Lara Hoffmans
The Global View

We're Number Eight!

By, 02/08/2010

America may still be the land of the brave, but if you are looking for the free, you want to set your sights a few latitudes higher. Yes, Canada is officially (according to the Heritage Foundation) more "free" than the US. Likely, it's tied intimately to their superiority in curling. No other explanation.

Folks enjoy ruminating on a dystopic future when America is no longer "number one" (and not just George Soros). Yes, America is a leading economic superpower (thanks to our size) and the military superpower (thanks to winning the Cold War and also no one else wanting the job). But number one? We haven't been number one in a long time.  

Our per capita GDP isn't number one—we're 13th. Our $47,440 is simply clocked by Luxembourg's $113,044. After that, it's Norway, Qatar, Switzerland, Denmark, Ireland, UAE, Iceland, Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Austria, then us losers.* How ignoble. (Mind you, that's based on 2008 data, and 2009 might have changed things up, most notably for Iceland and Ireland.)

We're not the most free. Hong Kong is. We're eighth. To be fair, being in the top 10 with fellow freedom lovers Singapore, Australia, the UK and yes, Canada, isn't bad company. And there's a lot of volatility in these rankings, but we haven't a prayer of ever displacing Hong Kong, thanks to their super low tax rates and zero tariffs.** (But, if our politicians are game to try, I will support them in implementing a radically lower flat tax.)

We aren't the fastest growing and haven't been in decades. Not in a single year. Most recently, we've been clocked by emerging markets—and that's not likely to change soon. On average, we tend to have higher average growth over long periods than other developed nations, like Germany and France. Then again, Germany's 23rd on the Freedom Index—"mostly free." France is "moderately free" at number 64 (outclassed by Slovenia, Malaysia, and Colombia).

We are the largest single economy—by far—24% of the world—tripling the size of nearest competitor Japan.*** That's by dint of there being so darn many of us, and though we aren't as über-productive as Luxembourgers, we do ok. Note, however, China's close to overtaking Japan and, at their current growth rate, could rival our size in just 12 years. 

Where we are decidedly number one is the size of our capital markets—42% of the world—nearly five times the size of closest rivals UK and Japan. China is just 2.3%. If you're going to care about being number one in something, this is it. Our capital markets are huge, but also incredibly deep and diverse—unmatched globally. Free enterprise thrives here because America is the land of the nearly free—which helps. But we also have an unmatched culture of innovation and opportunity. Not just for mind-blowing high-tech innovations, but also for the perfectly stupid and mundane. (I don't want to live in a country where someone can't easily create, market, and sell a blanket with sleeves.) 

We are also, now, mostly a service economy. (Though, another area we're number one in is manufacturing. Our manufacturing sector is as large as the entirety of the German economy, and larger than India and Russia, combined. People mourning "the death of US manufacturing" must have a funny way of defining death.) One way of looking at that is the value of our ideas can be more important to firm earnings than the value of excess steel rod inventory. That's a powerful position to be in. Because ideas can constantly evolve, but that steel rod inventory will always be leftover bits of steel. (No offense to the steel. The steel is of course very important, since the US is the world's number one manufacturing powerhouse.)

But all this fretting who's number 1, number 13, or number 64 (Ha ha! France) is immaterial. Personally, I think the US is tops. No place else I'd want to live. Maybe not California. But anywhere else! For now, set aside the silly fear of other people becoming prosperous. Other prosperous people buy our stuff—whether it's steel, corn, software, consulting services, or debt. And they provide competition to goad us to be still more innovative. That's nice. Not scary. And, other prosperous people innovate more efficient ways to make things we want more cheaply.

But when it comes to investing, it doesn't matter. America may lead or lag. Japan may lead or lag. Luxembourg may lead or lag. If being "number one" were a vital investing concern, we'd all invest in Luxembourg and call it a day. But leadership cycles in and out of favor. Over the very long run, there's no inherent reason why one region should have materially better or worse returns, no matter how much more awesome one nation is. (Face it. We have Chuck Norris. They don't.)

* International Monetary Fund

** The 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, Heritage Foundation

***International Monetary Fund



*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.


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