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Friday, December 21, 2007

Thailand's Demographic Window of Opportunity

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

This post is really a supplement to Claus's post Thailand at the Crossroads, and a complement to Manuel's election coverage. Now Claus points out that Thailand is in the middle of its ongoing Demographic Transition, and at the high point of that favourable moment when what has become known to economists as the Demographic Dividend process is at its height.

The demographic transition is - in simple language - a movement upwards in population median ages. Societies (one after another) move steadily from being high fertility, low life expectancy, low median age ones (think Niger, or Mali, or Uganda right now), to low fertility, high life expectancy, high median age ones (think Germany, Japan and Italy) in a more or less steady and ongoing fashion. We know of course what the starting point of this transition is (the above mentioned high fertility societies have a median age in the 17/18 range) but we don't know where the end point is, since while Germany, Japan and Italy currently have a median age of 43 things clearly are not set to stop at this point, and we won't really know what the ceiling is in this process till we reach it. So on this count we have to watch and wait. But observing the evolution of these three "elderly" societies we can identify some of the processes which are at work as population median ages rise, so while we are waiting for the final readout there is still plenty of work to be done - in terms of policy measures to be adopted - in the meantime. Thailand is one of those fortunate countries who, having arrived on the developing economy scene rather later than others, can learn somewhat from those who have gone before. If she is ready willing and able to listen that is.

Median Ages

Now Claus and I do put quite a lot of store by the median age reading of a society, and we do this for all sorts of reasons. Basically median ages serve as a very convenient proxy for all kinds of economically important phenomena like saving and borrowing, fixed capital formation, construction activity and export dependence, productivity, and ultimately labour and consumer supply.

The movement up through the various median age levels involves a constant change in population structure, and at one point these changes are very favourable to economic development. These positive changes provide the background to what is known as the demographic dividend process. At the end of the day the transition from being a very low median age to being a very high one involves a shift in the dependent population, from having a very high proportion of young dependent population to having a very high proportion of elderly dependent. In the middle lie the most favourable years, which come in two stages. In the first stage there is simply an increase in the volume of people available for the transition to work in an expanding market economy. This could be thought of as the accumulation of inputs phase - during which time, as we can see in the chart below, the rate of population inctrease continues to be large - and at this point a societies ability to incorporate ever more people into relatively low-value economic activities at a rapid rate produces a growth spurt - like the one we are seeing now in many of the emerging economies. This is why, for example, Thailand can easily contemplate annual growth rates of 7 or 8 percent at this point without setting off the inflation alarms, something which, unfortunately, is not possible in Eastern Europe.

But the dividend doesn't end just when the steady downward movement in fertility starts to make itself felt by reducing the inflow of young workers at the labour market entry point, since there is a second dividend phase were the accumulation of quantity is followed by the accumulation of quality, and this is made possible by the steadily growing share of workers in the 25 to 50 age group, and by the rising human capital quality of the new young labour market entrants. This is when you could expect a productivity driven "TFP revolution" and a steady shift through the value sectors towards the more productive and higher value ones.

Of course there is nothing automatic about any of this, demography just provides an environment, then it is down to policy to benefit from or fritter the potential which exists.

Thailand at this precise point in time is, as Claus indicates, at the crossroads. Labour supply means it is possible to obtain quite strong GDP growth simply by increasing employment, without necessarily achieving large scale productivity gains. But Thailand now needs to move on to the second stage, and rapidly so, since the low fertility environment means that this flow of labour is steadily going to dry up (of course migration from Malaysia and Myanmar can help offset this to some extent) and that growth will now need to become more productivity "intensive" if living standards are to continue to rise.

Why is this such an important moment. Well let's look at Thailand's median age.

As we can see, Thailand's median age has been rising quite rapidly since 1990. It is now in the early 30s - which is definitely a very favourable point - but by 2020 (according to the UN median forecast) it can have risen to 37. And this estimate is very likely rather conservative, since it anticipates a rebound in fertility from the current, below replacement level, of 1.6 TFR.

This forecast may well be overly optimistic when you think of what has happened in other developed Asian societies like Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, where fertility has fallen to the 1.2-1.3 range (and of China, where things may well be heading rapidly in this direction). Increasing education among women and rising living standards may well lead to increasing birth postponement (women having children at later ages) and we already have extensive evidence of the impact of this process on the TFR readout over extended periods of time.

