Bangladesh has achieved an economic miracle in the past 20 years. A few decades ago it was one of the poorest countries on earth, stricken by famine and flood. Now it ranks as middle-income. Vietnam has done the same; Cambodia is close behind. Their spectacular growth shows fear of “premature deindustrialisation” is misplaced as a new generation of manufacturing powers rise to shape the 21st century.
What Bangladesh has done is all the more remarkable because the world has taken so little notice. Growth has steadily accelerated to more than 6 per cent, driven by the classic cheap-labour starter industry of textiles. It is now the world’s second-largest garment exporter. Powerful gears of growth have begun to turn. The textile factories employ millions of young women, giving them economic power, prompting rural families to invest in education and triggering a demographic dividend.
The growth of these new manufacturing centres is one of the most exciting changes in the global economy. They offer new markets for consumer goods, huge opportunities for investors and a way to lift millions of people out of poverty. Yet even as Bangladesh takes off, there are doubts about whether others can follow.
Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has found a pattern of early manufacturing collapse in poor countries, with factories disappearing at much lower levels of development than they did in Europe or the US. He charts an industrial slump in South America, Africa and parts of Asia since the 1980s, in terms of output and employment. That is grave news for developing countries. As Mr Rodrik notes, manufacturing powers productivity. It is hard to get rich without it.
In the 1960s, Asian economies were sometimes compared with flying geese. As Japan ascended the manufacturing value chain — into electronics, for example — then Taiwan or South Korea could move into the textile market left behind. The result was development by echelon, like migrating birds. But if automation and robotics can now compete with even the cheapest labour then these opportunities will never open up. Developing countries will either have to find a new growth model via services or be forever stuck selling commodities.
Such fears are mistaken. It is more likely that Bangladesh heralds the start of a new wave of industrialisation in poor countries; one that will, in time, extend even to sub-Saharan Africa.
Researchers at the UN confirm that the share of manufacturing and manufacturing jobs in the average developing economy has fallen. But for developing economies as a whole, they find the share of manufacturing and manufacturing jobs is at a record level. In other words, it is not that there is less manufacturing going on, or that robots are doing it all. Rather, all the manufacturing has become heavily concentrated in one place, causing a loss of industry everywhere else. That place, of course, is China. The geese were trying to migrate across China but getting gunned down by its formidable comparative advantage in making things.
If other manufacturers are to grow, they must displace this industrial giant, and Bangladesh suggests that is now possible. China’s factories are investing heavily in automation and robotics in order to raise productivity and stay competitive as local wages rise. But there is little reason to think it will work any better than it did for the rich countries China itself displaced in the 1990s.
Robotics technology has moved forwards but fully automated production lines are still vastly expensive and difficult to adjust. For that reason, robots are little used beyond automobiles and electronics, where the volumes are high enough. Robots are decades away from displacing skilful human fingers willing to work for dollars a day in an industry where customer demand changes as quickly as clothing.
Much will depend on whether Beijing lets its low-skill industries die or fights to keep them. Its move away from currency intervention and a weak renminbi has directly aided the rise of new manufacturing hubs. Its sky-high rates of saving and investment, on the other hand, create overcapacity and suppress the growth of industry elsewhere. Other developing countries should hope Beijing succeeds in rebalancing its economy towards consumption. Nothing would do more to speed their growth.
If China’s population stops making cheap clothes but wear more of them, it will mean the available market is larger than ever in history. China had hundreds of millions of rich consumers in Europe, the US and Japan to sell to in the 1980s. Now there are billions of people buying clothes, shoes and toys. Whatever automation there is, bigger markets will offset it.
For the global economy, Bangladesh and others offer fresh growth with less reliance on China. There are important implications for prices in advanced countries. One cause of low global inflation is the impact of China’s entry into global markets. The rise of Bangladesh suggests prices will not pick up as China’s own income rises. There are still others wanting to manufacture their way to wealth — not least in Africa.
Ever since the industrial revolution began in the mid-18th century, manufacturing has been the path from poverty to plenty, and despite a bout of congestion as China followed it, the route is as open as ever. The geese are ready to migrate again.