I will give Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs banker who in 2001 coined the term “BRICs”, the benefit of the doubt. I suspect he meant to create a simple shorthand to refer to the big emerging economies likely to matter most over the next 10 years or so, which at the time seemed to be Brazil, Russia, India, and China. But as often happens, the thing took on a life of its own and became reified to the extent that a year or two ago there was talk of convening a BRICs summit, and in 2007 iShares, the fund management company, set up an exchange-traded BRICs fund (BKF), which has returned an impressive -3.11% annually since its inception. A fund that includes Russia, a huge energy exporter and China, soon to become the world’s largest oil importer, may provide some diversification benefits but probably not the kind of outsized returns investors tend to seek from emerging markets.
I have argued on this blog and elsewhere that the notion of the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India, China – as a group never had a coherent meaning, especially since Russia, whose economy is nearly as dependent on oil and gas as Nigeria’s and whose governance is arguably more dysfunctional than Nigeria’s, and which is suffering catastrophic population decline, has little in common with the other three. The recent kangaroo court judgment and sentence against former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky only confirms this. Even though the Russian stock market grew by a dynamic 22.5% in 2010 and is predicted by none other than Jim O’Neill to be the star performer of 2011, the longer-term trend points clearly in the opposite direction.
Still, there may be some use for a term that distinguishes big, important, and growing emerging economies, but the term needs to become more elastic as new countries qualify and others fall by the wayside. New candidates for BRIC membership continue to surface, as much as they wreak havoc with the catchy acronym. Indonesia, for certain; with over 250 million people, GDP growth of around 6% and a stock market that rose 44% last year it can hardly be ignored. The next candidate in my view is Turkey. With a population of nearly 78 million – likely to grow to 100 million by 2030 – GDP growth of 6.8% in 2010, a dynamic stock market (25.8% return in 2010), and a growing cadre of domestic companies that are expanding their footprint throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, Turkey is growing in importance as a regional political and economic power, and it also serves as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and Central Asia. An article in today’s New York Times highlights Turkey’s political and commercial prominence in Iraq, where it is building power plants, pipelines, hotels, and a stadium, but this is only part of the story. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkish diplomats and companies have made a concerted effort to bring the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia, many of which speak Turkic languages, into Turkey’s commercial and political orbit. Turkish construction firms are prominent on big building sites all over the region, while the markets are full of Turkish medicines and consumer products. The Arab countries of the region, nervous about Iran’s power and its unpredictability, see Turkey as a potential counterweight. The relationship is not perfect – Arabs retain a historical memory of their struggle against Ottoman rule – and Turkey has its own problems, many of which are rooted with an internal struggle between the political heirs of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and his transformation of Turkey into a modern, secular society following World War I, and the Islamists, represented by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development party, who promote greater religious expression in public life. But Turkey, which has still not abandoned its long quest for full membership of the European Union, and which already enjoys free access to the EU market, seems certain to become an even more prominent player in the region and even globally.
Looking a little further down the road, Egypt (the largest Arab country with a population over 80 million, 2.0% annual population growth, steady GDP growth in the 5% to 6% range, sophisticated capital markets, and some huge international construction and telecoms companies) seems poised to take its place as an important player in the world economy, though it could traverse a period of uncertainty and instability in the transition from ailing President Hosni Mubarak to whoever ends up succeeding him. But Egypt has made huge strides in liberalizing its economy over the past 10 years, and is all but certain to attain increasing prominence in regional and global markets and political forums.
Looking quite a bit further down the road we could be considering Nigeria and Vietnam as candidates.
What, then, are the criteria for BRIC-hood, and what should we call this growing group of nations? It’s doubtful that any country with a population much less than 100 million – or a high probability of getting there soon – qualifies. This excludes countries like South Africa, South Korea, Malaysia, and any of the Eastern European countries. Some of them may be or become star economic performers, but they lack the weight to matter quite as much as bigger countries. Extreme poverty and a small economy would rule out a country like Bangladesh (population 162 million and rising; GDP of only $90 billion) or Ethiopia (82 million people and a GDP of less than $30 billion). Pakistan, population 170 million, has an economy nearly double the size of Bangladesh’s, but that still leaves it extremely poor. It is also something close to a failed state, with apparently intractable political and security problems. A stagnant or declining population could also be a disqualifier unless you are China, which is big enough to flout any rule, including the one about trending towards democracy.
Let’s not forget Mexico either. With over 107 million people and a GDP of $875 billion it is already the 13th largest economy in the world and the second largest in Latin America, after Brazil. It boasts the world’s richest person in telecoms mogul Carlos Slim, and some world-class companies, including Cemex, the third largest cement producer in the world. Closely linked to the United States economy, Mexico has experienced somewhat anemic growth over the past few years, though it chalked up a respectable 5% increase in 2010. The current drug gang violence and the corruption that goes along with it make Mexico a bit of a question mark for now, but there is little doubt it will emerge from its current crisis and take its rightful place as one of the countries that will shape the 21st century.
So if we take the current BRIC group, add Indonesia and Turkey, drop Russia (or not) and make room for all the potential new entrants like Egypt, Mexico, Vietnam and Nigeria, we are left with an unpronounceable acronym that would have to be reinvented each time a new country makes the grade. TINMBERVIC, anyone? One solution would be to drop the whole idea. No one talks much anymore about the East Asian “tiger” economies, and most of the efforts in the 1980s and 90s to identify the common factors that made them all succeed were either embarrassingly superficial – the “Confucian ethic” or just plain wrong. The PIGS acronym, which refers to Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain as the Eurozone countries most likely to default on their sovereign debt, is both picturesque and humorous, and does describe economies with a lot of similarities, but it is hardly a club to which any country would aspire.
Here is a modest proposal. Let’s call them the BEEs, standing for Big Emerging Economies. Someone may decide to call the more dynamic among them “Killer BEEs.” Let poetic license reign. Remember, you heard it here first.