I just learned a new term today that I know I will be using frequently in the future. The term is “middle income trap” and it crystallizes some of my previously discombobulated thoughts I have had regarding economic development. Let me explain.
This new term (for me) comes from a post by Michael Schuman on Time Magazine’s Curious Capitalist blog, entitled, “Escaping the middle-income trap.” The post focuses on how Malaysia’s economic growth has been so consistently strong since World War II, yet has been slowing over the last few years and of how Malaysia just cannot seem to break into the league of developed nations. Schuman defines this “trap,” as follows:
I returned a few days ago from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where the talk of the town – well, at least among economists — is the “middle-income trap.” What’s that, you ask? A developing nation gets “trapped” when it reaches a certain, relatively comfortable level of income but can’t seem to take that next big jump into the true big leagues of the world economy, with per capita wealth to match. Every go-go economy in Asia has confronted this “trap,” or is dealing with it now. Breaking out of it, however, is extremely difficult. The reason is that escaping the “trap” requires an entire overhaul of the economic growth model most often used by emerging economies.
The concept behind the “middle-income trap” is quite simple: It’s easier to rise from a low-income to a middle-income economy than it is to jump from a middle-income to a high-income economy. That’s because when you’re really poor, you can use your poverty to your advantage. Cheap wages makes a low-income economy competitive in labor-intensive manufacturing (apparel, shoes and toys, for example). Factories sprout up, creating jobs and increasing incomes. Every rapid-growth economy in Asia jumpstarted its famed gains in human welfare in this way, including Malaysia.
However, that growth model eventually runs out of steam. As incomes increase, so do costs, undermining the competitiveness of the old, low-tech manufacturing industries. Countries (like Malaysia) then move “up the value chain,” into exports of more technologically advanced products, like electronics. But even that’s not enough to avoid the “trap.” To get to that next level – that high-income level – an economy needs to do more than just make stuff by throwing people and money into factories. The economy has to innovate and use labor and capital more productively. That requires an entirely different way of doing business. Instead of just assembling products designed by others, with imported technology, companies must invest more heavily in R&D on their own and employ highly educated and skilled workers to turn those investments into new products and profits. It is a very, very hard shift to achieve. Thus the “trap.”
Schuman sees South Korea as “probably the best current example of a developing economy making the leap into the realm of the most advanced.” Schuman sees Malaysia as a long way from making that same leap:
Malaysia, though, is quite far from where it wants to be. That’s a bit surprising based on its remarkable recent history. Malaysia has been among the best performing economies in the world since World War II, one of only 13 to record an average growth rate of 7% over at least a 25-year period. The country has an amazing record of improving human welfare. In 1970, some 50% of Malaysians lived in absolute poverty; now less than 4% do. Yet Malaysians also feel that they’ve become somewhat stuck where they are. GDP growth has slowed up, from an annual average of 9.1% between 1990 and 1997 to 5.5% from 2000 and 2008. Meanwhile, other Asian economies have zipped by Malaysia. According to the World Bank, the per capita gross national income (GNI) of South Korea in 1970 was below that of Malaysia ($260 versus $380), but by 2009, South Korea’s was almost three times larger than Malaysia’s ($21,530 versus $6,760). Malaysia is getting “trapped” as a relatively prosperous but still middle-income nation.
Schuman does not see Malaysia making the leap. Its companies are not innovating. Its private investment is declining and it spends almost nothing on R&D. “If Malaysia is going to break the “trap,” it has to reverse all of these trends.”
So what has made Korea so different from Malaysia?
Why has Korea jumped so far ahead? I think the reason is embedded in the different methods the two countries used to spur rapid growth.
Both countries relied exports to create rapid gains in income, but they did so differently. South Korea, from its earliest days of export-led development in the mid-1960s, had been determined to create homegrown, internationally competitive industries. Though Korean firms supplied big multinationals with components or even entire products, that was never enough – Korea wanted to manufacture its own products under its own brands. The effort was often a painful one – remember Hyundai’s first disastrous foray into the U.S. car market in the late 1980s and early 1990s – but Korea is where it is today because its private companies have been working on getting there for a very long time, backed in full by the financial sector and the government.
Malaysia, on the other hand, relied much, much more on foreign investment to drive industrialization. That’s not a bad thing – multinational companies provide an instant shot of capital, jobs, expertise and technology into a poor country. MNCs, however, aren’t going to develop Malaysian products; that has to take place in the labs and offices of Malaysia’s private businesses. But those businessmen have been content to squeeze profits from serving MNCs and maintaining their original, assembly-based business models.
I have for years viewed Korea as THE success story of Asia. In fact, whenever people tout China and act as though democracy is wholly incompatible with growth, I respond with Korea. You can see me making this point in this Commonwealth Club of San Francisco video of a “Doing Business in China” panel. Korea was at one time the second poorest country in the world, second only to Niger. Now, Seoul is more dynamic than Tokyo and Korea just continues to grow both economically and in terms of its political freedoms. Why is that? And why are countries like Malaysia and Thailand stuck in the middle ground? And what about China and Vietnam, will they be able to make “the leap?
Japan and Korea are important because they have spending power. Vietnam and Cambodia are important because they have very low wages. China is the most interesting because just three or four years ago, companies were going to China because of its low wages, but now, companies are going there to make money (mostly on the Coast) and going there to make things (more and more inland).
Where do Malaysia or Thailand fit into all this?
Malaysia and Thailand remind me a bit of the mid-size law firm. I can understand hiring the big firm for the big deal or the big case requiring a massive number of associates or legions of highly specialized partners. And I can understand hiring a highly efficient and focused small firm. But I rarely understand hiring the mid-sized firm, which usually tries to price itself along the same lines as the big firms, but without the corresponding depth or expertise. Why bother? And nothing against either Malaysia or Thailand, but I think many businesses have asked themselves this very question.
What do you think?