The term “emerging markets” is now more than 25 years old and has come to define wide swaths of the world undergoing rapid economic change. Dozens of countries fall under the label even though they are evolving at their own pace and with their own twists on economic development.
Now, as many emerging markets show signs of a strong and growing middle-class population, observers wonder whether the term has lost some of its meaning. Initially, the phrase applied to fast-growing economies in Asia and was used in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As global interest in market-driven economies grew, investors began to look toward Latin America for emerging markets and eventually at countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, China, India and Russia. “Once you start to put so many countries in the same category, the category loses meaning,” says Wharton management professor Mauro Guillen.
“While South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan share characteristics, once you put them in a bucket with India, Mexico, Argentina, Indonesia and Poland, it’s no longer meaningful. The term emerging markets has become a victim of its own success.”
Antoine W van Agtmael was deputy director of the capital markets department of the World Bank’s International Finance Corp (IFC), when he coined the phrase “emerging markets” during an investor conference in Thailand in 1981.
Van Agtmael recalls that back then, Thailand was grouped with other poor countries that were known as the “Third World”. He felt that name was discouraging investors from putting funds to work in Thailand and other poor countries with development potential.
“People looked down upon the Third World. It sounded so distasteful. I thought people with that feeling would never invest,” he says. “I had lived in Thailand and I knew it was better than people thought. I felt we had to use a more uplifting term.”
Initially, the definition applied to stock markets in countries with a cutoff of $10,000 (Dh36,700) in income per capita. Those specific numerical references soon faded. The term “emerging markets” came to be synonymous with “emerging economies” and no longer relied on income or other statistical measures.
According to Wharton faculty, the most important element in defining an emerging economy poised for growth is the strength of its economic and political institutions, such as the rule of law, regulatory controls and enforcement of contracts.
Philip Nichols, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, says a numbers-based definition is less meaningful than an understanding of the way in which business is done in a country.
Emerging economies, he adds, are in places that are changing from a system based on informal relationships to a more formal system with rules that are transparent and apply equally to all participants in the market. “We used to use numbers like income or market liquidity [to define these markets], but that was worthless. Those kinds of definitions don’t tell you what is really going on.”
The Cold War triggered a global re-examination of financial systems, not only in the former Soviet Union but around the world, Nichols says. Planned economies in Latin America failed and a new generation of Chinese leaders introduced economic reforms.
While enormous attention has been paid to rapid growth in India and China, those two countries are nowhere near ready to graduate from the emerging camp, according to Wharton faculty and analysts. While India and China both enjoy pockets of glittering prosperity, national wealth is unevenly distributed and most of the population in these countries lives in poverty.
Wharton management professor Marshall Meyer says many Chinese cities seem to be as sophisticated as any in Europe or North America, but rural areas of China remain desperately poor. Household income is 10 times higher in urban coastal cities, like Shanghai, compared to rural inland provinces.
Countries that make it into the top rungs of economic progress can slip backward, too. Guillen notes that in the first part of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the richest nations in the world.
After decades of Peronist rule and decline, Argentina became a star in the 1990s march toward privatisation, only to stumble into a financial crisis in 2001.
With a well-educated population and wealth of resources, Guillen says, “Argentina is one of the biggest mysteries.” Lebanon is another example. In the 1960s, it was considered to be the Switzerland of the Middle East, with strong trade and high per capita incomes before it descended into Civil War, never to recover its economic place in the world.
“There are many examples of African countries that were doing reasonably OK and then got into trouble,” adds Guillen.
Even with their weaknesses, emerging economies are clearly a rung up the economic ladder from many other countries, including most of sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, along with Bangladesh and Myanmar, Guillen says.
At the same time, some countries seem to have gotten solidly stuck in the emerging markets category. Guillen points to South Korea, where per capita income is $20,000 – well above most countries in Latin American and South and East Asia. More important, the economy has transformed from a heavy industrial base to a strong focus on knowledge and technology.
“One thing that intrigues me is these countries seem to be emerging forever,” he says. “It’s about time we think of South Korea as a fully developed economy.”
Guillen is careful to emphasise that there is no one path to economic prosperity. “All countries start in different positions. If they succeed, they do so in different ways,” he says.
More than a quarter century after he christened the term “emerging markets”, Van Agtmael, now CEO of Emerging Markets Management in the US, which manages $20 billion in institutional investment, says he has seen tremendous change.
“We are in the midst of a huge shift in the global economy toward emerging markets, as many are no longer poor, but are becoming middle class. The emerging markets consumer is becoming increasingly important, infrastructure spending in emerging markets now exceeds that in the US or Europe, and a steadily larger group of companies is becoming world-class.”
According to Van Agtmael, in the next 10 years there will be one billion more consumers in emerging markets, and in 25 years the economies of these countries will surpass the combined economies of the developed countries.
In recent years, Goldman Sachs hascontributed to the economic name game. In 2001, the firm began calling Brazil, Russia, India and China the “Bric” countries and forecast that by 2010, they would make up more than 10 per cent of global GDP. By 2007, they already accounted for 15 per cent.
Then in 2005, Goldman Sachs introduced another moniker, the Next Eleven (N-11), identifying another set of populous countries with the potential to have an impact on the global economy, similar to the Bric nations. The N-11 are Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey
Van Agtmael says he has heard some new terms – “middle-income emerging markets” or “graduating emerging markets” – tossed around to describe countries moving up the continuum.
“Now most investors simply realise the name is now less important than the fact that people recognise this is a part of the world that is no longer a backwater and no longer peripheral, but an increasingly important part of the world.” (Global Business Prespectives distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)
When are emerging markets no longer emerging?