Which Asian Economies Have the Most Sustainable Trade Policies?
To say that Asia has benefited from international trade is an understatement. By opening its economies to the rest of the world, the region has become a leading exporter in many of today’s most important industries.
Trade has also improved Asia’s quality of life, lifting over one billion people out of poverty since 1990. Without the proper controls, however, such rapid growth could have harmful effects on Asia’s environment and society.
In this infographic from The Hinrich Foundation, we break down the results of their 2020 Sustainable Trade Index (STI). Since 2016, this index has ranked 19 Asian economies and the U.S. across three categories of trade sustainability: economic, social, and environmental.
What Exactly is Sustainable Trade?
International trade is an important source of economic growth, enabling domestic businesses to expand, reach new customers, and gain exposure to foreign markets.
At the same time, countries that focus too heavily on exports put themselves at greater long-term risk. For example, an aggressive expansion into manufacturing is likely to impair the quality of a country’s air, while overdependence on a single product or sector can create an economy that is susceptible to demand shocks.
“The primary principle which underpins sustainable trade is balance. Trade cannot be pursued solely for economic gains, without considering environmental and social outcomes.”
– Merle A. Hinrich
Thus, sustainable trade supports not only economic growth, but also environmental protection and strengthened social capital. It involves finding a balance between short-term incentives and long-term resilience.
Measuring Sustainable Trade
The Sustainable Trade Index (STI) is based on three underlying pillars of trade sustainability. Every economy in the STI receives a score between 0 and 100 for each pillar.
|Pillar||Number of Indicators||Examples of Indicators|
The economic pillar measures a country’s ability to to grow its economy through trade, while the social pillar measures a population’s tolerance for trade expansion, given the costs and benefits of economic growth.
Last but not least, the environmental pillar measures a country’s proficiency at managing climate-related risks. Individual pillar scores are then aggregated to arrive at an overall ranking, which also has a maximum possible score of 100.
The Sustainable Trade Index 2020: Overall Rankings
For the first time in the STI’s history, Japan and South Korea have tied for first place. Both countries have placed in the top five previously, but 2020 marks the first time for either to take the top spot.
|1 (tied)||🇯🇵 Japan||75.1|
|1 (tied)||🇰🇷 South Korea||75.1|
|4||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||68.3|
|10||🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||50.4|
|15 (tied)||🇮🇳 India||46.9|
|15 (tied)||🇻🇳 Vietnam||46.9|
Advanced economies like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were also strong performers, each scoring in the high 60s. At the other end of the spectrum, developing countries such as India and Vietnam were tightly packed within the 40 to 50 range.
To learn more, here’s how each country performed in the three underlying pillars.
1. Economic Pillar Rankings
Hong Kong topped the economic pillar for the first time thanks to its low trade costs and well-developed financial sector. Financial services have increased their contribution to Hong Kong’s GDP from 13% in 2004 to 20% in 2018.
The region’s recently initiated national security law—which has resulted in greater political instability—may have a negative effect on future rankings.
|1||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||69.6|
|4||🇰🇷 South Korea||63.3|
|5 (tied)||🇲🇾 Malaysia||61.2|
|5 (tied)||🇺🇸 U.S.||61.2|
|9 (tied)||🇯🇵 Japan||58.6|
|9 (tied)||🇵🇭 Philippines||58.6|
|13||🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||54.7|
China was also a strong performer, climbing to third for the first time. Asia’s largest economy benefits from a well-diversified group of trading partners, meaning it doesn’t rely too heavily on a single market.
The bottom five countries—India (16th), Myanmar (17th), Thailand (18th), Pakistan (19th) and Laos (20th)—suffered from issues such as payment risk, which is measured as the difficulty of getting money in and out of a country. This risk is especially damaging to trade because it discourages foreign direct investment.
2. Social Pillar Rankings
The social pillar features the highest average score, but also the largest gap from top to bottom. This gap has expanded over recent years, growing from 43.9 points in 2018 to 52.3 in 2020.
|3||🇰🇷 South Korea||86.9|
|8||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||57.8|
|18||🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||46.1|
Taiwan claimed the top spot for the second time, solidifying its reputation as Asia’s leader in human capital development. It performed well in the educational attainment indicator, with 93.6% of its population receiving a tertiary education.
