Improving Countries’ Standards of Living

Growth Policies for the Middle-Income Economies

The world’s great economic success stories in the last few decades began in the 1970s with that group of nations sometimes known as the East Asian Tigers: South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. The list sometimes includes Hong Kong and Taiwan, although often under international law they are treated as part of China, rather than as separate countries. The economic growth of the Tigers has been phenomenal, typically averaging 5.5% real per capita growth for several decades. In the 1980s, other countries began to show signs of convergence. China began growing rapidly, often at annual rates of 8% to 10% per year. India began growing rapidly, first at rates of about 5% per year in the 1990s, but then higher still in the first decade of the 2000s.

We know the underlying causes of these rapid growth rates:

  • China and the East Asian Tigers, in particular, have been among the highest savers in the world, often saving one-third or more of GDP as compared to the roughly one-fifth of GDP, which would be a more typical saving rate in Latin America and Africa. These countries harnessed higher savings for domestic investment to build physical capital.
  • These countries had policies that supported heavy investments in human capital, first building up primary-level education and then expanding secondary-level education. Many focused on encouraging math and science education, which is useful in engineering and business.
  • Governments made a concerted effort to seek out applicable technology, by sending students and government commissions abroad to look at the most efficient industrial operations elsewhere. They also created policies to support innovative companies that wished to build production facilities to take advantage of the abundant and inexpensive human capital.
  • China and India in particular also allowed far greater freedom for market forces, both within their own domestic economies and also in encouraging their firms to participate in world markets.

This combination of technology, human capital, and physical capital, combined with the incentives of a market-oriented economic context, proved an extremely powerful stimulant to growth. Challenges that these middle-income countries faced are a legacy of government economic controls that for political reasons can be dismantled only slowly over time. In many of them, the government heavily regulates the banking and financial sector. Governments have also sometimes selected certain industries to receive low-interest loans or government subsidies. These economies have found that an increased dose of market-oriented incentives for firms and workers has been a critical ingredient in the recipe for faster growth. To learn more about measuring economic growth, read the following Clear It Up feature.

What is the rule of 72?

It is worth pausing a moment to marvel at the East Asian Tigers' growth rates. If per capita GDP grows at, say, 6% per year, then you can apply the formula for compound growth rates—that is (1 + 0.06)30—meaning a nation’s level of per capita GDP will rise by a multiple of almost six over 30 years. Another strategy is to apply the rule of 72. The rule of 72 is an approximation to figure out doubling time. We divide the rule number, 72, by the annual growth rate to obtain the approximate number of years it will take for income to double. If we have a 6% growth rate, it will take 72/6, or 12 years, for incomes to double. Using this rule here suggests that a Tiger that grows at 6% will double its GDP every 12 years. In contrast, a technological leader, chugging along with per capita growth rates of about 2% per year, would double its income in 36 years.