Growth and the Era of Economic Divergence
In the second half of the 19th Century, a phenomenon begun 100 years before in Britain was exported out to Europe and, eventually, the rest of the world. In the 43 years between 1870 and 1913, annual global economic output doubled. The jump in production was as great as the entire increase seen in the previous 1000 years of human endeavour. And alongside this went an increase in population and life expectancy equally as unprecedented.
Just as extraordinary is the increased disparity in income across countries during the same period. In 1000 AD, per capita income in the richest region in the world, Asia, was maybe 10% higher than in the poorest region in the world, Western Europe. In 1870, income levels in the US, then the richest part of the world, were roughly five times higher than for somebody living in either Asia or Africa. By 1973, the difference was 13 times and by 1998 19 times, its greatest level in history.
2.1 The Causes of Viral Growth and the Importance of Markets and Private Property in Stimulating Institutional Development
So what caused this extraordinary increase in the productive power of one reasonably small part of the world relative both to anything else seen in history and anything else seen in the world at that time.
The early-adopters of the process of economic transformation shared a common cultural heritage. With very few exceptions, they were all either European or off-shoots of European countries. The temptation is therefore to conclude that it is something inherent in the socio-political traditions of European nation states that is necessary for a flourishing market-based economy to transform living standards.
But here we should be very careful. There were some common conditions that are crucial – the concept of transferable and enforceable private property rights for one – but there are others that were demonstrably not. Only the US was a democracy which we would recognize today. The rule of law was only really robust in the UK. There was no free press in Germany or Japan.
Many of the socio-political traditions we associate with marketbased economies could just as easily be argued to have been the result of economic transformation, rather than the preconditions for it.
2.1.1 The Case of Russia
We can begin to think about cause and effect by examining what was different about this set of countries at that time compared to others which failed to take off. Richard Pipes, Professor of History at Harvard, has done a lot of interesting work on this, specifically comparing Europe’s development with that of Russia.
Russia shares a great deal in common with Europe, yet benefited much less than the other major European powers from the economic growth of the 19th Century. At one point, it looked as though Russia might even have been leading the pack towards the creation of a modern day European state. In the 14th and 15th Centuries, the principality of Novgorod was the commercial centre of Russia, bigger economically at the time than its main rival, the principality of Muscovy.
Novgorod’s leaders were elected, and held in check by a legislature formed by a popular assembly. Its wealth was in private hands. Compared to the feudal systems then common in much of the rest of Europe, Novgorod’s institutional framework was advanced.
In his book, ‘Property and Freedom’, the question Professor Pipes attempts to answer is not which institutional differences explain why Russia followed a different path to modernization, but rather what was different about Russia which explains why it followed a different path of institutional development.
In his opinion, it was the weak and late development of private property in Russia that caused the evolution of a different set of institutions from those of the rest of Europe. The reason why parliamentary democracy, civil rights, freedom of speech and eventually the rule of Law developed first in England was because of the tradition of property and land ownership, and the freedom to trade which had existed in England since the early Middle Ages, and which never managed to take hold in Russia. Private ownership created the demand for institutions which protected and facilitated the transferability of private assets. These included courts, property registers and written law.
In Russia, the reason why development stopped in its tracks was because Novgorod was eventually overrun by the military might of Muscovy. The Byzantine traditions of a centralized authority proved stronger than the trading culture developing in Novgorod.
2.1.2 Viral Growth Occurred even when the Institutional Preconditions Appeared to be Unfavourable; Viral Growth is Highly Adaptive
Between 1700 and its peak in 1870, Britain’s share in global GDP grew from 3% to 10%. The concepts underpinning that rapid economic growth took a relatively long time to spread through Western Europe and caught on in some places more rapidly than others. Social and political resistance to the changes associated with growth was understandably fierce.
Rather than having the ‘right’ set of institutions in place to kickstart economic transformation, many of the institutions in place in much of Europe at the end of the 18th Century did not appear to be particularly welcoming to the transformation taking place in England. What seems to have catalysed the economic transformation in the 19th Century was the demonstration of that transformation.
