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Where I went: I recently returned from a two-week trip to Asia, visiting India, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and South Korea. I've been to these countries many times over the past 25 years in my capacity as chief investment officer and later chairman of Emerging Markets Management and AshmoreEMM. During my trip I met with a number of high-level policymakers, bankers, company executives, investors, think tanks, and scholars. But where there was once almost universal optimism, this time I came away with a very different sense. A few years ago there was a widespread feeling that the developed world had fallen off its pedestal -- that Asia had not only escaped the global financial crisis but that its system was somehow superior. That overconfidence seems gone now. Instead, there is a sense of vulnerability. There is more awareness of the political Achilles' heel of their own path of development and even new economic concerns about challenges to their newly acquired competitive edge.
The takeaway: Confidence about political stability and effectiveness has been shaken in China, India, and other emerging markets. The Arab Spring was a shock wave that not only brought to light misdeeds of autocratic regimes but also created economic uncertainties for the future. In BRICs at two ends of the political spectrum, political stability has turned out to be more fragile than earlier assumed. The Bo Xilai case in China has raised questions about the legitimacy of the whole political succession process. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's disappointing performance in India (some business leaders even told me he had "lost it") has created gridlock in New Delhi while emboldening states.
At the height of the financial crisis, local elites and the broader population in India and China viewed indecision, stagnation in policymaking, corruptive power of vested interests, and lack of leadership as major problems in the United States, Europe, and Japan -- but these same people are now concerned that they face similar problems. On the positive side, turmoil from Tunisia to Myanmar has brought hope and a feeling of empowerment. The sudden transformation now under way in Myanmar has re-energized Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a sizable, relevant, and vital economic entity nestled between the two emerging regional superpowers, China and India.
The other big question involves the economic future of the leading emerging market -- China. Who would have thought a decade ago that the United States would lose its unquestioned AAA credit status? Until recently, it would have been equally unthinkable that questions are now being raised about whether China will remain the unquestioned manufacturing champion. Its wages have risen, its currency is more expensive, its labor surplus has evaporated, its population is aging fast, and other emerging markets are emulating its impressive infrastructure. Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand (and one day, perhaps Myanmar) are mentioned more often as places where global manufacturers are looking to set up new plants. Even the United States now is seen as a place that manufacturers are turning to. Slower growth in China and India is becoming accepted as a new reality.
Conventional wisdom debunked: For the past five years or so, the idea had become commonplace that the United States was losing the race for global competitiveness. In my own book, The Emerging Markets Century, I wrote about how the rise of China and India was shifting the competitive edge and how some emerging multinationals (from Samsung Electronics in South Korea to Embraer in Brazil) were becoming world-class companies. All of that remains true; emerging markets remain the place to be for the next decade at least. But, interestingly, the creative, competitive response I had expected seems to be coming even faster than I had thought. In fact, the United States may be doing better than we thought, and China and other rising powers may not be doing quite as well as believed.
We have all come to assume that the developed world lost its drive or "will to win," ceding manufacturing to emerging markets. China and India built impressive manufacturing platforms or back-office strengths based on a belated unleashing of private-sector initiative, low labor costs, and impressive investment in infrastructure. China and others gained a near monopoly on making cheap goods cheaply. Consumers in the United States began to feel that China had won the battle for shelf space in Walmart. American infrastructure fell way behind in building a 21st-century network of roads, rails, bridges, pipelines, airports, and communications technology. Political antagonism combined with the budget and debt crises had placed the onus on "expense cutting" instead of rebuilding infrastructure to remain export-competitive and promote manufacturing. America's traditional brands had lost some of their luster: No longer was General Motors the pride of global automaking; iPhones were neat, but made in China. Meanwhile, India's Tata Corp. bought iconic brands like Jaguar, Land Rover, and Tetley Tea. China's Geely bought Volvo, while Lenovo purchased IBM's computer division. In South Korea, Samsung and Hyundai became major players; in Taiwan, HTC came from nowhere to be a recognized and respected brand name. To cap it all off, it seemed an irreversible trend: The United States had missed the boat in becoming a "green" leader in a more environmentally conscious world as it ceded ground to mass production in China and innovation in Europe.
But as I saw on my travels, the story is beginning to change. I now believe the despair and fear felt by many in the United States is misplaced. In fact, there are early signs that the United States may be regaining some of its lost competitiveness in manufacturing and that China is losing some ground, especially against other emerging markets.