Sunday, July 13, 2008

A fool and your money

I heard somewhere once that if you asked 10 different economists their opinion on the economic outlook you'd get 10 different answers. Some will be confident, some will be gloomy - but all will base their opinions on their own personal environment. In other words, what they say depends on who they work for.

Which is why I take the comments of Jim O'Neill, chief economist of Goldman Sachs, with a huge dose of salt. Writing in The Telegraph, O'Neill does his best to talk up globalisation as being good for Britain.

Our projections for 2050 suggest that by then the four BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, China] countries, along with the United States, will be the five largest economies in the world. In becoming bigger and wealthier, and with the emergence of a massive "global middle", these countries will help ensure that Britain's wealth continues to rise and our citizens remain amongst the world's richest.

A few weeks ago, on one of the few sunny days of recent weeks, I had the pleasure of meeting senior members of Foster & Partners, one of the world's leading firms of architects.

As we had lunch at their headquarters overlooking Battersea Park and the Thames, I was astonished to find that there were around 1,300 people working in their open, airy offices (I believe they are the biggest private sector employers in the London borough of Wandsworth).

Will their business collapse because of the credit squeeze here in the UK? Highly unlikely: their business is servicing the BRICs and the "Next 11" - for example, the company designed the new airport terminal in Beijing.

All sounds very rosy doesn't it. Except that, for a chief economist, O'Neill seems to have missed a fairly important point about globalisation. The point being that there will come a time between now and 2050 when Foster & Partners - along with many other businesses which currently ply their trade from Britain - realise that the bulk of their business is not in Britain and that they could do their business far better if they were located elsewhere. That is what globalisation does - I'm amazed that someone like O'Neill doesn't realise it.

The other point is that as that new "global middle class" develops, they will also develop their own skills in areas which we consider safe. They will have their own architects - many more than we produce - and they will be just as good as anyone elses. They won't need out architects or anything else when they can do it better and cheaper themselves.

I also think O'Neill is completely wrong about his projection for the global economy anyway. He seems to think that other nations economies will manage to avoid the impending gloom descending on Britain. This is because O'Neill has fallen into the trap that many other commentators have done over the last few weeks. The belief that the global credit crunch is the main reason for our failing economy.

Hardly surprising that O'Neill thinks like that. He inhabits the world of finance and the world of finance is the one which is impacted by the restriction in the movement of money that the credit crunch has brought.

But the credit crunch is not the main concern for most Britons. Rising costs of food and fuel are and these are not connected to the credit crunch. What is more, they effect the BRIC countries just as much as they do ours - the difference being that their "middle classes" don't have the foundations that ours do and are far more fragile and therefore more susceptible to the impact of rising food and fuel costs.

There are a thousand things that could happen between now and 2050 which could have significant impacts on globalisation. A war with Iran, for example, would have severe impacts on fuel costs and nations like China and Russia, despite their apparent economic strength, remain very unstable and ambiguous.

Ultimately, though, O'Neill needs to realise that as globalisation means that countries like the BRIC nations move up the pecking order, other nations will move down. And that includes ours. The more our nation slides down the scale of leading economies the less influence we will have and that will mean less investment.

For an economist to have missed that point is inexcusable.

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