Jim O'Neill Says Recession Will Buoy BRICs

China's February trade surplus plunges, industrial production falls to record lows, electricity consumption slows dramatically, millions flee Shenzhen and other cities in the east as factories close. These are just a few recent news items that have prompted client e-mails requesting my latest forecasts for the BRICs, the term we at Goldman Sachs coined back in 2001 to encapsulate the excitement about Brazil, Russia, India and China, the world's most promising emerging markets. What everyone wants to know is whether this is the end for what we called the BRIC "dream."

The simple answer is no. While I predicted a few years back that the BRIC economies would together be larger in dollar terms than the G7 by 2035, I now believe that this shift could happen much faster—by 2027. Take the gloomy prognostications for China, the biggest and most important of the BRICs. What the China doomsayers don't report is that through February retail sales growth rose by 15 percent. Consumer prices have fallen sharply, providing a big boost in real income. The government is stimulating demand through infrastructure spending, and Beijing has announced major plans to strengthen medical coverage, something that could eventually release a tremendous amount of pent-up Chinese savings. The Chinese A-share market, which fell more than 60 percent in 2008, hit bottom on Nov. 10. It's no coincidence that this was the day Beijing announced a stimulus package of 4 trillion yuan. Since then, Chinese stocks have rallied by more than 30 percent, outperforming U.S. stocks by close to 50 percent.

Who said decoupling was dead? The decoupling idea is that, because the BRICs rely increasingly on domestic demand, they can continue to boom even if their most important export market, the United States, slows dramatically. The idea came into disrepute last fall, when the U.S. market collapse started to spread to the BRICs, but there's now lots of evidence that decoupling is alive and well.

What many casual observers of our BRIC projections never realized is that we used extremely conservative assumptions about real GDP growth. Our forecasts assumed growth in China of just 5.8 percent from 2001 to 2050, including a slowdown to 5.2 percent from 2011 to 2050. Until recently, China had been growing at more than double this rate. Even now, the consensus for 2009 is 7 percent (we are below consensus at 6 percent), rising to more than 8 percent next year. For the period from 2011 to 2050, we project 2.8 percent growth in Russia, the BRIC that is suffering most from the global turmoil, and 6.2 percent growth in India, the BRIC with the most rapidly growing population.

This year the BRICs as a whole will grow only about 4 percent. But compare that with the truly bleak forecasts for the rest of the world. Our latest global GDP forecast for 2009 shows a decline of 1.1 percent. We forecast a decline for the U.S. of 3.2 percent; an even worse fall-off for the euro area, negative 3.6 percent; and for Japan, an astonishing decline of 6.1 percent. The good news is that things will get better. In 2010, we expect world growth to be near 3 percent, with China, stimulated by growing domestic demand, back at 9 percent, and India at 6.6 percent.

Within this overall picture, there is clear evidence of a major rebalancing, as BRIC shoppers account for an increasingly large share of global consumption. When we track retail shoppers from 2004 to 2008 (using data adjusted for inflation and the relative size of national economies), it becomes clear that European and Japanese shoppers were barely contributing anything to real consumption growth. American shoppers gradually contributed less up to 2007 before completely zipping up their wallets in 2008. BRIC shoppers slowly contributed more, and, importantly, their contribution continued to increase into 2008, despite the collapse of the U.S. shopper.

While many now say decoupling was a crazy idea, this evidence suggests very strongly that it was working in a big way. What confuses people is that because of the sheer dollar figures accounted for by the U.S. shopper, everyone's exports collapsed, and this meant lower GDP growth across the board.

Projecting forward over the next few years, we expect some slowdown in the BRICs' consumption because of Russia primarily, but their global contribution will continue to grow strongly, relative to the U.S. What the trend lines clearly show is the ascent of the BRIC consumer, and a continued trend toward economic decoupling.

At the heart of this shift in consumer power is China. Its total economy already equals that of the other three BRICs put together, and what happens to China is critical for the BRICs, and the world. With the authorities announcing plans to introduce medical insurance to 90 percent of the rural community by 2011, a huge infrastructure-spending program and a massive easing of monetary and financial conditions, the only debate in my mind is exactly when China will restore its growth rate back above 8 percent. When that happens, I suspect I'll be getting far fewer worried e-mails asking what our new BRIC projections look like!