NEW YORK – People in the West have long had a fascination with the East, with many predicting an inevitable “Asian century” marked by economic and market dominance. I have long disagreed with the consensus on China and other Asian Tigers, and others are beginning to agree. Many problems stand in the way of the “Asian century.”
Japan dazzled Westerners with the speed of its recovery from the ashes of World War II. Japanese purchases of U.S. trophy properties such as the Pebble Beach golf resort in California and Rockefeller Center in Manhattan in the 1980s, on top of the leaping property and equity prices in Japan, convinced many in the West that Japan would soon take over the world.
Japan’s economic decline in the early 1990s did not curb fascination with Asia. It simply shifted to the rapidly growing developing economies, the Asian Tigers. The original four, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, were later augmented by the likes of Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and, of course, China — and more recently, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
The late-1990s Asian financial crisis only temporarily disrupted Western fascination with the East and the prospects for an “Asian century.”
The 2007-2009 Great Recession and financial crisis ended rapid economic growth in Western countries and, therefore, the robust demand for exports that were the mainstay of developing economies. Still, Western zeal for Asia persisted and many, for no logical reasons, believed emerging countries could independently continue to grow rapidly and, indeed, support economic activity in the sluggish U.S. and Europe.
Chinese real economic annual growth rates nosedived from double digits to a recessionary 6.3 percent during the worldwide downturn, but then revived due to the massive 2009 stimulus program. Easy credit fueled a property boom and inflation, and excessive infrastructure spending replaced exports as the growth engine. As with the Asian Tigers earlier, many thought Chinese growth was self-sustaining and unrelated to ongoing sluggish economic performance in North America and Europe, especially after Chinese GDP topped Japan’s in 2010.
There are five main reasons why it won’t get any easier for Asia:
1. Globalization is largely completed. There isn’t much manufacturing in North America and Europe left to be moved to lower-cost developing economies. At the same time, the West is basically saturated with Asian exports, and those countries are competing fiercely among themselves for limited total export demand. Also, exports are shifting among those countries as low-end production moves from China to places such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, much as they shifted out of Japan in earlier decades. As economies grow, a greater share of spending is on services and less on goods. This reality is a long-term drag on almost all the other Asian lands, except India, due to their goods-export orientation. This will temper long-term growth for Asian goods exports even after rapid economic growth resumes in the U.S. and possibly other Western economies.
2. The shift from being export-led economies to ones driven by domestic spending, especially by consumers, has been slow. Chinese leaders want this transition, but it is moving at glacial speed. At 37 percent, Chinese consumer spending as a share of GDP is well below major developed countries such as the U.S. at 68.1 percent, Japan at 58.6 percent and even Russia at 51.9 percent.
3. There are government and cultural restraints. Almost all developing Asian economies are tightly controlled by governments. Top-down regimes stoutly resist reform and often persist until they’re overthrown by revolutions. The current Mao dynasty in China, as I’ve dubbed it, seems seriously worried about popular unrest due to the lack of promised economic growth and is reducing what little political liberty was previously allowed. President Xi Jinping is now the Big Brother with lots of little brothers insuring proper thoughts and actions, even at the local level.
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak is enmeshed in a multibillion-dollar investment scandal. In the Philippines, crime and drug trafficking are so rampant that President Rodrigo Duterte was elected on a platform of eliminating drug dealers, even by murderous vigilante squads. South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye, was thrown out over corruption.
4. Population problems endure. Despite the need for new workers in Japan as its population falls and ages, women are still discouraged from entering the labor force, and Japan continues to be unwelcoming toward newcomers. There’s no such thing as an immigration visa despite the fact that 83 percent of Japanese hiring managers have difficulty filling jobs, versus a global average of 38 percent in the last five years.
China also has a looming labor shortage and severe limits to economic growth due to its earlier one-child policy, which resulted in about 400 million Chinese not being born. Low fertility rates are also destined to reduce the populations of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. At the other end of the population spectrum are Asian countries like Indonesia and India, whose population is expected to exceed China’s by 2022.
5. Military threats are growing in Asia, and could severely disrupt stability and retard economic growth if they flare up. China is exercising its military muscles by challenging U.S. military influence in the region by, among other actions, building military islands on reefs in the South China Sea. Japan is abandoning its post-World War pacifism and seeking more military roles for itself. The Russians are also making military threats. The region contains five nuclear-armed countries: China, India and its rival Pakistan, Russia, and — most troubling — North Korea, which is testing long-range missiles. China isn’t happy about that, but it wants North Korea as a buffer between it and South Korea as well as a deterrent to its old foe, Japan.
There may well be an “Asian century” in the future, but don’t hold your breath. It took about a millennium for the West to develop meaningful democracy, the rule of law, large middle classes that support domestic economies and all the institutions that are largely lacking in developing Asian lands.
A. Gary Shilling is president of A. Gary Shilling & Co., a consultancy, and author of “The Age of Deleveraging: Investment Strategies for a Decade of Slow Growth and Deflation.”