September 27, 2006


The World's Most Competitive Countries (Paul Maidment, 09.27.06, Forbes)

Being a small European country with snow is conducive to economic growth. More correlation than causality, no doubt, but the three countries topping the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Report are Switzerland, Finland and Sweden--habitual winners all.

Denmark, Singapore, the U.S., Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K. round out the top ten. OK, forget the snow, size and location. Soundly run government, being business-friendly and plowing back money into innovation, education and public health are more of what really matter. [...]

Switzerland wins its No. 1 ranking (up from what would have been fourth last year on the new methodology) because of high scores for the quality of its institutions, efficient markets and high levels of technological innovation. The country has a well-developed infrastructure for scientific research, intellectual property protections are strong, and its companies spend generously on R&D. [...]

The U.S., which would have ranked at the top last year on the new methodology (although it was second on the old one), continues to score well for being business-friendly, having efficient markets, and for its world-class technology development. But the overall score was pulled down to sixth this year, by its budget and trade deficits. Any disorderly adjustment of such macroeconomic imbalances, the WEF warns, risks knocking the U.S. further down the ranks.

Nordic countries, with Finland (2nd), Sweden (3rd) and Denmark (4th) all among the top ten most competitive economies, have been running budget surpluses and have lower levels of public indebtedness, on average, than the rest of Europe. Prudent fiscal policies have let governments invest heavily in education, infrastructure and the maintenance of a broad array of social services.

Finland, Denmark and Iceland have the best institutions in the world (ranked 1, 2 and 3, respectively) and, together with Sweden and Norway, hold top ten ranks for health and primary education. Finland, Denmark and Sweden also occupy the top three positions for higher education and training.

A well-schooled workforce has helped Nordic companies become global powerhouses. Sixty-four companies from Nordic countries make the Forbes 2000 list of the world’s biggest public companies, such as Finland’s Nokia (nyse: NOK - news - people ), Denmark’s TDC Group, and Sweden’s LM Ericsson (nasdaq: ERICY - news - people ).

The top of the Growth Competitiveness Index rankings is remarkably stable, even allowing for the change in methodology. The Netherlands (up from 11th to ninth) pushed out Taiwan (eighth to 13th)--the only change in the top ten. Of the top 15, only one country, Israel, which scored highly on the education, technology and innovation criteria this year, would have been outside the top 20 last year. Good habits become self-reinforcing and self-rewarding.

But while the Nordic countries continued to fare well, Old Europe is another story. Its big economies appear to be losing their competitive edge, with Britain slipping one place to tenth, Germany falling two places to eighth, France down four places to 18th and Italy moving four places lower to 42nd.

Other losers included Russia (62nd, down from 53rd), where the private sector has serious misgivings about the independence of the judiciary and the administration of justice, the WEF says. Property rights are weak and getting weaker. Russia’s ranking in this indicator during the last two years has suffered a precipitous decline, from 88th in 2004 to 114th in 2006, among the worst in the world.

China fell from 48th to 54th. Buoyant growth coupled with low inflation, one of the highest savings rates and manageable levels of public debt meant the country scored well on macroeconomic measures. But the WEF sees the largely state-controlled banking sector as a structural weakness.

China also scored poorly on penetration rates for the latest technologies and secondary and tertiary school enrollment rates. By far the most worrisome development, the WEF says, is a marked drop in the quality of China's institutions, with poor scores across all 15 institutional indicators, and spanning both public and private institutions.

India moved up two places to 43 on the list. It scored well for innovation, use of technology and rates of technology transfer. But insufficient health services and education and poor infrastructure are limiting a more equitable distribution of the benefits of India’s high growth rates, the WEF finds. Meanwhile, the country’s public sector deficit is one of the highest in the world.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa dominate the bottom of the list. These are mostly places where official corruption is rife, the rule of law weak, and press freedoms and other civil liberties even weaker, while political unrest often deteriorates to the point of civil unrest or war. Capital that is the lifeblood of business does not linger in such places, assuming it has arrived in the first place.

There's something deliciously naive about a global "Competitiveness" ranking where demographic decline and the lack of a military aren't negatives. Even with that, the United States stands out again this year because it is so much bigger, diverse, and engaged in the world than its peers on the list, which are generally small, homogenous, Protestant and geographically isolated.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 27, 2006 1:35 PM

Isn't methodology routinely changed on these kind lists for the single reason to make sure the U.S. isn't always number one in everything?

Posted by: erp at September 27, 2006 1:54 PM

Look for them to add absence of hurricanes and tornadoes to further knock us down the list.

Posted by: Dreadnought at September 27, 2006 3:52 PM

China's debt is more "managable" than ours?

Who are they kidding?????

Posted by: Sandy P at September 27, 2006 4:27 PM

Sandy, certainly not us.

Posted by: erp at September 27, 2006 6:25 PM

Wasn't there a recent study that puts Sweden"s per capita income around that of Mississipi? Think I'll stay in the U.S.

Posted by: jdkelly at September 27, 2006 6:30 PM

China cooks its books and still falls. Perhaps not the "China Century" after all.

Posted by: Bob at September 27, 2006 7:07 PM

The United States incurs the drawbacks as well as the benefits of cultural diversity.

Bearers of various cultural traditions differ as to the importance they place on mere material wealth. We have among us those whose valuable contributions to our national character do not extend to things like puctuality, thrift and enterprise.

It is a commonplace that Swedish-Americans live better than Swedish Swedes. The principal may be repeated for every ethnic group, most of all for those which bring down our overall scores.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 27, 2006 8:28 PM


China's debt is "manageable" because they have the option of handling it the way Nestor Kirchner handled Argentina's.

What I want to know is why the Japanese keep building auto factories here. Says something about competitiveness, no?

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 27, 2006 11:52 PM

The full Forbes story seens to be straight up on the reason the U.S. is where it is in this ranking: "All indexes reflect their components. This year the WEF has changed its methodology to give more weight to human capital and social factors that weigh on business..."

Posted by: Endo Last at October 9, 2006 7:07 PM