China, despite its success in other pillars, only managed 16th. This was partly due to the effects of its now defunct one-child policy, which has been responsible for creating gender imbalances and a shrinking population.
3. Environmental Pillar Rankings
The environmental pillar has the lowest average score of the three. Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea were the only countries to score above 75.
|3||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||77.4|
|4||🇰🇷 South Korea||75.2|
|8||🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||50.4|
The top four performed well in areas such as air quality and water pollution, and with the exception of Hong Kong, have all introduced carbon pricing schemes in the past decade. This doesn’t mean these countries are without their flaws, however.
Land-constrained Singapore, for instance, ranked 16th in the deforestation indicator. The city-state is one of the densest population centers in the world, and has cut down forests to clear space for further settlement and urbanization.
Building Back Better From COVID-19
Despite the damage that COVID-19 has caused, there are some silver linings. This includes the environmental benefits experienced by China, where lockdowns reduced carbon emissions by 200 million tonnes in a single month. It’s been estimated that after two months, China’s reduced pollution levels saved the lives of 77,000 people.
These temporary improvements are an explicit reminder of the environmental and social costs associated with economic growth. In response, governments in Asia are taking steps to ensure the long-term sustainability of their nations. Japan and South Korea both announced their commitments to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, while China set a similar goal for 2060.
Visualizing the Recent Explosion in Lumber Prices
Lumber prices in the U.S. continue to break records as pressure from both the supply and demand sides of the market collide.
Visualizing the Recent Explosion in Lumber Prices
Lumber is an important commodity used in construction, and refers to wood that has been processed into beams or planks.
Fluctuations in its price, which is typically quoted in USD/1,000 board feet (bd ft), can significantly affect the housing industry and in turn, influence the broader U.S. economy.
To understand the impact that lumber prices can have, we’ve visualized the number of homes that can be built with $50,000 worth of lumber, one year apart.
A Story of Supply and Demand
Before discussing the infographic above, it’s important to understand the market’s current environment.
In just one year, the price of lumber has increased 377%—reaching a record high of $1,635 per 1,000 bd ft. For context, lumber has historically fluctuated between $200 to $400.
To understand what’s driving lumber prices to new heights, let’s look at two economic elements: supply and demand.
U.S. lumber supplies came under pressure in April 2017, when the Trump administration raised tariffs on Canadian lumber. Since then, lumber imports have fallen and prices have experienced significant volatility.
After a brief stint above $600 in April 2018, lumber quickly tumbled down to sub $250 levels, causing a number of sawmills to shut down. The resulting decreases in production capacity (supply) were estimated to be around 3 billion board feet.
Once COVID-19 emerged, labor shortages cut production even further, making the lumber market incredibly sensitive to demand shocks. The U.S. government has since reduced its tariffs on Canadian lumber, but these measures appear to be an example of too little, too late.
Against expectations, COVID-19 has led to a significant boom in housing markets, greatly increasing the need for lumber.
Lockdowns in early 2020 delayed many home purchases until later in the year, while increased savings rates during the pandemic meant Americans had more cash on hand. The demand for homes was further amplified by record-low mortgage rates across the country.
Existing homeowners needed lumber too, as many Americans suddenly found themselves requiring upgrades and renovations to accommodate their new stay-at-home lifestyles.
How Many Homes Can You Build With $50K of Lumber?
To see how burgeoning lumber prices are impacting the U.S. housing market, we’ve calculated the number of single family homes that could be built with $50,000 worth of lumber. First, we established the following parameters:
- Lumber requirements: 6.3 board feet (bd ft) per square foot (sq ft)
- Median single family house size: 2,301 sq ft
- Total lumber required per single family house: 14,496 bd ft
Based on these parameters, here’s how many single family homes can be built with $50,000 worth of lumber:
|Date*||Lumber Price||Total Lumber Purchased||Total Homes Built|
|2021-05-05||$1,635 per 1,000 bd ft||30,581 bd ft||2.11|
|2020-05-04||$343 per 1,000 bd ft||145,773 bd ft||10.05|
|2015-05-01||$234 per 1,000 bd ft||213,675 bd ft||14.74|
|2010-05-01||$270 per 1,000 bd ft||185,185 bd ft||12.77|
*Exact matching dates were not available for past years.
