On catch-up industrialisation

In a number of previous posts on development and industrial policy, I have mentioned the concept of ‘catch-up’. I thought it might be useful to define it in some detail, so here is Akira Suehiro of the University of Tokyo, taken from his comprehensive work Catch-Up Industrialization (2008, p.3-4):

“Catch-up industrialization is a pattern of industrialization frequently, indeed necessarily, adopted by late-industrializing countries and late-starting industries. It is an essential aspect of any attempt to reduce the gap in national wealth between developing and developed countries.

The many varieties of catch-up industrialization generally have the following two points in common.

First, latecomers to industrialization enjoy the advantages of “economic backwardness”, or the advantage of being able to make use of technologies and knowledge systems developed by countries that have gone before. It is expensive and time-consuming for any country to independently develop new technologies and products, not to mention new industrial structures or management organizations. Latecomer countries can achieve great savings of time and capital by adopting the necessary technology and know-how from countries that have already industrialized.

It follows that an important challenge for governments and enterprises in latecomer countries is how to go about importing, adapting, and improving foreign technologies and systems as smoothly as possible. From this fact of life stem many of the most striking features of catch-up industrialization: strong government leadership, positive involvement by financial institutions (with corporate finance through commercial banks rather than stock-markets), development of information-sharing systems between government and private sector and between assemblers and suppliers (intermediate organizations, keiretsu, etc.), the continuation of family businesses such as zaibatsu in corporate management, and the development of distinctive production management control systems in the workplace (the kaizen and just-in-time systems, workers’ commitment to management, etc.).

The second common feature among latecomers to industrialization is that they have to start by importing most industrial products. For some time they have to earn the foreign currency to pay for these imports through exports of primary products such as mineral and agricultural products. In order to reduce imports, the latecomer countries launch a policy of domestic production and import substitution, starting with relatively low-tech, labor-intensive industries. Consider, for instance, the case of textile products. If a country has just commenced domestic production of synthetic fiber products, that necessitates imports of the chemical raw materials, plus the machinery and equipment to process them. The country has to export textile products to get the necessary foreign currency for these imports, while also commencing production of chemical products and machinery at home.

A cycle consequently develops: from importing to domestic production, then to exporting (or overseas production), then to re-importing. At the same time it is important to establish a trade policy centered on import substitution and export promotion, and an industrial policy aimed at the protection and fostering of domestic industries. In short, trade and industry are inextricably interlinked. It follows that under the conditions of this first phase, with its dependence on imports and its need to conserve limited supplies of foreign currency, an important challenge for those who would catch up is the effective distribution and control of available economic resources. This means that a set of policy structures – regulations on trade, tariffs and investment, export-led industrialization, tie-ups with foreign capital to foster export-oriented industries, etc. – constitute another feature of catch-up industrialization.”

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Tariffs and Trump

During his election campaign, Donald Trump’s rhetoric was consistently anti-free trade. He threatened to impose tariffs on US imports from China and to renegotiate trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). His argument for such policies is that they have led to enormous job losses in American industry. Indeed, this may explain some of his appeal to former ‘Rust Belt’ workers who have not been sharing in the ‘American Dream’.

The absence of the American Dream for enormous numbers of Americans is nothing new. Since the 1970s, median wages have been largely stagnant, while the so-called 1%, at the top of the scale, have done exceptionally well. This is reflected in rising income inequality. Among the 1%, one might include CEOs and many of those working in the financial sector.

So if Trump is as good as his word, will he enact protectionist policies, and will these restore more widespread prosperity among the poor and middle-class? Continue reading

The Economist on manufacturing in the UK: why I disagree

PrintThe Economist magazine has a piece this week on the role of manufacturing in the UK. While it half-heartedly concludes that a larger, more competitive manufacturing sector may benefit the economy, it suggests that today’s shrunken sector is increasingly employing only highly skilled workers on high wages, producing hi-tech products. The piece argues that the hope that a larger sector would directly benefit those currently left behind by its relative decline over the last few decades is a forlorn one. In other words, jobs which pay more moderate wages and demand fewer skills would not be created, given recent trends.

