Economic trends

Productivity in Asia – the new story

Think Asia is stuck in a cycle of flat or falling productivity? Think again

The recent economic slowdown in Asia has fuelled investor fears that the region is back where it was two decades ago – stuck in the cycle of flat or falling productivity that sparked the crisis of the late 1990s.

However, this is very far from the truth. The fact is that since 2000, Asia’s productivity performance has been solid across the board, which was not the case in the 1980s or the 1990s.

Asia is well placed to continue to grow faster than both developed and other emerging markets

Productivity around the world, including in Asia, has slowed in the past few years, in line with more sluggish growth rates following the global financial crisis. But we expect global growth to pick up this year and strengthen further in 2015, and this should mean a revival in productivity.

Asia is well placed to continue to grow faster than both developed and other emerging markets, helped by rising productivity.

Undeniably, there are structural issues in Asia and need for reform, but – as shown in a new report by Standard Chartered Global Research – we believe that much of the slowdown in productivity since the global financial crisis has been down to cyclical factors which are now being reversed.

Investment and urbanisation to drive growth

It is also important to separate the China story from the rest of Asia. If you exclude Japan and China, the contribution of capital to GDP growth has been slowing in Asia for many years, while productivity growth has been sustained.

In China the contribution of capital is still rising, resulting in excess capacity in many sectors, while productivity growth has slowed.

Even so, China still has huge potential to use investment and urbanisation to drive strong growth in the coming decade, and the new leadership has demonstrated its appetite for reform, taking short-term pain for long-term gain. To put things into perspective, it is also worth noting that China’s capital stock (structures, equipment and machinery) per worker is only one-fifth of the US level.

The demographic challenge facing many Asian countries in the coming years cannot be ignored

Across Asia, urbanisation is set to be significant driver of productivity as agricultural workers shift into manufacturing and services. The newly urbanised workers will also need a higher-quality, productivity-enhancing capital stock.

An excessive focus on investing in residential property construction in Singapore and Hong Kong may help to explain why these economies have higher capital stocks per worker than the US, yet lag on productivity and were the region’s weakest performers on this metric between 2011 and 2013.

Shrinking working-age populations

The demographic challenge facing many Asian countries in the coming years cannot be ignored. All Northeast Asian economies, as well as Thailand and Singapore, face shrinking working-age populations by the mid-2020s, and some will reach this point as soon as the second half of this decade.

Illustrating the scale of the challenge, the UN estimates that from now to 2025, China’s working-age population will shrink by 15 million, nearly three-quarters of Australia’s population today.

From 2025-30, China’s working-age population will fall by another 20 million, and the country will need to find an extra 1.5 percentage point of GDP growth from other sources in order to compensate for its shrinking-working age population by 2025.

The demographic outlook is much more favourable in Southeast Asia. Indonesia and the Philippines are estimated to add a combined 35 million people to their working-age populations between now and 2025, according to the UN. This is equivalent to half of Thailand’s total population today.

Despite the demographic headwinds in many economies, we expect a recovery in productivity in the coming years, helped by urbanisation, reform and productive investment. Economies with still-low capital stocks per worker – China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines – have the strongest potential.

Views of the region are out of date

Ageing populations in Northeast Asia and Singapore will put more of a burden on urbanisation, infrastructure and reforms to boost productivity and growth.

But talk of long-term structural barriers to rising productivity in Asia – and fear that this may spark a new crisis – is based on an out-of-date view of the region and fails to take into account the huge steps forward taken in recent years.

PDF-icon_resized Download our report (PDF) and get the full picture on productivity in Asia


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