A regime needed to adapt its institutional framework in order to generate the necessary industrial base to keep up with its international rivals. Success bred success. Although Western countries today are a relatively homogeneous bunch when it comes to their institutions, in the 19th Century there were profound differences. The important similarities were the recognition of private property, some version of a rule of law based on the notion of nationhood, and the gradual acceptance of competition and the market as the best way to allocate resources.
What did not drive growth was the government. In fact the principal impact of government was negative – to slow the process down through various forms of mercantilism. At the risk of jumping ahead, this interpretation dovetails with the message I have heard countless times across numerous African countries: government hasn’t improved but at least it stays out of business now”.
Many of the institutions that we enjoy today were clearly not preconditions to the economic success of the first wave of economic transition – they would have looked at least as alien to Western Europe in 1800 as they do to much of the developing world today.
3.0 Accelerating Economic Convergence in the 20th Century and Today
The economic forces unleashed in the second half of the 19th Century revolutionized the world. But, remarkably, they were actually quite muted relative to what we have seen in the period since the Second World War. Both in size and scope, the economic change in the last five decades has dwarfed anything seen before. Global economic growth between 1870 and 1913 averaged 2.1% and increased global output during that period by 150%. Global economic growth between 1970 and 2013 is expected to average 3.5% and will increase global output by 340%.
But perhaps the most under-appreciated fact about the current period of transformative economic growth is how much more inclusive it is than anything we have ever seen before.
3.1 Growth Goes Global and Accelerates
Since the ‘60s, the divergence in growth rates has been reversing. More and more people living in increasingly varied regimes are hitching themselves to the locomotive of transformative economic growth. The number of people involved in the economic revolution in 1900 was 300 million.
By 1960, it was 2.5 billion. Today, there are 5.5 billion people living in countries with growth rates higher than the average in the G7. In the aftermath of World War II, the countries that powered economic recovery were largely the same as those that benefited from the first wave of globalised economic change.
But then in the early 60s, something remarkable began. Economic growth began to go truly global. The number and range of countries experiencing the transformative power of rapid economic growth began widening and accelerating. It began quite slowly with Korea in the ‘50s and then the South East Asian tiger economies in the ‘60s, suggesting that these were exceptional cases.
But it did not stop there. Defining strong growth as GDP expanding by more than 3% on average in every year for a decade or more, the new entrants to the high growth league in the period from 1980-2005 comprise countries with hugely varied histories, geographies and cultural and political legacies: Botswana, Bhutan, Ireland, Singapore, Mauritius, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Chile, Sri Lanka and Malta. If we move the start date up to 1990, the list broadens further to include Vietnam, Lebanon, Trinidad Tobago, Laos, Mozambique, Poland, Guyana and Tunisia. Coming closer still to the present by starting from 1995, the countries of the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia join the growth league, together with the likes (or should I say the unlikes?) of Cambodia, Angola, Greece and Tanzania. Economic transformation is developing from something which seemed to be limited in its membership to an elite group of countries blessed by history and culture, to something which is much more viral in nature, spreading rapidly across many different countries with many different cultures and forms of government.
Moreover, the rate of growth is itself increasing. The growth rates during the Japanese economic miracle were surpassed by the Asian tigers which were widely interpreted as being a special case. Then China smashed the Asian growth records, becoming widely interpreted as a truly unique transformation.
And in recent years a series of often unexpected countries have matched Chinese growth rates: Kazakhstan, Angola, Cambodia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. There does seem to be an emerging pattern of later take-off leading to faster convergence.
3.1.1 Viral Growth Prospers in a Wider Range of Political Regimes and Historical Circumstance
So what is going on? Why is economic growth taking hold in so many different types of political and economic regimes simultaneously? It is tempting to ascribe the success to the desire of very different countries to emulate the Western model, in order to be rewarded by economic success.
It is tempting, but it is also demonstrably not the case. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, the GCC [?], Kazakhstan, Angola, Azerbaijan and Vietnam have all experienced more explosive growth than the Western block pioneered without choosing the Western model of society or government.
The only common thread that links most of the countries that have started to enjoy the benefits of rapid economic growth is that they have increased the domain of the market in allocating resources. A combination of allowing markets to set the price of labour, capital and goods, and a commitment to opening up to trade and maintaining a degree of fiscal and financial stability, has been enough to kick-start growth. The only other common factor all of these countries share is their diversity.
