America sneezes and the world is germ-free

As the dust settles after the Great Depression That Never Was, the worldwide financial crisis is starting to look less like the seismic historical transformation so widely expected. With every week that passes, President Sarkozy's predictions about the death of Anglo-Saxon capitalism sound more premature, while ahistorical comparisons with the end of communism in 1989 seem ever sillier.

And yet it is clear that some permanent changes in the global balance of power really are occurring, as I saw this month while visiting Brazil and South Africa, two large economies hard hit by the crisis in statistical terms, but seemingly more emboldened by the experience than depressed.

Official data show both countries to have suffered serious recessions - in South Africa's case, for the first time in the post-apartheid era. And in the depth point of the crisis before Christmas, their currencies, the rand and real, were both falling so steeply that there were genuine worries about a total financial collapse. By early May, however, both currencies had bounced back to their pre-Lehman levels, business confidence was returning and consumers were again thronging the vast malls that have sprouted like tropical weeds in the ever-expanding suburbs of São Paulo and Johannesburg.

The remarkable resilience of these economies and the confidence of their business communities, their media and their financial markets, in contrast to the apocalyptic gloom in Britain, Europe and America, highlight the three transformations that this crisis has brought to light.

The first and most obvious is the rise of the middle class in developing countries and its emergence as the main engine of global growth in the decades ahead. Even if the US and other rich economies recover more rapidly than expected from the recession, it is clear that almost all of the global growth in consumer spending and industrial investment is going to occur in what used to be called the Third World and is now described, more appropriately, as the emerging markets.

According to IMF calculations, emerging economies will account for 100 per cent of the growth in world output in the three-year period 2008-10. And even assuming that the US and European economies return to their long-term growth paths from 2011 onwards, the IMF expects emerging markets to account for 70 per cent of global growth for the following five years.

The second, closely related, transformation is the newfound ability of emerging economies to determine their own destinies, regardless of the success or failure of US or European economic policies. Two years ago, when the credit crunch had just started, there was much discussion in the economic commentariat about the possibility that emerging economies could decouple from the problems that seemed to be emanating from the US and British financial markets.

While the emerging economies have not been able to insulate themselves completely from the global crisis, they have finally disproved the cliché that when America sneezes, the world catches pneumonia. They have been able to do this for a variety of reasons, all ultimately related to the growth of consumer societies within the developing world.

Commodity-producing countries such as Brazil and South Africa have obviously benefited from China's overtaking of the US and Europe as the world's main consumer of raw materials. As long as the Chinese economy keeps growing, Brazil is assured of demand for its iron ore and soya, South Africa for its platinum and coal. Thus the success of the huge fiscal stimulus package announced by the Chinese Government in December has turned out to be much more important for these countries than similar measures in the US or EU.

Even more important than the growth of trade with China is that many of the emerging economies, including Brazil and South Africa, have had the financial resources to implement their own independent stimulus packages.

South Africa, for example, is one vast building site today in preparation for next year's football World Cup. Despite the economic crisis, the Government has been able to continue financing the construction of new roads and public transport networks, as well as sports grounds - and now President Zuma plans to increase substantially the public investment in housing as well.

In Brazil the Government has also responded to the financial crisis by trying to revive growth with big programmes of public spending and tax cuts. And financial markets, which might in the past have panicked in reaction to such Keynesian policies in developing countries, have been supportive. Instead of triggering a capital flight, stimulus policies have attracted global investors to their bonds.

Why has this happened? Partly because the financial management of most emerging economies outside Eastern Europe has generally been competent and prudent. But mainly because these countries have begun to demonstrate the capacity for self-sustaining growth based not just on exporting raw materials or consumer goods to America and Europe, but also on domestic investment and consumer demand.

In the long term it is only such self-sustaining domestic growth that can generate the tax revenues needed to pay foreign creditors and maintain a stable financial system. And as global investors have come to understand this, they have rewarded countries whose economies are driven mainly by domestic consumption and investment, rather than export growth.

The first two trends also suggest a third change, which the financial crisis could encourage: political transformation. If emerging economies are going to turn themselves into consumer societies (organised around the needs and desires of their own citizens) rather than producer societies (dedicated to churning out the maximum physical output for the lowest possible price), they are likely to experience profound political and social change. Not only will they need to encourage the growth of a relatively prosperous middle class, but, in order to sustain consumer demand, wages will have to rise rapidly for manual and even agricultural workers, as they did in the 1940s in America and Europe.

Moreover, development of thriving service sectors will mean greater choice and individualism, challenging autocratic political structures in one-party states. This has been the story of South Africa and Brazil in the past decade and they seem to have made the transition successfully to pluralistic, liberal free-market democracies.

Whether China ever manages a similar transition is, of course, the great historical question of the 21st century. But if it forces China to direct economic development towards the needs of its own citizens, rather than the tastes of US consumers, the financial crisis is likely to accelerate China's evolution into a pluralistic market economy, rather than slowing it down.

Anatole Kaletsky