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Countries Ranked by Their Economic Complexity

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global economic complexity ranking

Countries Ranked by Their Economic Complexity

In the past, the trade between nations was a much simpler matter to grasp. Commodities and a few finished goods moved between a handful of countries in a straightforward way.

Today, around 6,000 officially classified products pass through the world’s ports, and digital products and services zip across country lines creating an extra layer of difficulty in measuring economic activity.

To try to understand this enormous level of economic complexity, the team at Harvard’s Growth Lab have created the Country Complexity Ranking. Here’s a look at the top 50 countries in the ranking:

RankCountryScoreTop Export(s)
1Japan2.28Cars, ICT (tech)
2Switzerland2.14ICT, gold, packaged medicaments
3South Korea2.05ICT, cars
4Germany2.02Integrated circuits, ICT, cars
5Singapore1.81ICT, cars
6Czech Rep.1.79Cars, vehicle parts
7Austria1.71ICT, tourism
8Finland1.69ICT
9Sweden1.67ICT
10Hungary1.64ICT, cars
11Slovenia1.57Cars, ICT
12United States1.47ICT, tourism
13Italy1.42ICT, tourism
14United Kingdom1.42ICT, finance
15Slovakia1.41Cars
16France1.40ICT, tourism
17Ireland1.39ICT
18Israel1.37ICT, diamonds
19China1.30Electronic equipment
20Mexico1.27Cars
21Poland1.19ICT
22Denmark1.18Transport, ICT
23Belgium1.16ICT
24Romania1.16ICT, vehicle parts
25Thailand1.15Tourism
26Netherlands1.04ICT
27Estonia1.03ICT, transport
28Malaysia0.95Integrated circuits
29Belarus0.93Refined oils, ICT
30Croatia0.92Tourism, ICT
31Lithuania0.85Transport, refined oils
32Spain0.85Tourism, ICT
33Philippines0.75Integrated circuits, ICT
34Portugal0.72Tourism, ICT
35Canada0.69Crude oil, cars, ICT
36Bosnia and Herz.0.65Tourism, ICT
37Serbia0.65ICT
38Turkey0.65Tourism, transport
39Latvia0.64Transport, ICT
40Bulgaria0.62Tourism, ICT
41Norway0.56Crude oil, petrol. gases
42Ukraine0.42ICT, transport
43Cyprus0.38Tourism, transport
44Tunisia0.34Electrical wire, tourism
45India0.32ICT
46Costa Rica0.30ICT, tourism
47Uruguay0.29Tourism, wood pulp
48Brazil0.24Soya beans, iron ore
49Russia0.24Crude oil, refined oils
50Lebanon0.24Tourism, ICT

Source

Japan, Switzerland, and South Korea sit at the top of the ranking.

Czech Republic – which was recently ranked as the most attractive manufacturing destination in Europe – has a strong showing, ranking 6th in the world. The United States slipped out of the top 10 into 12th position.

The Power of Productive Knowledge

Highly ranked countries tend to have the following attributes:

    • A high diversity of exported products
    • Sophisticated and unique exported products (i.e. few other countries produce similar products)

In short, the ranking hinges on the concept of “productive knowledge” – or the tacit ability to produce a product.

Muhammed Yildirim, of Harvard University, has thought up a useful analogy for thinking about the role of productive knowledge in the complexity of an economy:

“Suppose that each type of productive knowledge is a letter and each product is a word composed of these letters. Like the game of Scrabble, each country holds a set of letters with plenty of copies of each letter and tries to make words out of these letters. For instance, with letters like A, C and T, one can construct words like CAT or ACT. Then our problem of measuring economic complexity resembles interpreting how many different letters there are in each country’s portfolio. Some letters, like A and E, go in many words, whereas other letters, like X and Q, are used in very few. Extending this analogy to the countries and products, only those with a larger diversity of letters will be able to make more and more unique products. On the other hand, words that require more letters will be made only in the countries that have all the requisite pieces.”

complexity scrabble analogy

Not All Exports are Created Equal

Much like the rack of letters in a Scrabble game, the elements of every export-driven economy can be broken down and quantified. The resulting categories encompass everything from rendered pig fat to integrated circuits, each contributing to the country’s overall score.

complexity connectiveness by sector

Agricultural and extractive industries tend to score lower on the complexity scale. Machinery can be highly complex to produce and is connected to many facets of the global economy.

Visualizing this overall mix of categories can provide a unique perspective beyond big picture numbers like GDP. Below are a few real world examples of export markets on both ends of the complexity spectrum.

Japan

Since this ranking began in the mid-1990s, Japan has never been bumped from the top spot.

