India's Advantages over China

Steve Hamm

This came in overnight as a comment on an earlier post, but, because of its thoughfulness, I'm posting it up here so it gets more eyes.

From VJ:

In an article published in 2003 called “Can India overtake China?” Tarun Khanna of Harvard Business School and I argued that India’s domestic corporate sector – strengthened by the country’s rule of law, its democratic processes and relatively healthy financial system – was a source of substantial competitive advantage over China. At that time, the notion that India might be more competitive than China was greeted with wide derision.

Two years later, India appears to have permanently broken out of its leisurely “Hindu rate of growth”– an annual gross domestic product increase of around 2 to 3 per cent – and its performance is beginning to approach the east Asian level. From April to June 2005, India’s GDP grew at 8.1 per cent, compared with 7.6 per cent in the same period the year before. More impressively, India is achieving this result with just half of China’s level of domestic investment in new factories and equipment, and only 10 per cent of China’s foreign direct investment. While China’s GDP growth in the last two years remained high, in 2003 and 2004 it was investing close to 50 per cent of its GDP in domestic plant and equipment – roughly equivalent to India’s entire GDP. That is higher than any other country, exceeding even China’s own exalted levels in the era of central planning. The evidence is as clear as ever: China’s growth stems from massive accumulation of resources, while India’s growth comes from increasing efficiency.

The microeconomic evidence also casts India in a better light. While India’s stock market has soared in recent years, the opposite has happened in China. In 2001, the Shanghai Stock Market index reached 2,200 points; by 2005, half the wealth wiped out. In April 2005, the Shanghai index stood at 1,135 points. This sharp deterioration occurred against a backdrop of GDP growth exceeding 9 per cent a year. It is difficult to find another country that has this strange combination of superb macroeconomic performance and dismal microeconomic performance. It is a matter of time before the two patterns converge.

Why, then, is India gaining strength? Economists and analysts have habitually derided India’s inability to attract FDI. This single-minded obsession with FDI is as strange as it is harmful. Academic studies have not produced convincing evidence that FDI is the best path to economic development compared with responsible economic policies, investment in education and sound legal and financial institutions. In fact, one can easily think of counter examples. Brazil was a darling of foreign investors in the 1960s but ultimately let them down. Japan, Korea and Taiwan received little FDI in the 1960s and 1970s but became among the world’s most successful economies.

An economic litmus test is not whether a country can attract a lot of FDI but whether it has a business environment that nurtures entrepreneurship, supports healthy competition and is relatively free of heavy handed political intervention. In this regard, India has done a better job than China. From India emerged a group of world-class companies ranging from Infosys in software, Ranbaxy in pharmaceuticals, Bajaj Auto in automobile components and Mahindra in car assembly. This did not happen by accident.

Although it has many flaws, India’s financial system did not discriminate against small private companies the way the Chinese financial system did. Infosys benefited from this system. It was founded by seven entrepreneurs with few political connections who nevertheless managed, without significant hard assets, to obtain capital from Indian banks and the stock ­market in the early 1990s. It is unimaginable that a Chinese bank would lend to a Chinese equivalent of an Infosys.

With few exceptions, the world-class manufacturing facilities for which China is famous are products of FDI, not of indigenous Chinese companies. Yes, “Made in China” labels are still more ubiquitous than “Made in India” ones; but what is made in China is not necessarily made by China. Soon, “Made in India” will be synonymous with “Made by India” and Indians will not just get the wage benefits of globalisation but will also keep the profits – unlike so many cases in China.

Pessimism about India has often been proved wrong. Take, for example, the view that India lacks Chinese-level infrastructure and therefore cannot compete with China. This is another “China myth” – that the country grew thanks largely to its heavy investment in infrastructure. This is a fundamentally flawed reading of its growth story. In the 1980s, China had poor infrastructure but turned in a superb economic performance. China built its infrastructure after – rather than before – many years of economic growth and accumulation of financial resources. The “China miracle” happened not because it had glittering skyscrapers and modern highways but because bold economic liberalisation and institutional reforms – especially agricultural reforms in the early 1980s – created competition and nurtured private entrepreneurship.

For both China and India, there is a hidden downside in the obsession with building world-class infrastructure. As developing countries, if they invest more in infrastructure, they invest less in other things. Typically, basic education, especially in rural areas, falls victim to massive investment projects, which produce tangible and immediate results. China made a costly mistake in the 1990s: it created many world-class facilities, but badly under-invested in education. Chinese researchers reveal that a staggering percentage of rural children could not finish secondary education. India, meanwhile, has quietly but persistently improved its ­educational provisions, especially in the rural areas. For sustainable ­economic development, the quality and quantity of human capital will matter far more than those of physical capital. India seems to have the right policy priorities and if China does not invest in rural education soon, it may lose its true competitive edge over India – a well-educated and skilled work-force that drives manufacturing success.

Unless China embarks on bold institutional reforms, India may very well outperform it in the next 20 years. But, hopefully, the biggest beneficiary of the rise of India will be China itself. It will be forced to examine the imperfections of its own economic model and to abandon its sense of complacency acquired in the 1990s. China was light years ahead of India in economic liberalisation in the 1980s. Today it lags behind in critical aspects, such as reform that would permit more foreign investment and domestic private entry in the financial sector. The time to act is now.

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