Investment

Kazakhstan is known as the homeland of Sasha Baron Cohen’s fictional character Borat, and many people are unaware it is a real place. But it is a vast and sparsely populated country, a million square miles (2.7m square kilometers), nearly twice the size of Alaska or seven times as big as California, with only 17m people. It is the largest landlocked country in the world. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union Kazakhstan has done far better economically than most of the other former Soviet republics. Average annual growth of 7.4% since 2000 has lifted per capita GDP from a little over $1,200 to nearly $14,000. This performance owes more to the discovery and development of huge onshore and offshore petroleum deposits in the Caspian region than to fundamental reforms, but Kazakhstan has made some important improvements to its investment climate, to the point where it now ranks 76th out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s annual Doing Business report and 50th in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness index.

The so-called “middle income trap” is a widely observed pattern, which sees poor countries advancing rapidly to middle income status and then failing to graduate to the ranks of upper-income countries.  A few countries have made this leap in spectacular fashion. Singapore, a small, poor country with fairly dim prospects when it was kicked out of the Malaysian Federation in 1965, is now richer in per capita terms than the United States and Canada. Hong Kong beats out Japan and Italy. South Korea, which in 1960 had lower per capita income than Ghana, is now 20 times richer than Ghana and also wealthier than Saudi Arabia. Taiwan has a higher per capita GDP than Greece and Portugal.

But many other countries, having reached middle-income status, see growth rates decline so that the threshold between upper-middle and high income remains tantalizingly out of reach. Malaysia, Thailand, Brazil, China, Bulgaria, Romania, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru – along with Kazakhstan – may all be at risk of languishing in the middle-income ranks. [click to continue…]

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I was recently in Pyongyang, at the invitation of the Korean Association for Economic Development, to participate in a two-day conference on special economic zones, co-sponsored by the University of British Columbia. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, which I am still trying to process. Members of our group who have previously visited the country say they perceived more openness and less fear among the people than in the past, but it remains a highly regimented society. Visible signs of commerce are completely absent. The only billboards show pictures of the Great Leader and Dear Leader or revolutionary slogans accompanying images of ferocious soldiers bayoneting the imperialists. Not a corporate logo in sight. Shops – the people do have to buy necessities and the occasional small luxury – are utilitarian, and their signage, though I can’t read Korean, is drab and functional: “Bread.” “Clothing.” “Furniture.” It may be the only country in the world without Coca-Cola.

Our hosts have asked me to return, to visit their zones and provide some advice, but they are not willing to pay anything close to my normal consulting fees. One thing they will have to learn as they try to engage with the outside world and attract foreign investment – if indeed that is what they do intend – is that foreign experts (I modestly include myself in that category) expect to be paid. It’s not as if the North Koreans are starved for funds or foreign exchange. The fleet of spanking new Mercedes S-Class sedans and SUVs that chauffered our group around the city, the big bottles of cognac and 18-year-old Scotch in the state-owned restaurants we were invited to, where the elite go to enjoy themselves, not to mention North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, are proof of that. Of course, to the degree that the country can rejoin the international community on less confrontational terms, it can go down the path well trodden by developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and ask for assistance from international donors to pay for my services.

Two weeks ago I was interviewed about my experiences on The Manzella Report, an international business news and opinion magazine that publishes interviews on YouTube. You can view the interview here: Are the North Koreans Ready for Change?

Like the North Koreans, I too may not be ready for prime time, but I am working on it.

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President Obama received a lot of outraged criticism from the right during the 2012 campaign for his remark, “You didn’t build that.” What he meant, though he uncharacteristically said it in a fairly clumsy way, was that for every proudly self-made entrepreneur there is a huge web of supporting institutions and infrastructure built by the government. These essential supports include the obvious – the courts, the Interstate highway system, police and fire departments, etc. – but also a tremendous array of investments undertaken by national governments, many of which have provided a platform on which entrepreneurs can build. A recent article in The Economist, reviewing a new book entitled “The Entrepreneurial State,” by Mariana Mazzucato of Sussex University in England, makes this explicit. And nowhere is this investment activity more influential than the United States, supposedly the cradle of unbridled individual enterprise.

Beneficiaries of these investments include Apple: “The armed forces pioneered the Internet, GPS positioning and voice-activated ‘virtual assistants.’ They also provided much of the early funding for Silicon Valley. Academic scientists in publicly funded universities and labs developed the touchscreen and the HTML language. An obscure government body even lent Apple $500,000 before it went public.” They also include Google, which received early funding from the National Science Foundation. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies benefit from the $30 billion in annual funding for biomedical research from the National Institutes of Health.