My professional experience in Russia in the 1990s challenged and overturned many of my assumptions about how emerging market economies and societies work. My first assignment was to structure and execute the first privatizations in Russia in a pilot for what became the largest privatisation programme ever. Our thinking was essentially missionary – if we set up the right rules ‘they’, the Russians, would behave more efficiently, and more like us! If we could privatize the economy there would be massive and rapid improvements in productivity and efficiency.
Well, yes and no and the yes for more complex reasons than I expected. In an environment with no modern history of private ownership, no supporting values and norms, no established market institutions and endemic corruption, the initial impact was chaos. But then Russia gradually began pulling out of its economic and social nosedive. Private ownership began to work and to work in an extremely powerful fashion. As the ownership of collapsing assets began to be consolidated, investment, modernization and management upgrading gradually took off. Corporate governance went from absolutely shocking to average and the global equity capital markets locked onto Russia. In 2007 Russia had the third largest issuance market in the world for new equity. The economy itself has increased 9 times in US dollar terms in the 10 years to 2008.
I recently re-read the speech made at this forum by Dr Yegor Gaidar, Russia’s first post-Soviet head of government. Dr Gaidar introduced the economic polices which have defined Russia since 1992. Two points in particular resonated with me. First, the initial market reforms were made when the Sovietera institutions had collapsed and before any new institutions could be built. Second, 10 years later when the communists effectively regained power, they had no option but to push forward with the reform programme.
The Russian experience illustrates the general point that economic transformation can take off even when the institutional underpinning to the economy is weak and disordered. Viral economic growth is highly adaptive. Exceptions are the rule. Preconditions for economic convergence are far more limited than generally thought.
3.2 The Importance of Openness and Information
At the same time the world is becoming increasingly open to the spread of new ideas. In particular, it is becoming increasingly obvious how other people in the world live, and that is proving to be a major driving force for contagion of transformational growth.
In sub-Saharan Africa a significant cross section of society is fully aware of the horrific cost of bad government on the continent and that rapid economic improvement is totally achievable. There is tremendous and mounting pressure for reform from these constituencies, and as the benefits of the first phase of reform and growth begin to flow, those pressures are both intensifying and broadening.
3.3 Transformational Growth Stimulates Pluralism
In fact, transformative economic growth is often the major impetus towards the development of more pluralistic societies, just as it was in the West. However, increased pluralism does not mean a move towards a modern Western state. A country’s institutions will evolve to reflect its unique economic, social and political situation. The figure who I find is most revered by African leaders today is not Nelson Mandela, but Lee Kuan Yew.
Rather than engaging in carping and paternalistic criticism of high growth countries with forms of government which differ from those in the West, Western commentators would do better to reflect on the fact that what we are witnessing is a replay of the West’s own success story. In effect, transformational economics is becoming self-fulfilling; it’s the rule rather than the exception. The exceptions occur in extreme regimes, such as North Korea, which stamp out private sector activity, or anarchic failed states like Somalia. Even, or should I say especially, in Zimbabwe where I have spent considerable time, there is enormous domestic pressure for market-based economics and its well-understood benefits.
The demonstration effect is extremely powerful and pervasive. This explains why the further you are behind the faster you will catch up; it explains why the North Koreas and Ivory Coasts of this world are increasingly rare – they are the freak shows of global economics. Once growth starts it tends to continue. Even the most basic reforms create benefits that broaden the constituencies supporting further reform. In this sense the only precondition for commencing transformational growth is the political will to change, not any specific set of institutions or policies.
Institutions and policies develop organically as transformational growth takes hold; they are the structural building blocks in a virtuous cycle involving ideas, openness, policies, institutions, economic benefits and greater pluralism.
3.4 There is Little Predictive Analysis of Transformational Growth
Despite the overwhelming evidence of accelerating convergence, success stories are frequently still seen as special cases. These explanations often have a cultural or historical bent. There are equally widely accepted theories as to why today’s laggards will never make it. Unfortunately their predictive power is virtually nil. In one decade we are told that Confucianism is a barrier to capitalism; in the next, experts extol the Chinese work ethic. Lazy, slovenly Russian workers suddenly become ambitious and creative. India’s colonial past goes from being a liability to an asset. And of course we all know why Africans are the world’s perennial underperformers.