I disagree. This argument merely extrapolates trends which were at least in part due to the periodic and sustained overvaluation of the pound vis-a-vis our trading partners. I have argued here recently that the serious imbalances in the UK economy could be significantly reduced by an economic strategy which gives a greater priority to a lower exchange rate. Continue reading

Brexit and the UK: lull before the storm or a much needed rebalancing?

800px-A1_Houston_Office_Oil_Traders_on_MondayWill the vote for Brexit derail the UK economy? The Guardian newspaper yesterday contained a brief report here from two economists, both formerly members of the Bank of England’s interest rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). Both of them focus on trends in domestic spending and consumption, driven mainly by wage growth and employment. Unemployment has apparently ticked up a little according to the latest figures. They conclude that economic growth will slow into 2017, and while one predicts that the UK will avoid recession, the other concludes with some gloomy speculation on an ‘oncoming Brexit tsunami’.

The pound has fallen sharply since the result of June’s referendum became apparent. Whatever else happens, I see this as a good thing, and necessary to help promote a long overdue rebalancing of the economy. As Roger Bootle writes here, the Brexit vote was the trigger for the pound’s devaluation, but not its deeper cause. Continue reading

Competition and growth under capitalism: does Marx trump Keynes?

9780199390632“Capital is a particular form of social wealth driven by the profit motive. With this incentive comes a corresponding drive for expansion, for the conversion of capital into more capital, of profit into more profit. Each individual capital operates under this imperative, colliding with others trying to do the same, sometimes succeeding, sometimes just surviving, and sometimes failing altogether. This is real competition, antagonistic by nature and turbulent in operation. It is as different form so-called perfect competition as war is from ballet.

…Real competition is the central regulating mechanism under capitalism. Competition within an industry forces individual producers to set prices with an eye on the market, just as it forces them continually to try to cut costs so that they can cut prices and expand market share. Cost-cutting can take place through wage reduction, increases in the length or intensity of the working day, and through technical change. The latter becomes the central means over the long run [my emphasis].

…The notion of competition as a form of warfare has important implications. Tactics, strategy, and resulting prospects for growth are central concerns of the competitive firm…In the battle of real competition, the mobility of capital is the movement from one terrain to another, the development and adoption of technology is the arms race, and the struggle for profit growth and market share is the battle itself.”

Anwar Shaikh (2016), Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises, p.259-260

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How to fix a load of economic problems: the case of the UK’s exchange rate

Money-poundsLarry Elliott’s economics opinion piece from today’s Guardian discusses the issue of the UK’s large current account deficit and how to reduce it. He refers to a paper by Roger Bootle and John Mills, two authors spanning the political divide (the paper is free to download here). Bootle is a free-market Keynesian economist who runs his own consultancy, Capital Economics, and generally favours light regulation and low taxes, but also attaches importance to the Keynesian emphasis on aggregate demand. Mills studied economics at Oxford, is a successful businessman and a major Labour party donor. On the issue of the UK’s exchange rate, they seem to agree.

The pound fell sharply following the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. Economic theory teaches that a lower exchange rate, by reducing the price of a country’s exports and increasing that of its imports, all else equal, should boost sales of the former and reduce those of the latter. In the UK’s case, this should reduce the current account deficit. At 7%, the latter is at the highest level since records began. The financial markets don’t seem to mind financing it for now, but there are a number of reasons why it makes sense to maintain the current lower level of the pound. Continue reading

Governments can pick winners (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 12)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalismThis post continues an occasional series based on chapters in Ha-Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Chapter 12 aims to counter the idea among free market economists that the government should not be in the business of supporting particular firms or sectors, and should leave things, as far as possible, to the market. In other words, if industrial policy is at least partly about ‘picking winners’, then ministers and bureaucrats should stay out of the way, as those in business will inevitably know more about how to achieve economic success.

Chang notes that there are plenty of examples from across the world in the history of capitalism of the successful picking of winners by the state, from South Korea to the US. In another part of the book, he points out that what is good for one particular firm may not be good for the economy as a whole. After all, economic growth and development under capitalism involves a process of creative destruction and structural change, as some firms succeed and others fail, expanding and creating new jobs in some cases, and stagnating or shrinking in others, going bankrupt or being taken over and restructured, with jobs being lost. There is constant change in a successful economy, and this is essential to rising productivity and overall living standards. If the state can play a role in facilitating this process, then this may involve intervention and not simply deregulation and leaving it all to the market. Continue reading