As Ms. Mazzucato argues, “The entrepreneurial state does far more than just make up for the private sector’s shortcomings: through the big bets it makes on new technologies, such as aircraft or the internet, it creates and shapes the markets of the future. At its best the state is nothing less than the ultimate Schumpeterian innovator—generating the gales of creative destruction that provide strong tailwinds for private firms like Apple.”

There are reasons to be skeptical of some government investments. The Solyndra debacle, in which the Federal government provided $500 million in loan guarantees to a California manufacturer of solar panels, which promptly went bust in the face of low-cost competition from China, is a cautionary example of the dangers of bureaucrats playing at being venture capitalists. But the rallying cry of the Tea Party – the Randian (Ayn and Paul) notion that the state is essentially a parasite feeding on the efforts of bold and visionary individual entrepreneurs – is a pure fairy tale.

The Economist article asks “why are some states successful entrepreneurs while others are failures?” and it provides an answer:  “Successful states are obsessed by competition; they make scientists compete for research grants, and businesses compete for start-up funds—and leave the decisions to experts, rather than politicians or bureaucrats. They also foster networks of innovation that stretch from universities to profit-maximizing companies, keeping their own role to a minimum.” This sounds much like the blueprint for Silicon Valley, or any other successful technology-based industrial cluster.

In our current budget-cutting environment, these essential investments are under threat. According to a recent article in The Huffington Post, sequestration will cost the NIH 5% of its budget, or $1.7 billion, forcing the cancellation of 700 competitive research grants in the current Federal budget year. Similarly, the National Science Foundation is expected to issue 1,000 fewer research grants this year as a result of sequestration.

According to a statement by the Congressional Budget Office, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by taxes on gasoline and diesel and which provides a substantial portion of the money states use to maintain state and national roads, is essentially insolvent and will run out of money completely by 2015. The only way to avoid this would be to cut transportation funding by 92% or raise the Federal gasoline tax by 50 cents a gallon, and it’s hard to imagine the Republican-controlled House of Representatives going along with the latter.

In the current political environment, much of the public investment that enables American businesses to innovate and prosper is under threat, mainly from ideologues who refuse to recognize the essential role that government initiative and funds have played since the founding of the Republic, from the Erie Canal to the interstate highway system, to nanotechnology research.

It is worth considering these facts in the context of the current legal battle between Verizon and the Federal Communications Commission. Verizon is challenging a net-neutrality order adopted by the FCC in 2010, which states that internet service providers (ISPs) cannot block lawful content and mobile broadband providers cannot block lawful websites. Verizon contends that the order violates its First Amendment rights. More to the point, Verizon and its competitors, including Comcast and AT&T, maintain that they spent billions of dollars to build their networks and should be able to grant or deny access as they please, or charge different customers different rates for transmitting on their networks. This is a spurious argument. The broadband companies are “common carriers,” a term that applies not only to telecoms companies but also to airlines, railroads, and trucking companies: they offer their services to the general public under a license or authority granted by a public regulatory body. Common carriers are subject to licensing requirements because they are using a public resource: radio spectrum, rights of way, public roads, or air traffic control systems, without which they would be unable to operate. In the case of the telecoms company, they are also using a resource – the Internet – that was developed by DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The Internet and the public airwaves are not the property of those companies to use as they please, free from any oversight or interference. It is time to tell them, “No, you didn’t build that.”

 

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AskyI recently joined a new frequent flyer program, which is not something I expected to do. I am already a member of several, covering each of the three major airline alliances, and I thought I was pretty well set. But as I sat in the departure lounge in Lomé, the capital of the West African nation of Togo, waiting to board a flight to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a pretty young lady in company livery invited me to join the ASky Club. ASky is a new, mostly private, airline that serves a substantial West and Central African route network, operating Boeing 737 and Bombardier Dash-8 aircraft. It is affiliated with Ethiopian Airlines, which offers connections to North and South America, Europe, and Asia.  [click to continue…]

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Eurasia Group founder and emerging markets guru Ian Bremmer has come around to the view that the BRICS construct is nothing more than a bunch of countries “united by a catchy acronym” and little else. His op-ed piece in last Friday’s New York Times  notes that Brazil, Russia, India, and China “have formalized their club and extended their reach by inviting South Africa to join” – a development that occurred in December of 2010 and asks, “But do their meetings and joint statements really allow them to punch above their individual weight? What do these countries share beyond a common interest in bolstering their global clout?” Several hundred words later he concludes that these five countries “will sometimes use their collective weight to obstruct U.S. and European plans. But the BRICs have too little in common abroad and too much at stake at home to play a single coherent role on the global stage.” Has he been reading my blog? [click to continue…]

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