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Bad news BRICs: 10 years on, which country is the most overhyped?

Last Wednesday marked the 10th anniversary of Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill coining the term BRICs, to describe the four countries that he believed would drive economic growth in the coming years — a designation that was turned into a formal economic grouping in 2009. But the anniversary aside, it’s been a week of surprisingly ...

Nelson Ching/AFP/Getty Images
Nelson Ching/AFP/Getty Images

Last Wednesday marked the 10th anniversary of Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill coining the term BRICs, to describe the four countries that he believed would drive economic growth in the coming years — a designation that was turned into a formal economic grouping in 2009. But the anniversary aside, it’s been a week of surprisingly bad press for the four countries, though commentators don’t seem quite united on just which emerging economy is the most overhyped.

Following India’s decision to delay long-awaited reforms to its retail sector to allow greater foreign investment, O’Neill pronounced India the greatest disappointment of the four:

"All four countries have become bigger (economies) than I said they were going to be, even Russia. However there are important structural issues about all four and as we go into the 10-year anniversary, in some ways India is the most disappointing," said O’Neill who oversees almost a trillion dollars in assets at Goldman.[…]

"India has the risk of … if they’re not careful, a balance of payments crisis. They shouldn’t raise people’s hopes of FDI and then in a week say, ‘we’re only joking’," O’Neill said.

"India’s inability to raise its share of global FDI is very disappointing," he said.

United Nations data shows that India received less than $20 billion in FDI in the first six months of 2011, compared to more than $60 billion in China while Brazil and Russia took in $23 billion and $33 billion respectively.

Meanwhile, the FT‘s John Paul Rathbone argues that Brazil’s recent economic growth is nothing more than a "optical illusion":

Brazil’s economy has indeed been growing at a ferocious pace – when measured in nominal, dollar terms. Since the global financial crisis first erupted in 2008, Brazilian nominal GDP has increased by an astonishing 52 per cent. In real inflation-adjusted terms, however, the performance is more modest: Brazil has grown just 10 per cent. Go back further, say to 1990, and the difference is more dramatic. In nominal dollar terms, Brazil’s economy is now five times bigger. But in real terms, it has “just” doubled since then.

Why does this difference matter? The short answer is because Brazil’s apparently fantastic growth rate hinges on its exchange rate. This has been pumped up by two factors. First, because of the startling climb in commodity prices, which has produced some real improvements in the economy. And second, because of capital inflows, which have produced some nominal improvements. Again, the difference matters. As Andrew Hunt economics points out, Brazilian nominal GDP has doubled since 2000 but employment has only grown by 10 per cent. Queer, no?

As for Russia and China, Goerge Mason political scientist Jack Goldstone argues in a new piece for Foreign Policy that they’re sitting on demographic time bombs:

The current obsession with how soon China’s economy will overtake that of the United States is absurd. IMF estimates for 2010 place China’s GDP at about 40 percent of U.S. GDP. If China’s growth rate slows to 5 percent per year from 2010 to 2030, as seems highly likely given the demographic and other obstacles it faces, and the U.S. economy grows at 2.5 percent per year, then in real terms, China’s economy will only grow from slightly more than one-third as large as the U.S. economy today to two-thirds as large in 2030. With its workforce plunging (and aging), there is no reason to expect China’s relative gains to continue after that date. Even if those growth rates continue, though, China’s economy would not catch up with the U.S. economy until after 2050.

The situation in rapidly aging, still hydrocarbon-dependent Russia, Goldstone argues, is even more grim, an argument that seems borne out by the latest news from Moscow. Goldstone is still bullish on Brazil and India, based on demographic and political trends, but argues they should more appropriately be put in the company of Turkey, Mexico, and Indonesia: the TIMBIs.

It’s hard to be too downbeat on recent trends in BRIC-world, compared with the latest from Europe and the United States. But whether or not it’s reflected in economic reality, the adulatory coverage may be coming to an end.    

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