Taking Vietnam’s Economy to the Next Level
To continue GDP growth trajectory, the country should work to raise its labor productivity.
February 2012 | by Ronald Hayes
During the past quarter century, Vietnam has emerged as one of Asia’s great success stories. In a nation once ravaged by war, the economy has posted annual per capita growth of 5.3 percent since 1986—faster than any other Asian economy apart from China. Vietnam has benefited from a program of internal restructuring, a transition from the agricultural base toward manufacturing and services, and a demographic dividend powered by a youthful population. The country has also prospered since joining the World Trade Organization, in 2007, normalizing trade relations with the United States and ensuring that the economy is consistently ranked as one of Asia’s most attractive destinations for foreign investors.
The Challenges Facing Vietnam
In the near term, Vietnam must cope with a highly uncertain global environment. The economy faces a state of heightened risk because of macroeconomic pressures, including inflation that has built up as a by-product of the government’s efforts to maintain robust growth despite the global economic crisis. In early 2009, Vietnam’s global trade and foreign direct investment declined dramatically, and while exports have recovered, the future of these two sources of economic activity is quite uncertain. The slow recovery of the United States and Europe, together with the nuclear disaster in Japan, has created additional near-term uncertainty. In response to the global economic downturn, the Vietnamese government relied on expansive macroeconomic policies that have led not only to inflationary pressures but also to budget and trade deficits and unstable exchange rates. Some signs suggest that the financial sector is under stress, and international credit-ratings agencies have lowered their ratings on Vietnam’s debt.
In the longer term, Vietnam has a larger challenge. Since the key drivers that powered its robust growth in the past—a young, growing labor force and the transition from agriculture to manufacturing and services—are beginning to run out of steam, Vietnam now needs new sources of growth to replace them. The demographic tailwind responsible for driving a third of Vietnam’s past growth is slackening. Some companies already report labor shortages in major cities. By 2020, the share of the population aged 5 to 19 is projected to drop to 22 percent, from 27 percent in 2010 and 34 percent in 1999. Although Vietnam’s median age, 27.4 years, is still relatively young compared with that of countries such as China (35.2), its population is also aging.
According to government projections, Vietnam’s labor force is likely to grow by about 0.6 percent a year over the next decade, a decline of more than three-quarters from the annual growth of 2.8 percent from 2000 to 2010. Growth in the labor force will still make a positive contribution to GDP, but notably less than it did in the past decade. Vietnam’s growth has also been propelled by extraordinarily rapid migration from rural areas to towns—from relatively low-productivity agriculture to the relatively higher-productivity services and manufacturing sectors. Economic restructuring is unlikely to continue so quickly. Indeed, even aggressive assumptions on the pace of the transition away from agriculture would not compensate for the effects of the decline in overall labor force growth. Without an improvement in productivity growth patterns within sectors, agriculture’s share of the labor force would need to decline at twice the rate of the past decade—unlikely given the aging of rural areas and the decline of agriculture’s share of the total population, by 13 percentage points, over the past ten years.
Vietnam should identify sources of growth to replace those now becoming exhausted. Manufacturing and service industries ought to step up their productivity growth performance. Vietnam could also further develop the capabilities across all sectors, become increasingly versatile as an environment in which companies can constantly innovate and build on recent successes. Offshore services such as data, business-process outsourcing, and IT appear to be promising areas. Vietnam can establish an enabling environment at the level of individual industries and sectors by enhancing domestic competition and helping industries move up the value chain. Building on its expanded pool of university graduates, Vietnam has the potential to become one of the top ten locations in the world for offshore services. Because state-owned enterprises still have enormous importance, accounting for about 40 percent of the nation’s output, reform of their ownership and management incentives is likely to be crucial, as will the need to improve their overall capital efficiency.
As we have seen, to achieve GDP growth of about 7 percent a year, Vietnam needs to raise annual productivity growth to 6.4 percent. Without such an increase, we estimate, the glide path for Vietnam’s growth would decline to between 4.5 and 5 percent annually, significantly below the 7 percent more typical in recent years and the government’s own target, set at the 11th National Party Congress in January 2011, of 7 to 8 percent annual GDP growth to 2020. If growth indeed slows to 4.5 to 5 percent a year, the implications would be significant. By 2020, Vietnam’s annual GDP would be 30 percent (some $46 billion) lower than it could be with 7 percent annual growth. Assuming no shift in the structure of the economy as a whole, we estimate that private consumption would be $31 billion lower. Vietnam’s economy would take 14—rather than 10—years to double in size.