Sunday, July 1, 2012

NEPAL: Product space, export sophistication and structural transformation

Here is a combo of interesting figures that shows the evolution of merchandise export sophistication (or production sophistication) of Nepal since 1970. Overall, it shows that there has been little enhancement in the sophistication of Nepali exports or production. It is clearly seen in the product spaces, which are the network showing global similarities in production knowhow required by products. The nodes represent products, which are colored according to the color legend of the product communities they are in. The node size is proportional to global trade in that product and the links connect products that tend to be exported by the same countries.

The black square dots indicates that those products are exported with comparative advantage (RCA>1). Nepal’s export is concentrated in low value products, mainly textiles and garments. The USA’s export is concentrated in high value products, which require more advanced capabilities, such as machinery, chemical, health and electronic products. Though India’s export is slowly moving and diversifying to the core of the product space, i.e. high value products, it is also producing textiles and garments and other low value products with comparative advantage (also more competitively than Nepal).

It is argued that the assets and capabilities needed to produce a good are imperfect substitutes for those needed to produce another good “but their degree of asset specificity will vary” (Hausmann & Klinger, 2007). The probability that a country makes a new product is strongly related to the proximity of the product with other products the country already makes. It means that a country’s capability to produce one good is somehow tied with the installed capability in the production of other similar goods, i.e. “nearby goods”. Bailey Klinger provides an interesting metaphor: “products are like trees and firms are like monkeys.” Structural transformation involves the movement of monkeys from the poor part to rich part of the forest. It is easier for monkeys (firms) to jump short distance (i.e. to change products that use similar pre-existing factors).

The level of sophistication of exports determines the income level of a country and its growth rate. Importantly, the level of economic complexity indicates the nature of future economic growth and the ability to produce new goods and move from low-value added to high value-added goods. Sophistication comes from either increasing the quality of currently produced goods or from a move into new and more sophisticated products.

New capabilities to usher structural transformation are not acquired suddenly. It takes time and is more “easily accumulated if they are combined with that already exists”. Again, a country can diversify its production by moving from the products that it already produces to others that require a similar set of embedded knowledge. Think it of this way: it is easier to move production from undergarments to pants than from undergarments to engines. We can figure out how far products currently not exported with comparative advantage are from the ones that are exported with comparative advantage and are within nearby range of existing production capacities of an economy. It is easier to produce “nearby” products than a product that is “far away” because the capabilities to produce similar but slightly differentiated products already exists in the economy. Eventually, what a country exports matters in determining its future course of growth and pace of structural transformation.

So, the capability to produce higher value products is accumulated over time based on the existing capabilities. In Nepal’s case, export-oriented sectors have not added much new capabilities. Worse, even the existing capabilities are being lost due to a slew of internal (lack of innovation, R&D and survival based on margin of preference in export destinations) as well as external constraints (mainly supply side constraints, including lack of adequate power and infrastructure, labor problems, policy inconsistency and policy implementation paralysis). More on Nepal’s problems with exports here, here and here (for services sector sophistication, see here)

Now, what drives sophistication of production and exports? Anand, Mishra and Spatafora argue that “an educated workforce, external liberalization, and good information flows are important prerequisites for developing sophisticated goods and services”. Meanwhile, manufacturing competitiveness (in turn sophistication) is determined by

  • Government forces (education policies; energy policies; economic, trade, labor, financial and tax policies; science and technology policies; manufacturing and infrastructure policies)
  • Capabilities (innovation; technology; process; infrastructure)
  • Market forces (demographic, macroeconomic)
  • Resources (human, materials, energy, financial)


  1. Thanks for such a nice bolg. What area explains agricultural produce in USA?

  2. The upper right hand portion in the product space. USA is one of the largest producer and exporter of food grains.

  3. A very nice and informative write up.... Illustration with examples and metaphors enticed me a lot...
    Thank you