It is difficult to believe, but in 1960, per capita GDP in China was less than that of Africa. Before Deng Xiaoping’s Reforms and Openness programme began in 1978, there was no reason to believe that communist China was going to grow more quickly than sub-Saharan Africa, and few commentators expected that it would. And today, the same negative predictions are being made for Africa. In 2000, the Economist magazine had an edition with a front cover showing a map of Africa and the title, ‘Africa, The Hopeless Continent’. In the intervening 9 years, three out of the 10 fastest growing countries in the world have been from sub-Saharan Africa. The region has grown at an average rate of 6%, three times the rate in the G7. And it’s not only natural resource producers. Ethiopia, a country which was once synonymous with disaster and aid relief, has been growing at an average of 10% per annum for the last five years. There is no reason why Africa cannot go through the same sort of economic expansion which has so revolutionized life in Asia.
Indeed, because of the tendency for convergence to happen more rapidly the later in time it commences, I expect Africa to grow faster than Asia did at the equivalent stage of its takeoff.
In business, equally wrong-headed predictions have been made. When I arrived in Russia, you could buy vouchers which effectively priced the entire Russian equity market – including major shareholdings in a third of the world’s gas, 10% of its oil, 12% of its nickel and the second largest electricity generation company in the world – for 3 billion USD. Few wanted to touch them. Credit Suisse First Boston’s elite European bankers had a nickname for our tiny group camped out in borrowed office space in Moscow. We were called the ‘smellies’, a reference to sanitary conditions in Eastern Europe at the time. My principal takeaway from this was that the incredible business opportunity we had in our hands would be greatly enhanced by others’ ignorance and the consequent lack of competition.
4.0 As in Politics, Western Business Models are not Directly Transferable into High Growth Emerging Markets
As in politics, Western business concepts are not directly transferable into high growth emerging markets. The most successful emerging market businesses have evolved in a manner that is highly adapted to their local environment.
4.1 Key Aspect of Large, High Growth Markets
There are three inter-related aspects of large, high growth emerging markets which have enabled the formation of hugely successful local businesses that have often proved to be competitively superior to their multinational counterparts.
1) their highly idiosyncratic nature;
2) their large scale; and
3) their extremely rapid pace of change.
4.1.1 The Importance of Idiosyncrasy
It goes without saying that markets like Kazakhstan, Russia and Nigeria are highly idiosyncratic. A successful business must work with existing infrastructure; it must navigate very specific local product market dynamics; it must manage local regulatory and legal realities. But think of the challenges this presents. How do you form a joint venture when the courts are corrupt? How do you manage risk in a consumer finance business when there’s no credit bureau? How do you build a major derivatives business when there’s no relevant legislation? Imagine how challenging these questions are if you are a bureaucratic multinational.
4.1.2 The Importance of Size
Market size is equally important because it creates the potential for scale. Scale creates the potential to acquire the best management and technology. If your supermarket business has two outlets you are unlikely to have the best management or technology. If you have 100 outlets it will be logical to hire truly world class management and your technology is likely to be state-of-the-art, perhaps even leapfrogging that typically seen in developed markets.
4.1.3 The Importance of Rapid Growth
The pace of change rounds out the story. In economies growing at 2-3 percent a year, industrial change is relatively gradual. Explosive change is usually associated with rapid technological change such as with the IT industry in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In fast-growing emerging markets all industries are like IT. Market growth and changes in competitive dynamics are explosive. For Russian retailers or Nigerian banks, 100% plus growth in revenues or profits is totally normal. Small businesses can become multi-billion dollar value enterprises in just a few years. Needless to say, with these stakes the winners tend to be highly organized and extremely aggressive.
Now consider what this combination of idiosyncratic features, size and speed means when taken together. To be highly successful a business has to build something very large, very quickly and of relatively high quality while contending with a very idiosyncratic environment. In many industries this combination has proved to be extremely challenging for the world’s large multinationals. Their advantages in terms of know-how and capital have been neutralized by their inability or reluctance to grow explosively in complex, foreign environments. In many emerging markets and in an increasing number of industries, the market leaders have local roots.
