Bullocks! That is the conclusion that came to me when I participated in the roundtable conference on services and economic development in Tokyo last month. This conference was organized by the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) and discussed with experts the positive role of services in the world economy.
It’s high time for this discussion. In recent years there has been a slight backlash against services as a contributing factor to the economy, particularly for developing countries. One reason for this set-back against services stems from a recent article by Dani Rodrik in which he drives the point that many developing countries are de-industrializing faster than before and therefore moving into services too quickly.
This premature de-industrialization, he argues, prevents them from using the manufacturing sector as a tool for rapid economic growth. According to Rodrik, in large part this is due to globalization and trade itself because globalization has produced changes in relative prices in advanced countries. This can have serious negative consequences for developing countries’ growth potential because, in the future, they would be much less able to capitalize on manufacturing exports.
There are, however, a couple of remarks that in my view must be made here.
First, these conclusions are most probably based on aggregate figures between countries’ services and manufacturing activities, which in great part mask the fact that many manufacturing sectors have already become “servicified” to a high degree. This means that a lot of gains by manufacturing firms are earned though services, not manufacturing. For instance, is Zara a garment manufacturer nowadays or just a retailer? Most probably it comes close to the latter. Such servicification is not yet picked up and properly classified in aggregate figures – and this is true also for developing countries.
Second, there are surely economic meaningful sectors in a country’s services economy. The old way to look at services is that they don’t show a great economic role as they are not receptive to productivity improvements. That assertion seems to be out of date. Even though productivity for services is hard to measure, European micro-level data suggest that productivity varies hugely across services, and therefore their contribution to the overall economy is also varied. (see figure below). This should also be the case for non-developed economies.
Source: Data taken from Van der Marel, Kren and Iootty (2015) "Services in the European Union: What Kinds of Regulatory Policies Enhance Productivity?", World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 7919, World Bank, Washington DC.