Why has developing East Asia led the global economic recovery?

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Only a few expected in late 2008 that East Asia would lead the world economy out of the crisis. Skeptics pointed to the continued dependence of the region on exports to advanced economies. And skeptics and believers alike were predicting that all countries in the region would rethink their growth models to focus more on domestic demand rather than exports and investment.

What a difference a year and a half makes. East Asia has recovered from the economic and financial crisis, with output, exports and employment mostly at pre-crisis levels. Leading the global economy, real GDP in developing East Asia is set to grow 8.7 percent in 2010, up from 7 percent in 2009, according to the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific Update report launched today (and of which I’m the lead author, full disclosure here). The projected growth rate for 2010 is almost a percentage point higher than our own forecast made six months ago, and is higher than the 8.5 percent expansion recorded in 2008.

Firstly and most importantly, the recovery has been influenced by China. The Chinese authorities swiftly implemented a large monetary and fiscal stimulus starting in the last quarter of 2008 (through 2010) that exceeded the one introduced after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. The package helped boost government-led investment by nearly 6 percent of GDP in 2009, accounting for the bulk of the 8.7 percent growth in real GDP. The surge in investment, in turn, led to a sharp increase in imports for domestic use, notably from East Asia. This surge was most pronounced in the first half of 2009, when import demand among the advanced economies was contracting fast.  

Secondly, the other countries in developing East Asia also implemented timely fiscal stimulus packages, coupled with prompt and effective monetary easing. Even the low-income countries, notably Lao PDR and Cambodia, injected a discretionary fiscal stimulus of about 3 percent of GDP each in 2009, helping cushion the impact of the crisis on economic activity. 

Thirdly, the countries of developing East Asia entered the crisis in fundamentally solid economic health. Heeding the lessons of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, countries had reduced government debt and fiscal deficits, cut external debt and ensured robust balance of payments positions, boosted foreign exchange reserves, and substantially improved financial supervision. The region’s well-capitalized banks helped substantially limit financial contagion and the transmission of forces of the global recession and continued to lend through the crisis, albeit at a slower pace in most countries.   

Fourthly, and this is a factor common for most developing regions, is the rebound in advanced economies. Developed countries joined the rebound in the third quarter of 2009, and their contribution to regional exports began to outpace the contribution from China.   

Last but not least, there is the importance of remittances. Unlike other developing regions and in contrast to most projections from early 2009 that suggested large contractions, remittances to developing East Asia continued growing through the crisis. In the Philippines, for example, remittances grew about 6 percent in dollar terms in 2009, while forecasters earlier in the year worried about a contraction of 10-20 percent. And such better-than-projected performance appears to have been observed in other countries heavily dependent on remittances in the region, including many of the Pacific islands.


Ivailo Izvorski

Chief Economist, Europe and Central Asia region

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