The largest metals group in the world is Indian. The largest aluminium group in the world is Russian. The fastest-growing mobile businesses in the world are owned and operated in emerging markets. The fastest-growing and largest banks in China, Russia and Nigeria are all domestic. Across Africa, foreign banks with many decades of local presence are being lapped by the local players. Even in a global industry like brewing, the world’s two largest players have emerging market roots.
4.2 Key Adaptations of Successful Emerging Market Businesses
How have these and hundreds of other enormously successful emerging market businesses gone from start-ups to very large scale operations in the face of global competitors with seemingly vast superiority in terms of capital, management and know-how?
Many if not most successful emerging market firms are majority-owned by an individual, a small group of partners or a family. Highly dynamic, rapidly growing markets demand a high degree of alignment between management decision making and economic returns. This is achieved where an entrepreneur or small group of entrepreneurs has a concentrated economic interest and the flexibility to make major decisions rapidly. In jurisdictions with weak legal systems, agreements are much easier to make on a handshake when you know you are dealing with ‘the owner of the business’ – an expression I hear virtually every working day. In my experience a handshake means a great deal more today in Moscow or Lagos than it does in London.
4.2.2 Speed and Boldness
Second, and related to the question of ownership, is the speed and boldness of decision making. Successful business leaders are typically able to think on a big canvas; to make bold decisions and have the resilience to withstand extreme volatility and market setbacks. It is virtually impossible for multinationals to operate in this manner. Their key decisions makers usually live in a distant part of the world; they think they fully understand the risks but can’t grasp the upside.
4.2.3 Deep Local Platforms
Third, successful emerging market businesses have what I call deep local ‘platforms’. They have very broad trust-based relationships – with customers, suppliers and regulators. They tend to have a lot of specialized infrastructure and to be more vertically integrated than their Western counterparts. These platforms enable the entrepreneur to manage the vagaries and infrastructure gaps of the local environment in an effective manner. They also tend to provide resilience in difficult times.
Critically, these platforms are 100% local. For all but the most determined multinationals the need for such platforms represents an important comparative disadvantage. At Renaissance we make a huge effort to ensure that our businesses are owned by the entrepreneurs building them, that we continue to move boldly and that we build deep local platforms. Because we operate in several distinct geographies we try to function as a confederation with highly empowered local management and without a country or culture-specific head office.
None of this is to say that there are not valuable lessons to be learnt from Western business models and management techniques. Clearly there are. But successful businesses in new markets tend to take what’s best and then adapt it to local circumstances. And with the ongoing success of emerging market businesses, multinationals will eventually learn from these achievements and adapt their own business models more effectively to a world of accelerating convergence.
5.0 The Threats and Opportunities Accelerated Economic Convergence Present for New Zealand
This new world has several important implications for New Zealand over the next one to two decades. First, global GDP growth is likely to be high, potentially higher in fact than at any time in history, notwithstanding the current economic crisis.
Secondly, the era of Western ascendancy economically and geopolitically will end as the combination of higher per capita incomes and large populations propel the major emerging markets into leadership positions in the global economy.
Thirdly, the new world middle class will be the largest new market opportunity ever seen and will present an extraordinary opportunity for the suppliers of products, services and raw materials.
Fourthly, new business models and concepts will continue to evolve to meet these massive new market opportunities. The winners in this process will be highly tailored to the new markets, they will be extremely entrepreneurial and they will typically have a strong local market focus.
Fifthly, the greater pace of economic growth and reordering will probably result in more dramatic structural adjustment, bigger movements in relative prices of all kinds, more uncertainty and greater financial volatility and shocks than those to which the world is accustomed. How well is New Zealand positioned for such an environment and what can be done to improve its positioning?
5.1 How well is New Zealand Positioned Today?
In terms of how well positioned New Zealand is today, I think the answer is pretty straightforward: not particularly well. Please don’t think that this is a throwaway line from someone who has jumped ship and has developed a touch of arrogance towards his country of birth. It is not. I care deeply about this country.
Basically we are living in a world that is more competitive than in any other era; where change is faster and less predictable; and where long-established orders – whether they are economic, political or industrial – are being challenged and supplanted. In this world the difference between “success” and “failure” is greatly magnified. This applies to specific labour market skills, businesses, industries and entire countries.
