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2011--The Year of the U.S. Economic Comeback?

Jim O’Neil, an economist at Goldman Sachs and the man who coined the acronym “BRICs” (standing for Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and thereby promoted those countries to the forefront of U.S. and European consciousness, is now saying that the year 2011 is “the year of the U.S. comeback.”

Now, it’s true, analysts at investment banks make a lot of lousy predictions. And as our last “MetroMonitor” showed and as everyone in touch with reality already knows, the U.S. economy is still struggling. Housing prices in the third quarter were still down from the previous year (though up from the previous quarter), foreclosures are still climbing, and the unemployment rate is still above 9 percent, even with depressed labor force participation.

With that said, it is the reason that O’Neill is bullish that got our attention. He alludes to the late-2010 political bargain made between President Obama and Republicans Senators on tax and stimulus, endorses the Fed’s quantitative easing policy, and mentions strong productivity. But those factors are ancillary to his analysis. Chief among the reasons for his optimism is the upward spike in the savings rate (i.e. how much people save as a percentage of their income) since the start of the recession, which he believes will boost domestic investment and fuel American exports to the vaunted BRICs.

We like this because it is the same argument that we made in our report “Export Nation,” which documented that metros like Wichita, Portland, Houston, New Orleans, and Austin have been rapidly expanding sales from export industries. This is how it works: U.S. residents spend less money on consumer products and put more money into mutual funds, retirement and savings accounts; that money eases access to capital for U.S. businesses, which then build more factories, buy more machines, come up with better ideas through R&D, and, most importantly, hire more workers, exporting the surplus around the rapidly growing world, sometimes to their own factories located there.

One explanation for why the savings rate dwindled to historically low levels leading up to the recession was the massive housing bubble. Housing appreciation leads home owners to think they have more wealth (and therefore discretionary income) than they actually do. In that sense, the great recession became the great disillusionment leading to more prudent consumption habits. Part of this trend, no doubt, is that banks and credit card companies have pulled back and thereby forced consumers to save in order to spend, but whatever the reason higher savings will be good for innovation in every sector, from health care, to the clean economy, and exports.

For exports, it helps that there are plenty of expanding opportunities to sell goods and services. As readers of this blog know, the BRICs are special because they are all big rapidly industrializing countries, as Niall Ferguson likes to say. Combined their GDPs’ are roughly half of U.S. GDP, according to data I analyzed from the Economist Intelligence Unit. But there are opportunities beyond the BRICs. Many medium-sized countries--in which spending power accounts for at least 1 percent of U.S. GDP--are also growing rapidly, with GDP growth rates at or above 4 percent per year from 2000 to 2009. They are, in order of growth rates: UAE, Venezuela, Argentina, Nigeria, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Poland, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Columbia, Israel, Turkey, Chile, South Africa, and the Czech Republic. Together their economies account for over one fourth of U.S. GDP. It’s tempting to call this second tier MORTARS--mid-sized, other rapidly transitioning areas.

We know that these countries are already buying goods and services from the United States and that the share of exports going to BRICs and MORTARs is increasing. Exports of U.S. goods, which are easier to track than exports of services, came to $107 billion to the BRICs and $116 Billion to the MORTARS in 2009, reflecting an average growth rate that is roughly 2.5 times the total growth rate of goods exports since 2003. Over that period, the share of total U.S. goods export going to these countries increased from 17 percent in 2003 to 25 percent in 2009.

Based on their industrial composition, the metros that best positioned to take advantage of this shift are Portland OR, San Jose, Palm Bay, Boise, Austin, and Albuquerque--one quarter of their total exports, including services, could go to these countries. So, with public and private investments in R&D and infrastructure, and smart policies that encourage innovation, and retooled education and training programs for a more sophisticated manufacturing sector, the United States can build a future with BRICs and MORTARs. That wouldn’t be a bad New Year’s resolution.