Due to a restricted land mass and some ingenuity, Japan has become the prototypical example of a low-ubiquity, high-sophistication export economy.

japan economic complexity breakdown

Interactive breakdown

⁨Cars and electronics are obvious standouts, but there numerous other high-value product categories in the mix as well. The country also has a wide variety of high value exports and trading partners, lowering the risk of a trade war or industry downturn crippling the country’s economy.

Australia

Many will be surprised to learn that Australia sits in the lower third of this complexity ranking.

Although Australia’s global ranking is high in a myriad of categories – household wealth per person, for example – its economic complexity score is -0.60, much lower than expected for its income level. Looking at the breakdown below, there are clues as to why this might be the case.

australia economic complexity breakdown

Interactive breakdown

Australia’s⁩ largest exports are in ⁨low⁩ complexity categories, such as minerals and agriculture. To compound matters, the country’s economy is heavily linked to China’s. To underscore this point, a recent study found that a 5% drop in China’s GDP would result in a 2.5% dip in Australia’s.

Venezuela

It’s no secret that Venezuela has seen some tough times in recent years. The chart below shows just how reliant Venezuela was on oil exports to sustain its economy.

venezuela economic complexity breakdown

Interactive breakdown

An over-reliance on a single export can leave a country extremely vulnerable in the event of price volatility or geopolitical events. In the case of Venezuela, three quarters of their export economy was comprised of crude oil – one of the lowest scoring product categories in the ranking.

The Rush to Diversify

A low level of economic complexity isn’t necessarily a problem. Many countries with middle-to-low scores in the ranking have great standards of living and a high level of wealth. Countries like Canada, Norway, and Australia were all well down the list.

On the other hand, some countries have made diversification a priority. SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund is partially the result of Saudi Arabia’s push to develop a diversified, knowledge-based economy. Other oil-rich nations, such as Kazakhstan, are also pushing to diversify in the face of the world’s evolving energy mix.

As world economies evolve and the shift from fossil fuels continues, we will likely see economic complexity increase across the board.

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Chart of the Week

Visualizing the Biggest Risks to the Global Economy in 2020

The Global Risk Report 2020 paints an unprecedented risk landscape for 2020—one dominated by climate change and other environmental concerns.

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Top Risks in 2020: Dominated by Environmental Factors

Environmental concerns are a frequent talking point drawn upon by politicians and scientists alike, and for good reason. Irrespective of economic or social status, climate change has the potential to affect us all.

While public urgency surrounding climate action has been growing, it can be difficult to comprehend the potential extent of economic disruption that environmental risks pose.

Front and Center

Today’s chart uses data from the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report, which surveyed 800 leaders from business, government, and non-profits to showcase the most prominent economic risks the world faces.

According to the data in the report, here are the top five risks to the global economy, in terms of their likelihood and potential impact:

Top Global Risks (by "Likelihood") Top Global Risks (by "Impact")
#1Extreme weather#1Climate action failure
#2Climate action failure#2Weapons of mass destruction
#3Natural disasters#3Biodiversity loss
#4Biodiversity loss#4Extreme weather
#5Humanmade environmental disasters#5Water crises

With more emphasis being placed on environmental risks, how much do we need to worry?

According to the World Economic Forum, more than we can imagine. The report asserts that, among many other things, natural disasters are becoming more intense and more frequent.

While it can be difficult to extrapolate precisely how environmental risks could cascade into trouble for the global economy and financial system, here are some interesting examples of how they are already affecting institutional investors and the insurance industry.

The Stranded Assets Dilemma

If the world is to stick to its 2°C global warming threshold, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, a significant amount of oil, gas, and coal reserves would need to be left untouched. These assets would become “stranded”, forfeiting roughly $1-4 trillion from the world economy.

Growing awareness of this risk has led to a change in sentiment. Many institutional investors have become wary of their portfolio exposures, and in some cases, have begun divesting from the sector entirely.

The financial case for fossil fuel divestment is strong. Fossil fuel companies once led the economy and world stock markets. They now lag.

– Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis

The last couple of years have been a game-changer for the industry’s future prospects. For example, 2018 was a milestone year in fossil fuel divestment:

  • Nearly 1,000 institutional investors representing $6.24 trillion in assets have pledged to divest from fossil fuels, up from just $52 billion four years ago;
  • Ireland became the first country to commit to fossil fuel divestment. At the time of announcement, its sovereign development fund had $10.4 billion in assets;
  • New York City became the largest (but not the first) city to commit to fossil fuel divestment. Its pension funds, totaling $189 billion at the time of announcement, aim to divest over a 5-year period.

