Gibraltar: BRIC & Back

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have eclectic tastes when it comes to travel. It has always been a passion of mine, and stems from the encouragement given by my parents back to when I was in short trousers. No matter how hard the times – and we're going back to the early 1970's here – a holiday was always on the agenda.

It might have been a camping trip in Brittany, just 30 miles from our home in Jersey, but it was abroad. We were taken everywhere and encouraged to speak the language, eat the food and interact with the locals. No namby-pambiness allowed in our household. You want to try an oyster? There's a franc, go and ask the fisherman on the slipway. Imagine being allowed to do that now! Nevertheless, the training served me well and all these years later I have visited over 100 countries in total.

So in order to celebrate the significant birthday that has just befallen me, we were fortunate enough to spend a week in one of the most exciting, vibrant (and exhausting!) cities in the world – Hong Kong. It wasn't my first visit but I saw more of the place this time than ever before and we met several friends who now live and work there. One of them goaded me. "So you're planning to stay in Gibraltar, then, are you?" he said. "Are you sure Europe is really for you? I mean the old world's finished really isn't it? This is where you want to be. It's all about BRIC countries now, well BRICS actually".

The last point got me thinking. Europe is on its knees – and I imagine will be so for some considerable time. But are people in the so-called BRIC countries really so much better off than we are here in Europe? Are they so economically superior that we should all simply up sticks and emigrate. To borrow The Sun newspaper's famous headline from Election Day 1992, "will the last person to leave please turn out the lights".

Let's pause for a moment to consider what BRIC (or BRICS) stands for and why the four countries concerned are grouped together in this way? It was the economist Jim O'Neill, chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, who originally coined the term BRIC in 2001. Standing for Brazil, Russia, India and China, the acronym is used to describe the shift in global power and influence away from the old world economies – chiefly the G7 countries – toward the developing world. Some economists estimate that BRIC as a group will overtake G7 in less than 15 years. So what is that final capital "S" all about?

I should say at this point that my Hong Kong-based friend was born in Jo'burg so perhaps it should not come as too much of a surprise that the "S" stands for South Africa. Economists at a Reuters' summit two years ago decided against BRICS – Jim O'Neill himself said South Africa's economy was simply not large enough to be included – but, despite this, the political association formed by the four BRIC countries in 2008 invited South Africa to join them in 2010. So BRICS does now exist as a real body representing almost three billion people (some 40% of the world's population) and 25% of the world's land surface. But let's return to the original four BRIC nations.

The idea then is that these massive economies are showing the Old World the way forward, right? Well maybe – but surprisingly perhaps, it's not all unadulterated good news. Despite the undoubted influence that BRIC now exerts over the rest of the world, all four countries rely on exports and these have been falling due to the their exposure to markets in the "Old World", the eurozone in particular. Put simply, we are no longer buying as many of their goods. For example some 30% of total BRIC exports are to EU countries; in the case of Russia (which relies heavily on fuel exports) this figure is closer to 50%. Clearly then the on-going European financial crisis continues to exert a negative effect on these BRIC countries and indeed elsewhere.

At the same time, the BRIC countries are experiencing a reduction in domestic demand that is in large measure due to stubbornly high inflation rates. When combined with rising interest rates, it is not surprising that their economies have slowed as a result. In order to stimulate demand, interest rates have been cut in Brazil and more recently in China. The hope is that this should translate into healthier domestic figures during the second half of 2012 and into next year.

The stark contrast between the "Old" and "New" worlds is perhaps best illustrated in terms of my favourite statistic – Gross Domestic Product or GDP. Regular readers may recall that GDP is defined as the market value of goods and services produced in a country over any given period. Normally expressed quarterly as a percentage increase on the previous three months' numbers, a positive figure indicates a country's growth rate whilst a negative figure indicates a decline. Two successive quarters of negative numbers is deemed to be a recession. This is the unfortunate position in which the UK and several other European countries now find themselves and, of course, a shrinking economy makes it even harder to turn things around again.

Contrast the gloomy European position with that in the BRIC states. Leading business commentators focussed on the fall in the Chinese growth rate for the first quarter of this year. At 8.1% it was the slowest growth rate in three years. In India, which posted a "mere" 5.3%, one has to go back to 2003 to find such a "low" growth rate. Although not of the same magnitude, strong positive growth rates of 5% and 3.5% are also forecast for 2012 in Russia and Brazil, so one can understand why inflation – always the scourge of booming economies – is such a real concern.

So let us return to my South African friend's advice that I should be moving to live somewhere in the BRIC(S) bloc. As I have written many times previously, although Gibraltar has been able to insulate itself from the worst effects of the crisis the economic outlook is not exactly rosy in our region – and no doubt there is more pain to come. So as I returned home to Gibraltar from the other side of the globe was I tempted to head straight back?

Perhaps, if I were 20 years younger, I mused. But then as I stared up at our Rock of Gibraltar , I knew immediately where I'd prefer to be. BRIC or even BRICS might represent the new exciting global financial order but I am a passionate supporter of Gibraltar so give me my little corner of the Mediterranean anytime.

None of this is meant to minimise Europe's problems but it's disingenuous to write the continent off entirely. We can't all live in new uber cool cities such as Hong Kong, – or come to that Shanghai, Delhi, Sao Paulo or Moscow – although many of my colleagues at Sovereign choose to do so and it's often part of my job to persuade – or encourage – yet another to make such a move. Of course, BRIC countries are great to visit (and I have been to them all) but the Rock, and all it has to offer, suits me very well indeed, thank you very much. Not everyone has such a choice of course but I know many people living in this region who think as I do and wouldn't change it for the world – no matter how much greener the grass might seem to be.

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