A few years ago the world’s four largest economies were the USA, Japan, Germany and the UK. We have long warned readers of the UK’s spectacular fall from grace, which is still continuing. The UK is now in seventh place and still declining. The sharp sell off in sterling last year, allied to the contraction in GDP, has propelled the UK below France and Italy.
The rise of China will also be familiar to visitors to this site. China has stormed up the league tables, to reach the second slot in a table of the world’s largest economies. This has mainly been achieved by growth rates of close to 10% per annum, based on her huge success as an exporter.
When I wrote Superpower Struggles in 2005 I forecast:
“A much more effective competitor to the US, potentially a major global player, is rising in the Far East. … It (the Chinese economy) has already overtaken Italy to become the world’s sixth largest economy, and will soon pass the size of France and the UK at market exchange rates. By the next decade it will be larger than Germany, in third place, poised to overtake Japan.”
The forecast was almost too cautious, as China only waited for three weeks of the new decade before announcing her second place.
Before the latest phase of China’s rise and the UK’s decline, the top four economies of the world had a certain balance. The US and UK were heavy borrowers. Their consumers sucked in imports from the successful exporters. Their banks and borrowers drew on capital from the savings of the successful exporting economies. In contrast, Germany and Japan were economies driven by savings and manufacture for export. It is true that the US was a lot bigger than the other three, but for a number of years it was a relatively stable system which let the Anglo Saxons borrow and spend, and the others save and sell overseas.
China’s rise now has an important impact on the world economy. China’s huge stimulus last year helped end the recession in many parts of the world. Now China’s early wish to rein in bank lending before the bubbles grow too big is sending shivers around world markets as changes in the Fed’s attitude always do. The arrival of another export led high savings economy at the top of the tables makes it even more competitive for Germany and Japan, struggling to handle the sharp downturn in demand triggered by the bursting of the borrowing bubble on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nor should we think China’s arrival in second slot marks an end to this period of rapid change. Whilst it is going to take a good few years for even China to catch up with the size of the US economy, we could well see India from just outside the top ten and Brazil from tenth slot advance up the rankings. Going in the opposite direction could well be Spain and Italy as well as the UK, as all suffer from economic weakness in an ever more competitive world.
What lessons should we draw from all this? The first is that this remains the age of the Pacific. Two of the largest economic gainers are and will be China and India. There is a decisive shift in economic power occurring from old world and western world, to new world and eastern world. It could have a lot further to go, as these emerging economies have many more people to shift from agriculture to more productive activities. They remain with low incomes per head, able to apply existing technology to catching up the west.
The second is that the big gulf between the exporters and the borrowers has become too large and is now a cause of instability. Adjustment hurts both sides. Indeed, Germany and Japan, the exporters, took a bigger hit than the leading borrower, the USA, during the last downturn. From here we think the borrowers are going into leaner times, as they have to rein in some of their excess consumption and borrowing.
The third is that there remains too much capacity around the world. The older and dearer exporting countries, like Germany and Japan, will probably struggle more to adjust than the newer and cheaper exporters like China.