A Tough Road Ahead

In a recent survey, actuaries ranked climate change as their top risk for 2019, ahead of damages from cyberattacks, financial instability, and terrorism—drawing strong parallels with the results of this year’s Global Risk Report.

These growing concerns are well-founded. 2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters, with $344 billion in global economic losses. This daunting figure translated to a record year for insured losses, totalling $140 billion.

Although insured losses over 2019 have fallen back in line with the average over the past 10 years, Munich RE believes that long-term environmental effects are already being felt:

  • Recent studies have shown that over the long term, the environmental conditions for bushfires in Australia have become more favorable;
  • Despite a decrease in U.S. wildfire losses compared to previous years, there is a rising long-term trend for forest area burned in the U.S.;
  • An increase in hailstorms, as a result of climate change, has been shown to contribute to growing losses across the globe.

The Ball Is In Our Court

It’s clear that the environmental issues we face are beginning to have a larger real impact. Despite growing awareness and preliminary actions such as fossil fuel divestment, the Global Risk Report stresses that there is much more work to be done to mitigate risks.

How companies and governments choose to respond over the next decade will be a focal point of many discussions to come.

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Demographics

The Problem of an Aging Global Population, Shown by Country

The data behind the world’s rapidly aging population, and what it could mean for the economy and future generations of retirees.

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The Implications of an Aging Population

The world is experiencing a seismic demographic shift—and no country is immune to the consequences.

While increasing life expectancy and declining birth rates are considered major achievements in modern science and healthcare, they will have a significant impact on future generations.

Today’s graphic relies on OECD data to demonstrate how the old-age to working-age ratio will change by 2060, highlighting some of the world’s fastest aging countries.

The Demographic Debacle

By 2050, there will be 10 billion people on earth, compared to 7.7 billion today—and many of them will be living longer. As a result, the number of elderly people per 100 working-age people will nearly triple—from 20 in 1980, to 58 in 2060.

Populations are getting older in all OECD countries, yet there are clear differences in the pace of aging. For instance, Japan holds the title for having the oldest population, with ⅓ of its citizens already over the age of 65. By 2030, the country’s workforce is expected to fall by 8 million—leading to a major potential labor shortage.

In another example, while South Korea currently boasts a younger than average population, it will age rapidly and end up with the highest old-to-young ratio among developed countries.

A Declining Workforce

Globally, the working-age population will see a 10% decrease by 2060. It will fall the most drastically by 35% or more in Greece, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. On the other end of the scale, it will increase by more than 20% in Australia, Mexico, and Israel.

aging population chart

Israel’s notably higher increase of 67% is due to the country’s high fertility rate, which is comparable to “baby boom” numbers seen in the U.S. following the second World War.

As countries prepare for the coming decades, workforce shortages are just one of the impacts of aging populations already being felt.

Managing the Risks

There are many other social and economic risks that we can come to expect as the global population continues to age:

  • The Squeezed Middle: With more people claiming pension benefits but less people paying income taxes, the shrinking workforce may be forced to pay higher taxes.
  • Rising Healthcare Costs: Longer lives do not necessarily mean healthier lives, with those over 65 more likely to have at least one chronic disease and require expensive, long-term care.
  • Economic Slowdown: Changing workforces may lead capital to flow away from rapidly aging countries to younger countries, shifting the global distribution of economic power.

The strain on pension systems is perhaps the most evident sign of a drastically aging population. Although the average retirement age is gradually increasing in many countries, people are saving insufficiently for their increased life span—resulting in an estimated $400 trillion deficit by 2050.

Pensions Under Pressure

A pension is promised, but not necessarily guaranteed. Any changes made to existing government programs can alter the lives of future retirees entirely—but effective pension reforms that lessen the growing deficit are required urgently.

Towards a Better System

Certain countries are making great strides towards more sustainable pension systems, and the Global Pension Index suggests initiatives that governments can take into consideration, such as:

  1. Continuing to increase the age of retirement
  2. Increasing the level of savings—both inside and outside pension funds
  3. Increasing the coverage of private pensions across the labor force, including self-employed and contract employees, to provide improved integration between various pillars
  4. Preserving retirement funds by limiting the access to benefits before the retirement age
  5. Increasing the trust and confidence of all stakeholders by improving transparency of pension plans

Although 59% of employees are expecting to continue earning well into their retirement years, providing people with better incentives and options to make working at an older age easier could be crucial for ensuring continued economic growth.

Live Long and Prosper

As 2020 marks the beginning of the Decade of Healthy Ageing, the world is undoubtedly entering a pivotal period.

Countries all over the world face tremendous pressure to effectively manage their aging populations, but preparing for this demographic shift early will contribute to the economic advancement of countries, and allow populations—both young and old—to live long and prosper.

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