Monday, July 06, 2009

Asia Rising - Part Two

"Asian Capitalism Is More Dynamic."

Hardly. With the United States brought low by Wall Street and the European economy enfeebled by its welfare state and inflexible labor market, most Asian economies appear in great shape. It is tempting to say that Asia's unique brand of capitalism, by seamlessly weaving together strategic state intervention, corporate long-term thinking, and insuppressible popular desire for material betterment, will outcompete either the greed-devastated U.S. model or the hidebound European variant.

But though Asian economies-with the notable exception of Japan-are among the fastest-growing in the world today, there's little real evidence to suggest that their apparent dynamism comes from a mysteriously successful form of Asian capitalism. The truth is more mundane: The region's dynamism owes a great deal to its strong fundamentals (high savings, urbanization, and demographics) and the benefits of free trade, market reforms, and economic integration. Asia's relative backwardness is a blessing in one sense: Asian countries have to grow faster because they're starting from a much lower base.

Asian capitalism does have three unique features, but they do not necessarily confer competitive advantages. First, Asian states intervene more in the economy through industrial policy, infrastructural investment, and export promotion. But whether that has made Asian capitalism more dynamic remains an unresolved puzzle. The World Bank's classic 1993 study of the region, "The East Asian Miracle," could not find evidence that strategic intervention by the state is responsible for East Asia's success. Second, two types of companies-family-controlled conglomerates and giant, state-owned enterprises-dominate Asia's business landscape. Although such corporate ownership structures enable Asia's largest companies to avoid the short-termism of most American firms, they also shield them from shareholders and market pressures, making Asian firms less accountable, less transparent, and less innovative.

Finally, Asia's high savings rates, by providing a huge pool of indigenous capital, undeniably fuel the region's economic growth. But pity Asia's savers. Most of them save because their governments provide inadequate social safety nets. Government policies in Asia penalize savers through financial repression (by keeping deposit rates low and paying household savers measly returns on their savings) and reward producers by subsidizing capital (typically through low bank lending rates). Even export promotion, ostensibly an Asian virtue, seems overrated. Asian central banks have invested most of their massive export surpluses in low-yielding, dollar-dominated assets that will lose much of their value due to the long-term inflationary pressures generated by U.S. fiscal and monetary policies.

"Asia Will Lead the World in Innovation."

Not in our lifetime. If you look only at the growing number of U.S. patents awarded to Asian inventors, the United States appears to have a dramatically receding edge in innovation. South Korean inventors, for example, received 8,731 U.S. patents in 2008-compared with 13 in 1978. In 2008, close to 37,000 U.S. patents went to Japanese inventors. The trend seems sufficiently alarming that one study ranked the United States eighth in terms of innovation, behind Singapore, South Korea, and Switzerland.

Reports of the death of America's technological leadership are, to paraphrase Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. Although Asia's advanced economies, such as Japan and South Korea, are closing the gap, the United States' lead remains huge. In 2008, American inventors were awarded 92,000 U.S. patents, twice the combined total given to South Korean and Japanese inventors. Asia's two giants, China and India, still lag far behind

Asia is pouring money into higher education. But Asian universities will not become the world's leading centers of learning and research anytime soon. None of the world's top 10 universities is located in Asia, and only the University of Tokyo ranks among the world's top 20. In the last 30 years, only eight Asians, seven of them Japanese, have won a Nobel Prize in the sciences. The region's hierarchical culture, centralized bureaucracy, weak private universities, and emphasis on rote learning and test-taking will continue to hobble its efforts to clone the United States' finest research institutions.

Even Asia's much-touted numerical advantage is less than it seems. China supposedly graduates 600,000 engineering majors each year, India another 350,000. The United States trails with only 70,000 engineering graduates annually. Although these numbers suggest an Asian edge in generating brainpower, they are thoroughly misleading. Half of China's engineering graduates and two thirds of India's have associate degrees. Once quality is factored in, Asia's lead disappears altogether. A much-cited 2005 McKinsey Global Institute study reports that human resource managers in multinational companies consider only 10 percent of Chinese engineers and 25 percent of Indian engineers as even "employable," compared with 81 percent of American engineers.

p/s photos: Nancy Wu Ding Yan

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