Also life expectancy has been rising, and may well continue to rise more rapidly than the median forecast anticipates.

What all of this means is that if the upside risk to the Thai median age forecast turns out to be the case, then Thai median age could easily be brushing up against the watershed median age of 40 by the time we get to 2020. This age is important, since it seems to mark the frontier between an internal consumption driven society to an export dependent one. If Thailand hasn't made the leap from being a developing to a developed economy by this point her future could become very complicated. So the years to come are critical, which is why we are speaking of "crossroads".

Nowhere is this situation clearer than in the evolution of the 15 to 19 age group (see chart below). Thailand has a "loval peak" in this population around 2012. So during the next few years there will be a growing number of young people entering the labour market. So this is a very good time to get the labour intensive part of the development operation done. Post 2012 Thailand can move progressively towards greater dependence on productivity and TFP (if all goes well that is).

Fortunately, as I indicate in this post on India here, the global environment is likely to be very favourable. In addition Thailand's more recent and measured entry into the low fertility club (unlike, for example, Eastern Europe) means that she is capable (as Claus noted) to run quite rapid growth rates without hitting the solid wall of substantial wage inflation. So she has the wind behind her. Much more than she did in 1998. If we just briefly look at the chart for gross fixed capital formation for a moment.

Now it is very easy to see the massive distortion in investment which took place during the boom of the mid 1990s, how the correction was more or less inevitable, and how Thai Gross Fixed Capital Formation is now on a much lower and more sustainable level. So to some extent the "correction" worked. Also it should be noted that in the mid 1990s Thai median age was somewhere in the mid 20s (like Venezuela, or Ecuador right now, and these are hardly shining examples of political and economic stability). So Thailand was the victim of the Asian financial markets telling themselves the wrong story. Ideas and perpsectives do matter, since they serve to orient behaviour and expectations (those famous compasses and charts that Claus goes on about). Our apparent obsession with median ages isn't simply an obsession, and it isn't all rigmarole and obfuscation, it is part of a search for the "grail" of growth theory, then underlying mechanism.

Finally, just to illustrate what we are talking about, I present my habitual "exhibit A", Thailands population pyramids. These show the age structure transition which is taking place before our eyes clearly enough I think.

OK, that's it. Have a nice xmas everyone, and good luck Thailand, you will need it.

Bibliographic References

Here are some links to economic literature on the demographic dividend.

The Economics of Demographics, special issue of the IMF's Finance and Development Magazine, September 2006.

Especially Booms Busts and Echoes, by David E. Bloom and David Canning

Bloom, David E., and David Canning, 2004, "Global Demographic Change: Dimensions and Economic Significance," in Global Demographic Change: Economic Impacts and Policy Challenges, proceedings of a symposium, sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, August 26–28, pp. 9–56.

Lee, Ronald, 2003, "The Demographic Transition: Three Centuries of Fundamental Change," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 17 (Fall), pp. 167–90.

National Research Council, 1986, Population Growth and Economic Development: Policy Questions (Washington: National Academies Press).

Bloom, David E., David Canning, and Bryan Graham, 2003, "Longevity and Life-Cycle Savings," Scandinavian Journal of Economics 105, pp. 319–38.

Bloom, David E., David Canning, and Pia Malaney, 2000, "Demographic Change and Economic Growth in Asia," Population and Development Review, 26, pp. 257–90

Bloom, David E., David Canning, and Jaypee Sevilla, 2002, The Demographic Dividend: A New Perspective on the Economic Consequences of Population Change (Santa Monica, California: RAND).

Bloom, David E., and Jeffrey G. Williamson, 1998, "Demographic Transitions and Economic Miracles in Emerging Asia," World Bank Economic Review, 12, pp. 419–56.

Mason, Andrew, 2001, Population Change and Economic Development in East Asia: Challenges Met, Opportunities Seized (California: Stanford University Press).

Mason, Andrew, 2005, Demographic Dividends: The Past, the Present, and the Future, Working Paper, Department of Economics, Population Studies Program, University of Hawaii at Manoa

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