Limitations in Prof. Hausmann’s policy recommendations

By Premachandra Athukorala

The article originally appeared on the Sunday times 24 January 2016.

The policy recommendations made by Professor Ricardo Hausmann in his presentation at the recent Colombo Economic Summit are based on the ‘product space’ analysis developed and popularised by him and his co-researchers at the Centre for International Development at Harvard University. This approach has a fundamental limitation as policy guidance in this era of economic globalisation, even though their ‘ pictures’ (product space diagrams) look very impressive and have a great appeal to policy makers who take them at face value.

Product space analysis is based on the conventional approach to analysing trade patterns, which treats international trade as an exchange of goods produced entirely from beginning to end within national boundaries. This approach is based on the assumption that factors of production are locked in within national boundaries (that is, it assumes away foreign direct investment, and cross border movement of labour and all inputs used in manufacturing). It completely overlooks the ongoing process of global production sharing (GPS), the breakup of the production processes into separate stages, with each country specialising in a particular stage of the production sequence, which opens up opportunities for countries to specialise in different tasks within vertically integrated global industries.

Parts and components, and final assembly traded within global production networks (‘network trade’) have been growing at a much faster rate compared to trade in goods wholly produced within countries (‘horizontal trade’, the focus of product space analysis). Global production has been the prime driver of export-oriented growth East Asian countries. According to my calculation network trade accounts for over 60 per cent of total manufacturing exports from China, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. A number of countries in the region (Vietnam and Cambodia are the latest example) have successfully moved from primary product specialisation to exporting manufactured goods (parts and components and final assembly) by joining production networks. This certainly is not ‘Monkeys jumping from low trees to taller trees’ as depicted in product space diagrams.

Policy inferences based on the product space analysis is not consistent with the objective of reaping gains from joining global production networks. As Professor Gerald Helleiner has aptly stated in a best-known article, “The introduction of the possibility of component manufacture and middle-stage processing within international industries knocks the bottom out of any stage theory of the development through industrialisation and trade which focuses upon final products” (Helleiner, Gerald K. (1973), ‘Manufactured Exports from Less-Developed Countries and Multinational Firms’, Economic Journal, 83 (329), p 43) It seems that Prof. Hausmann’s policy advocacy of export promotion has basically been shaped by the Latin American experience.

Latin American countries’ lack-luster record of manufacturing export expansion can be explained to a greater extent by these countries’ failure to reap gains from the ongoing process of global production sharing. I was surprised to note that in the website posting on the Sri Lankan visit, Prof. Hausmann has used Venezuela as a comparator for justifying his policy advocacy for Sri Lanka! Sri Lanka needs to learn lessons from its own past and from the successful countries in our Asian neighbourhood, not from a failed state in Latin America. In the aftermaths of the 1977 liberalisation reforms, a number of electronics multinationals came to Sri Lanka to set up assembly plants. We sadly missed the opportunity to become an export hub based on global production sharing because these MNCs soon left the country in the early 1980s as political instability set in.

Among these lost investment projects was a large assembly plant (with a planned employment of 3000 workers), which made headlines in a Harvard Business Review article. Chet Singh, the founding chairman of the Penang Development Corporation, recently told me that Motorola’s decision to come to Sri Lanka was a big concern to him and the Penang state government at the time because Sri Lanka was a much better location for electronics assembly compared to Penang. Luckily for him (and for Penang) Motorola eventually gave up the Sri Lanka option and set up a plant in Penang. The Motorola plant in Penang currently employ 8500 workers and also acts as the regional R&D centre of that giant multinational enterprise. We need to strive to regain such lost opportunities.

Premachandra Athukorala is an advisor to the Advocata Institute.  He is a Professor of Economics, at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australia National University.