Revolutionary Services

FILE - In this Friday Sept. 2, 2011, file photo, a freighter is docked at the container terminal at a port in Qingdao, in eas
FILE - In this Friday Sept. 2, 2011, file photo, a freighter is docked at the container terminal at a port in Qingdao, in east China's Shandong province. Cheap imports of goods from China have benefited American consumers and helped keep inflation down. But those imports have hurt American manufacturers, and many U.S.-based companies outsource production to China to cut costs, which has also caused U.S. job losses. One study estimated that between 2001 and 2010, 2.8 million U.S. jobs were lost or displaced to China, the world's second largest economy. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

Last May, in China, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy remarked:

"The global economy is being transformed at an unprecedented speed and at the heart of that transformation is the services economy. ... Services underpin every part of the production process, from research and development to design, engineering, financing, transportation, distribution and marketing. In short, without services, there would be little value-added and innovation."

This week's Economic Premise -- "Service with a Smile" -- by Ejaz Ghani, Arti Grover Goswami, and Homi Kharas gives us a snapshot of that revolution in its course. The authors reckon that in the last 30 years the contribution of services to GDP growth has been higher than industries in both developed and developing countries. On the jobs front, the net creation in services has compensated the destruction in both industry and agriculture (see this chart).

It is known that, after some income levels, services (tourism, health, education, and leisure-related activities) tend to rise as a proportion of households' consumption baskets. Furthermore, on the production side, in the wake of the wave of restructuring, downsizing and all that corporate jazz of the eighties, sources of enhancing competitiveness have been found in divesting and contracting out the provision of business, logistic and professional services once internalized by industrial firms. However, the deep transformation that new technologies of information and telecommunications have been bringing to a substantial range of services is yet to be widely realized.

As Ghani et al. note, until recently "services were considered as menial, low-skilled, and low-innovation," whereas now "the number of services that can be transported digitally is constantly expanding." Modern services constitute sophisticated key components of value chains in agriculture and industry. They can also themselves be unbundled and broken down into value chains just like physical goods. In this context, the authors show that productivity -- value-added per employee -- growth in services has substantially outpaced that in industry, again in both developed and developing countries.

Trade in services has accompanied the rising tide of global trade, going beyond commercial presence and the cross-border movement of service providers and consumers. Remarkable has been the growing cross-border trade, with the delivery of some services from the territory of one country into the territory of other country, something increasingly made possible by rapid global developments in technology, scalability, transportability, and tradability -- as we have already approached here.

Like Goswami et al., Ghani et al. make the case about services as a possible new channel for export-led growth by developing countries. Let me stress the relevance of services modernization even for developing countries that may not envisage becoming services-export platforms. If services are getting bigger as a share of GDPs and jobs, productivity increases in the former are fundamental for income growth and development. Furthermore, without those increases, the competitiveness of non-service activities in agriculture and industry in a country will suffer from rising wage costs and lower-quality inputs. It's therefore paradoxical that some countries have resorted to protection or incentives in favor of manufacturing, while not realizing that such efforts tend to be self-defeating if the domestic supply of services remains closed to provision from abroad or, in the case of non-tradable ones, non-competitive in its local production.

"Globalization of services is still in its infancy", says Ghani et al. Let infant, modern, and revolutionary services alike spill forth their economic rejuvenating potential.

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