BRICing it

For those unfamiliar with the acronym BRICs, it was coined by Jim O'Neill of Goldman Sachs to reflect his perception of the economic potential of Brazil, Russia, India and China; four very populous nations (nearly 3bn people in total; did you know that Brazil's population is a good 30% larger than Russia's now?) with apparently huge potential for growth in the coming years.

Last November, O'Neill reflected on the BRICs 10 years after coining the phrase and concluded that they had grown massively and there was still about the same growth amount to come in the next decade. His BRICs letter emphasised the strength of the BRICs economies against the (unarguable) poor performance of the Eurozone, and concluded that it would be full steam ahead for 2012-2021.

What I find remarkable about the article is how completely it ignores the elephant in the room, which is the political environment in Russia and China (and, to some extent, India) which seems to this humble correspondent a huge landmine underneath their economic growth. For Russia in particular, one has only to read the Streetwise Professor to see the horrific political landscape of Russia which acts as a huge disincentive to external and internal investment: why risk money in Russia when any upside will be devoured by politically connected "partners" and any downside owned by yourself? China may have embraced limited capitalism, but there's no mistaking the political totalitarianism behind it; witness Google's tussles with China and the impossibility of referring to the Tianamen Square Massacre via the Net in China.

Russia as an oil and gas source used to have Western Europe over a barrel: now that shale gas is going big in the UK, this isn't going to last. China thirsts for minerals and oil to feed its boom, but that boom is now a bubble and the longer you keep a bubble blowing, the louder the 'pop'. Who's going to bale out the Chinese local banks with huge but worthless retail and residential property portfolios? The USA is conducting a very successful stealth default-by-devaluation, and China is on the losing end.

I had high hopes for India, but it appears that the temptations of power are too great for the government and it wants to censor information to save the blushes of the powerful. There is no way this ends well for the Indian populace: once the precedent has been set, more and more censorship will be made to hide fraud, abuse of power and huge waste of public money. How can external investors have confidence that the sunlight of publicity will be allowed to shine if backroom deals are arranged to bilk them of their profits?

Of Brazil I know little; I'm naively hopeful that they can drive an economic revival and political liberty in South America, but it's early days.

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