I don’t need to give this audience chapter and verse on the dramatic decline in New Zealand’s relative economic performance over the last 50 years. Let me just remind you that since 1956 our global ranking in GDP per capita has fallen from 7th to 27th. Moreover, apart from a relatively brief period following the Douglas/Richardson
reforms, when per capita income growth exceeded the OECD average, New Zealand has been quite consistent in its trend of underperformance. It is particularly concerning that productivity growth has fallen away this decade in comparison with the 1992-2000 post-reform period.
The staggering number of young New Zealanders who have chosen to make their careers and increasingly their lives overseas is the most damning indication of our performance and attractiveness. And we New Zealanders should stop kidding ourselves that this is because of our small size and isolation. Perth is very isolated, so are Iceland and Northern Finland in their own ways – but their people are not flooding overseas.
The choices that New Zealand society made that led to this situation are relatively clear. They include the incomplete nature of the liberalisation measures begun in the 1980s, particularly with regard to labour markets and social welfare; the relatively large size of government; and the inconsistent and stop/start nature of reforms over the last 20 years or so.
New Zealand does have areas of definite economic strength. The World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ survey ranks New Zealand second to Singapore out of 178 countries for “ease of doing business”. Similarly the World Economic Forum gives New Zealand very high rankings in several areas including judicial independence. But this does not alter the fact of our long-term economic decline. In looking to address this decline the question is not where are we doing well but where can we do much better. My personal assessment is that as a society we are drifting away from this type of hard-nosed common sense reasoning; to put it politely we are becoming too inclined to believe our own myths. We are more likely to move forward if we talk about why the World Economic Forum ranks New Zealand 51st for burden of government; 67th for the extent and effect of taxation and 90th for hiring and firing practices. Nor should we be complacent about our historic strengths. I will not be at all surprised to see our very strong ranking in corruption surveys deteriorate, for example.
In essence, New Zealand society has been sceptical about the benefits of a free-market, highly open economy. New Zealanders have been prepared to trade off higher incomes for the perception of greater stability and reduced exposure to market-led change. I say perception, because in a world of viral economic growth, any country that attempts to insulate itself from the changing global order does so at its peril; delayed adjustment will more often than not translate into more painful adjustment.
As economic convergence broadens and accelerates, the costs of our current attitudes and policy settings are likely to increase. Our relative standard of living will decline further and we will drop down the global league tables as fast-growing emerging markets leapfrog us. Emigration is likely to increase, potentially dramatically, while a greater percentage of overseas New Zealanders will never return to live or work here. In this scenario we should expect a continued slide in our relative performance in a wide range of social and economic indicators including health, education, and sporting and cultural achievement. If you are thinking this is unduly pessimistic, please recognise that this is not a prediction; it is merely an extrapolation of current trends. The forces driving this relative decline will only intensify in the future.
5.2 What can be Done to Improve New Zealand’s Positioning?
What can be done to improve New Zealand’s performance in a world of accelerating economic convergence? The answer in my view is: quite a lot, and with a higher likelihood of success than most frustrated reformers in this room might expect. Why am I so hopeful on this score?
First, New Zealand has a number of key economic strengths in terms of the framework for success outlined in the earlier part of this address. We have inherited and evolved efficient high quality institutions; property rights are generally strong although there have been egregious recent cases of abuse; and we are very open to international trade. It is critical that we build on these strengths.
Secondly, history shows that the fact that very few of us here tonight expect New Zealand to become a South Pacific tiger any time soon has very little predictive relevance. Very few of the economic success stories I have mentioned this evening were expected.
Thirdly there is the question of political leadership at the highest levels. For the last decade or so, New Zealand’s political leaders have sought to retain power by placating and balancing narrow short-term political interest groups through incremental and relatively minor policy adjustments. It does seem that New Zealand’s system of mixed member proportional representation has exacerbated this tendency; incremental decisions favouring special interests have tended to take precedent over bold decisions favouring the majority.
We have lived through a ‘shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic’ approach to policy. This style of leadership would be fine if the world were stagnant; however in a period of extraordinary change the costs over time of this leadership style become very large indeed. There are good reasons to expect this situation to eventually change, not because of personalities but because of fundamentals. Leading New Zealanders to embrace a more competitive economic model would generate substantial economic benefits and, for a skilled politician, substantial political payoffs.
