Wednesday, November 12, 2008

WT - No ?

It's going on two years for WTO accession in Vietnam, and as a marginal market participant in this country, I'm not convinced that it is, or will be, a good thing for Vietnam going forward.

The WTO meant that Vietnam put itself on the path of competing with the world economically within its own borders, by agreeing to a set of schedules that placed timeframes on this Socialist government dismantling its trade protections.

The January 2007 accession means that the clock started to count down then, and now there are but a few years left till full implementation of the schedules.

In particular, the banking and financial industries thought it had a few years to gird itself from the expected foreign invasion, and in '06 and '07 it was trying.  But with the world markets crashing, and the resultant domestic crash, '08 was pretty much a lost year for the domestic players - if they were lucky enough not to implode, that is.

A lost year may be fine and good if you have time on your side, but the WTO clock was not paused.  Uh-oh.

There is a line of heterdoxy economics, such as Ha-Joon Chang's work "Kicking Away The Ladder," that argues the neo-lib free trade / WTO / IMF train of thought is designed not to help developing countries, you know, develop, but rather it removes the ladder towards success.

I haven't read Prof. Chang's book yet (waiting to hit my local library to borrow it.. gotta make use of those tax dollars!), but this article provides a short synopsis of his thesis.

As part of Prof. Chang's argument, he notes that places like South Korea and Taiwan have bridged the chasm between the developing and developed world within the past 30 years because of government protectionist and interventionist policies.

Will Vietnam ever become the next South Korea?  I have serious doubts.

Besides exploiting its resources (oil, mineral, land for agri- and aquaculture), and its human resources (low wage labor), what the heck is this country good in? In what industries can it become world class?

South Korea is strong in shipping/logistics, pharma, engineering and construction, consumer electronics, and autos, among others.  Most, if not all, were the results of government efforts - putting tax payer resources behind the industries as well as protectionist walls during the gestational stages.  The government helped to create the chaebols that now run Korea.   Sure, concentrated power is not ideal and the corruption in SK is kinda wild, but Korea is owned mostly be Koreans.

I fear that Vietnam was over eager to show the world that it is on its way forward, and in ghetto fab style, joined the WTO before it was ready.  Outside of the resources story, there is nothing that it does well.  And resources dwindle.

This is not to say there won't be successful companies that break out of its borders and become regional or even international players.  But the more you look, the more you see multinationals coming into Vietnam, to buy up and own things, to take over and dominate the local markets.  Colonialism without the bullets.

Here's an interesting piece from the Guardian in 2005 contrasting Mexico with Vietnam, titled "Two countries, one booming, one struggling: which one followed the free-trade route?"

How would an update of that piece read today?  And how would it read five years from now?

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