The BRIC nations embarked on a monstrous voyage of success in the last decade, but their appeal is faltering for myriad reasons. Have the glory days of the BRICs come to an end?
The BRIC phenomenon hit the world like lightning at the turn of the century, boasting continued growth that didn’t seem to have a limit. But the BRIC success saga might have reached its peak, as growth has stagnated considerably with worse times potentially ahead. The reason for the slump is multifaceted and the problems behind the downturn differ from nation to nation. Corruption and bureaucracy, for instance, are elements that plague the markets of India and Russia. While foreign companies fell over themselves to get a slice of the pie during the boom, many have decided to stifle their BRIC expansion plans, if not abandoning them all together.
While the outlook could be rosier, the BRIC nations shouldn’t be written off as they collectively hold enormous potential due to sheer population and commodity span alone. “I think it’s part of the big economic change, where not only are we seeing a shift from west to east, but we’re also seeing that countries producing vital commodities – food, energy, raw materials – are doing very well and they’re gradually climbing up the economic league table,” said Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist who coined the very acronym in 2001 and charted the BRIC advance ahead of its unfolding. His new book, The Growth Map, focuses in on the BRICs a decade on. He takes a largely positive stance, which, some would argue, is not surprising since O’Neill is the godfather of the phenomenon.
While there are fears that the shaky situation in Europe will adversely affect the BRIC brigade, O’Neill argues that the challenging times ahead will make the emerging economies stronger. “I think the crisis in Europe, as with the crisis we had in the US three years ago, are arguably good for these countries because it makes them realise they can’t depend on exporting to the rest of the developed world for their success and future. And so they’ve got to do things more and more to stand on their own two feet. And I think that’s particularly applicable to China but to a lesser degree for the others as well.”
O’Neill might have a point, but there is no denying that the general business climate across the BRIC territories has deteriorated and will become even more fragile as the year progresses. To stay on top, Brazil, Russia, India and China have to make every effort not to lose the interest and trust of the international investor contingency. Still largely considered emerging market territories, one might argue that the crises witnessed across the rest of the world has stunned BRIC into a state of paralysis. Regardless, the four economies have their own internal issues that, with some consideration and time, may just turn their fortunes around.
Brazil: GDP per capita: $10,300
When O’Neill introduced the BRIC concept in 2001, sceptics asserted that the B in the acronym had only been made part of the club in order to create a catchy word. But Brazil has proved its critics wrong; the country is now considered one of the strongest players in the cluster of emerging economies. Its main exports are manufactured goods, coffee, iron ore and agricultural produce, much of which it exports to countries including China, the US and Argentina.
With a population of about 200 million – a large portion of which is now considered middle class and is armed with some disposable income – more than 20 million people have escaped the poverty zone in the last decade. Moreover, the income gap has drastically narrowed, and more so in Brazil than in any other BRIC country. The Latin American giant’s successful new guise owes to the crafty strategies of the country’s former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Brazil’s newfound prosperity has done wonders for domestic trade but the nation is equally a goldmine for western businesses operating in the luxury market and beyond. So important is the Brazilian economy that luxury retailers operating stores across the world are hiring Portuguese-speaking assistants to serve the high number of high-net-worth consumers flooding in from Brazil.
The country’s growth has up until now displayed remarkable stamina, and it climbed an impressive 7.5 percent in 2010, marking the sharpest increase in two decades. Hence, the shock of the slump that was to follow in the third quarter of last year proved particularly difficult. The dramatic decline was largely due to high interest rates and the worsening situation in the eurozone. Brazil’s growth might have taken a hit, but despite the recent slump, the county managed to overtake the UK as the world’s sixth largest economy, according to data released in 2011 by the economic research group CEBR. Set to improve the outlook further, Brazil recently resumed overseas sales of dollar-denominated bonds maturing in 2021 – a move estimated to usher in approximately $750m.
China: GDP per capita: $6,100
The vast nation of China flaunted un precedented growth in the last decade and looked set for world-domination. But the country has started to show signs of weakness; some analysts even predict an irreparable retraction due to unsustainable debt levels, dangerously high inflation rates and a depleted property market. Moreover, the country’s April factory output let investors down as it grew a mere 13.4 percent, compared with hopeful forecasts for 14.7 percent. In the eyes of US banking giant Goldman Sachs, the future of China is looking gloomier than previously predicted.