As lumber prices continue to set record highs, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has reported that the cost to build a single family home has increased by $36,000. Most of this cost can be passed down to the consumer, but extremely tight supplies mean homebuilders are unable to start more projects.
The Clock is Ticking
Despite their best efforts to increase output, it’s likely that sawmills across the U.S. will continue playing catch-up in 2021.
“There was a great fear among sawmills to prepare for a downturn. When home buying surged, they could not open up capacity quickly enough.”
– Lawrence Yun, National Association of Realtors
Analysts are now warning that lumber prices could reach a flashpoint, where affordability becomes so limited that demand suddenly falls off. This has led the NAHB to ask the Biden administration for a temporary pause on Canadian lumber tariffs, which currently sit at 9%.
U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber were first introduced in 1982, and represent one of the longest lasting trade wars between the two nations. The U.S. is currently appealing a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling that states its 2017 tariff hike was a breach of global trading rules.
Mapped: The State of Small Business Recovery in America
Compared to January 2020, 34% of small businesses are currently closed. This map looks at the small business recovery rate in 50 metro areas.
Mapped: The State of Small Business Recovery in America
In the business news cycle, headlines are often dominated by large corporations, macroeconomic news, or government action.
While mom and pop might not always be in focus, collectively small businesses are a powerful and influential piece of the economy. In fact, 99.9% of all businesses in the U.S. qualify as small businesses, collectively employing almost half (47.3%) of the nation’s private workforce.
Unfortunately, they’ve also been one of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy amid the pandemic. From the CARES Act to the new budget proposal, billions of dollars have been allocated towards helping small businesses to get back on their feet.
Small Business Recovery in 50 Metro Areas
During the pandemic, many small businesses have either swiftly pivoted to survive, or struggled to stay afloat. This map pulls data from Opportunity Insights to examine the small business recovery rate in 50 metro areas across America.
So, has the situation improved since the last time we examined this data? The short answer is no—on a national scale, 34% of small businesses are closed compared to January 2020.
San Francisco is one of the most affected metro areas, with a 48% closure rate of small businesses. New York City has spiralled the most since the end of September 2020.
|U.S. Metro Area||% Change in # of|
Small Businesses Open
(As of Sep 25, 2020)
|% Change in # of|
Small Businesses Open
(As of Apr 23, 2021)
|7-month change (p.p.)|
|New York City||-21%||-42%||-21|
|Salt Lake City||-18%||-23%||-5|
Data as of Apr 23, 2021 and indexed to Jan 4-31, 2020.
On the flip side, Honolulu has seen the most improvement. As travel and tourism numbers into Hawaii have steadily risen up with lifted nationwide restrictions, there has been a 16 p.p. increase in open businesses compared to September 2020.
Road to a K-Shaped Recovery
As of April 25, 2021, nearly 42% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. However, even with this rapid vaccine rollout, various segments of the economy aren’t recovering at the same pace.
Take for instance the stark difference between professional services and the leisure and hospitality sector. Though small business revenues in both segments have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, the latter has much more catching up to do:
This uneven phenomena is known as a K-shaped recovery, where some industries see more improvement compared to others that stagnate in the aftermath of a recession.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit Endures
Despite these continued hardships, it appears that many Americans have not been deterred from starting their own businesses.
Many small businesses require an Employer Identification Number (EIN) which makes EIN applications a good proxy for business formation activity. Despite an initial dip in the early months of the pandemic, there has been a dramatic spike in EIN business applications.
Even in the face of a global pandemic, the perseverance of such metrics prove that the innovative American spirit is unwavering, and spells better days to come for small business recovery.
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