FT.com / World / Americas – US economy threatens Dominican Republic
Trade based on comparative advantage… the theory originally articulated by Adam Smith, later fine-tuned by David Ricardo, the theory that suggests that if each nation specializes its economic activity on the products for which it faces the lowest opportunity cost, then trades with its neighbors, total world output and efficiency can be maximized: today this theory represents the philosophical underpinning of all free trade agreements signed between and among the nations of the world.
Through trade, countries can exchange their extra output with other nations for the goods specialized in by others, enabling all nations to enjoy a level of consumption beyond what they'd be able to achieve if they tried to produce all goods domestically.
For many developing countries, with their abundance of either land or labor, comparative advantages tend to lie in either agricultural goods or low-skilled manufactured goods. Since global prices for food are highly unstable and dependency on healthy harvests, good weather, and stable rainfall are all highly risky endeavors for a poor country, developing nations prefer to foster the growth of manufacturing sectors in their path towards economic development.
Strategies for economic growth available to developing nations include export-oriented and inward-oriented growth. A country like the Dominican Republic, the largest economy in the Caribbean, has pursued a predominantly export-oriented growth strategy, promoting through “free zones” the growth of a textile industry aimed at producing goods for consumers in developed countries, primarily the US.
To the Domincans, producing textiles for export to America has successfully given the people of this poor nation a grip on a rung of the ladder towards economic development. The import of capital has taken previously unproductive workers out of agriculture and put them into an industry where productivity, thus income, has risen, leading to improvements in living standards. Export-led growth, however, runs some serious risks of its own, as is being realized by the people of the Dominican Republic today.
It had been clear for some time that Luis Caraballo’s textile factory, in one of the Dominican Republic’s largest “free zones”, was struggling.
Finally, last December, he closed the factory gates for the last time: cut-throat competition from China and Vietnam, a weakening US dollar and unsustainable costs had become too much.
Once a hot destination for American companies looking for a cheap place to “off-shore” production of labor intensive textiles, the Dominican Republic today faces new competition, and is finding its comparative advantage slip slowly away from textiles…
The Dominican Republic depends heavily on the US, which is the destination of more than 85 per cent of exports. But textile exports – these days accounting for less than a third of total exports – fell by 32 per cent over 2007.
Although other countries in the Caribbean are also suffering from Asian competition – with Chinese textile exports to the US tripling between 2000 and 2005, while Vietnam’s multiplied almost 117 times – the Dominican Republic has been worst hit.
Here's the thing: a nation's comparative advantage may shift over time (from land to labor to capital intensive goods) as the structure of the global economy evolves. Once an economy like the Dominican Republic's has undergone a period of structural adjustment, away from agriculture and towards industry, the flow of low wage workers from farm to factory begins to slow to a trickle, leading to rising wages and increased competition from countries with more abundant supplies of cheap labor.
The challenge for policy makers is to manage the structural changes as they come, minimizing the deleterious impact such global shifts of productive resources has on the citizens of a country like the D.R. Clearly, it is in the country's interest to prepare its citizens for a “new economy”, one in which skilled labor will play a larger role. The problem is, this requires a solid education system, which the D.R., it turns out, does not yet have:
There is widespread acceptance of the need to develop a better-educated workforce, but so far education spending has been inadequate.
“The government simply doesn’t have enough resources,” said Mr Montás. About 40 per cent of its budget goes on debt obligations and another 15 per cent is dished out through subsidies. Just 1.5 per cent goes towards education.
It also turns out that this is a balance of payments story:
Mr Montás calculated that for every percentage point the US economy contracted, the Dominican Republic’s GDP would shrink by 0.4 per cent.
Not only will exporters be hit, but also the huge tourism sector and remittance flows…
One possible result of the decline in exports and flows of remittances from the US will be a depreciation of the D.R. peso, as demand for pesos by Americans falls. A weaker peso might make the country's exports attractive once again, assuming the exchange rate is allowed to adjust on foreign exchange markets. A weaker peso should help slow the decline in the D.R.'s exports to the US, at least until new competition emerges, perhaps elsewhere in Asia, maybe even from Africa or other Latin American countries.
In all likelihood, given the increased competition from Asian textile manufacturers, continued economic growth in the Dominican Republic will depend on the country's ability to educate and train its workforce to adapt to a more capital, technology and information-based economy, which, if successful, will eventually lead to rising incomes and higher standards of living for the people of the this rising Caribbean nation.
Comparative advantages evolve with the emergence of new competition among developing and developed countries. The negative impacts this evolution has on a particular economy can be managed if wise policy actions are taken to assure a country's workforce is educated and trained to participate in tomorrow's economy, rather than yesterday's or today's.