Yesterday the UK fell into seventh place behind Brazil in the list of the world’s largest economies. We used to be fourth behind the USA, Japan and Germany. China has already risen to second place and now Brazil is on the climb.
In a way its good news. There are many more people in China, Brazil and India. As they become richer, so we should expect them to overtake medium sized western countries. The world has been an unfair place for many years. It is good if some of the world’s lower income countries prosper. As they get richer so their citizens have better lifestyles. They expand the world market for more sophisticated goods and services. We should be able to serve those new consumers. We should be pleased for them.
There is, however, a darker side to this story for the west. As the emerging market economies get better at competing, their energy, hunger and hard work can take business away from western factories and offices. They can take jobs from us, or they can help force down wages in the west as their super competitive prices attract world demand.
The US has experienced a long period of no real wage growth in factories and general services as the rest of the world has challenged and started to catch up. Now the Europeans are discovering that they too have been paying themselves at levels which are difficult to sustain against the competitive onslaught.
The problems for western politicians is acute. The very global market which is doing so much to advance living standards in the emerging world may start to lower the living standards of many in the western world. That same world market will create many more high end consumers, which in turn enables the brightest, best and most commercial in the west to earn far larger sums out of the much enlarged market. What is good for a top football team or a recording star may be bad for a car plant operative or a telephone service employee.
The cuts in living standards result from the increased competition from many areas. They also come from unwinding the excessive debts and deficits individuals and some companies had built up as well as western governments. Living standards were sustained well beyond our joint earning capability up to 2007, and are now adjusting sharply in some cases.
In the extreme case of Greece they have decided on a 20% cut in their Minimum Wage to try and price their country back into European, let alone world markets. The UK and US has cut living standards in recent years by devaluation. US and UK citizens can now afford fewer imports for the same income. Spanish, Portuguese and Irish living standards are being adjusted sharply downwards by the cruel logic of the Euro, and by the ending of plentiful credit which had helped sustain demand, income and asset values.
The global market is great for the Manchester Uniteds. They can expand their fan base mightily and charge good prices for their videos and merchandise. It is good for the high end bankers, fine wine merchants, smart lawyers, business advisers, estate agents selling London properties and the rest who know how to charm money out of the world’s new rich. It is proving tougher for some of the more traditional businesses who wake up to find the emerging countries do it faster, cheaper and on a huge scale. The UK lost much of its textile business to the East some years ago. It needs to watch out for other industries, as the emerging countries add cheaper energy, cheaper labour and control of some of the raw materials to their mix.