Fourthly, there is the question of size and flexibility. In a world of dramatic change, nimbleness and flexibility are valuable assets. In my view it is no coincidence that many of the world’s most successful economies are small – Singapore, Norway, Finland and Ireland to name a few. We are not highly flexible and responsive today – but we could become so much more quickly than many of the world’s largest economies. Similarly, in business, for reasons I have discussed, in a world of intensified Schumpeterian creative destruction there is often scope for small, highly entrepreneurial businesses to quickly become very large.
This nation was built by risk-taking explorers and pioneers – precisely the attributes required in today’s global economy. Yes, you need to be bold and extremely committed but you can participate fully in an historically unique opportunity for value creation. And it’s a heck of a lot more fun than watching others do it on CNN!
Fifthly, through sheer good fortune the industrial structure of the New Zealand economy will probably be quite advantageous during the era of accelerated global convergence. On current projections approximately two billion people or around 30% of the world’s population could join the ranks of the middle class by 2030. The incremental demand for raw materials to satisfy the investment and consumption bulge resulting from this middle-class explosion will likely dwarf all previous commodity cycles. Accordingly, the era of accelerated economic convergence is likely to favour countries with a high share of primary commodities in their exports.
5.3 What Might Prevent Successful Re-Positioning by New Zealand?
The final question I would like to discuss, and perhaps more importantly to pose to each of you, is: what might prevent New Zealand from being a global winner as accelerated economic convergence takes hold?
To be successful New Zealand has to recognize that competition is an unavoidable fact; to think that one can insulate oneself from it is to engage in dangerous and naive self-deception. This danger will only increase as global change accelerates. I think you all remember what happens to All Blacks when they are put in cotton wool. That’s what we are doing as a society given the role and extent of government. I have a feeling that most New Zealanders would agree with this statement. However, agreement has got to be translated into action.
We need to be far more aspirational and to see economic and business success as something to proud of rather than something it’s impolite to dwell on. We are culturally conditioned to ‘not stand out in the crowd’. Many of our values derive from our small size and geographic isolation and many of them are wonderful. But cultural cues that lead us to behave as if we are insulated and somehow safe from the outside world are likely to be extraordinarily misleading and dangerous in a world of accelerating economic convergence.
The second potential barrier to success in my opinion is New Zealand’s system of proportional representation. Jim Rohwer in his excellent book ‘Asia Rising’ discusses what he terms the ‘paralysis of Western democracy by interest groups’. He puts it very well in my opinion when he says that ‘social protection is at heart a doctrine of conservatism: It is about guarding people against the destructive effects of change, which in practice means guarding them against change full stop, since the creative and destructive aspects of it come as a package…Countries with big, activist governments will be far less able to cope with the increasing pace of change’. In a world of unprecedented change and growth, political leaders need to be able to lead and manage change. They need to be able to make policy choices quickly and efficiently. We know what kind of political behaviour our current constitution generates: gradualism, populism and the quasi-corruption arising from disproportionate pandering to tiny minorities. New Zealand not only needs to address future global changes but also catch up with the policy change that hasn’t occurred for more than 15 years. If we move to a constitution that permits government to promote a high-performance economy and avoids excessive capture by narrow interests we will be positioned to become global winners rather than global has-beens.
To briefly summarise: the next several decades of accelerated economic convergence will likely see the fastest growth, most rapid structural change and greatest economic inclusion in history. For countries and for businesses the potential for growth and development will be unprecedented, but so too will the challenges. As the pace of change accelerates and global competition intensifies, the gap between winners and losers will be greatly magnified. With current social attitudes and policy settings, New Zealand is poorly positioned to thrive in this new world. Without change our economic decline of the last 50 years will continue and potentially accelerate. Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons to believe that New Zealand can and should be a global success story; that New Zealand can have a tremendous resurgence and be recognised as a top global performer. In my opinion two things need to done to achieve a transformational outcome for this country. First, mainstream New Zealand must express and live the values that underpin a competitive, enterprise-based economy. Secondly, we must move back to a system of government that gives our democratically elected leaders the flexibility to promote high economic performance without excessive pandering to narrow sectoral interests.
In my opinion both of these goals are readily achievable.