“The growth slowdown has been even sharper than we forecast, especially evident in April’s industrial production. In addition, inflation is not coming down as rapidly as we hoped,” a Goldman Sachs analyst said in a research note to clients last year. For 2012, the bank reduced China’s economic growth forecasts to 9.2 percent, dropping 0.3 percent from the initial 9.5 it had previously estimated. Adopting a milder stance, HSBC defended the economy by asserting that despite China’s slowdown and April’s disappointing industrial output, the country’s economy is still growing and doesn’t show any sign of a “hard landing”.
Amidst the negative press China has received lately, its spending power is a hot topic and international fashion brands flood to the country to secure presence on the Chinese market. Consumer confidence remains relatively high despite having suffered somewhat due to significant hikes in food prices. In a recent episode of the BBC programme Newsnight, presenter Jeremy Paxman shed light on a society in which consumer goods are worshipped. To back up Paxman’s observation, the launch of one of Apple’s latest devices, the iPhone 4s, drew bigger crowds than the technology giant could handle. Frenzied shoppers descended on the stores and caused chaos so severe that Apple had to take drastic action. “The demand for the iPhone 4S has been incredible and our stores in China have already sold out.
Unfortunately we were unable to open our store at Sanlitun due to the large crowd and to ensure the safety of our customers and employees the iPhone will not be available in our retail stores in Beijing and Shanghai for the time being,” Apple said in a statement.
The fact that shopping therapy is favoured above any other leisure activity is obvious, and Chinese consumers crave products of all denominations. Apple is not the sole winner – Rolls Royce has experienced success on a similar level and more vehicles are purchased in China than anywhere else in the world. The passenger car market as a whole is doing remarkably well, and it has been predicted that car sales will rise by as much as 10 percent next year – an increase that outpaces current delivery rates by far. Covetable consumer goods aside, China has spent a great deal on coal lately and has overtaken Japan as the world’s top coal importer for the first time in decades in 2011.
Russia: GDP per capita: $15,800
Since Russia relies heavily on one single commodity – oil – the country is at a greater risk of euro crisis spillover than any of its fellow BRIC nations. In order to keep oil output close to recent record levels, ongoing investment is required.
Impressively, Russian oil production reached a post-soviet high of 10.34 million barrels per day in October 2011, according to the country’s energy ministry. But complacency is not an option – if the crisis across Europe deepens, oil demand will be cut sharply. In view of looming changes, the IMF has stifled Russia’s 2012 GDP forecast. In December 2011, the body estimated that Russia’s GDP growth would slow to 3.5 percent in 2012, a shrinkage amounting to 0.6 percent compared with the figure of 2011.
Aside from shrinking oil demand, Russia is also likely to experience spillover in the shape of cut funding into the Russian economy by way of reduced trade and a drop in bank funding. What measures should Russia take to stay on top if its game?
According to Juha Kahkonen, Deputy Director of the IMF’s European department, the country should improve its overall business climate, as well as review its fiscal and monetary policy, while also carefully considering its banking-sector supervision. The current law is a frequent topic among the business contingent operating in Russia, while corruption adds to the predicament.
India: GDP per capita: $2,900
In line with Russia, India has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons in the past couple of years as the country has fallen out of favour with a growing number of international businesses. Negative aspects deemed too troublesome to deal with by foreign investors include corruption levels that show no signs of subsiding, while inflation is high and labour is no longer as temptingly affordable as it used to be a few years ago. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is under increasing pressure to attract more foreign investment, as recent data released by the United Nations indicates that India received less than $20bn in FDI in the first six months of 2011, while China attracted revenues three times as high.
Meanwhile, RBI data shows that commercial banks sanctioned INR339bn of loans in the three months through September 2011, which indicates a 77 percent drop compared with last year’s figures. While the picture may seem bleak, stocks rose in January 2012 after rates were cut and it has been predicted that India will become the fifth largest economy by 2020, which would see it climb five places. The BRIC countries are undoubtedly suffering teething problems, but if they can overcome them, they’ll be a force set to eclipse the powers of the Western world.