GENEVA — Three of the leading suppliers of imported apparel to the U.S. showed increases on a survey of international economic competitiveness released last week, but remained behind the U.S. and Finland, which both led the list.

The “World Competitiveness Yearbook” ranked the competitiveness of 59 world economies, on two scales, one for countries with populations of 20 million or more and one for those with smaller populations. The U.S. led the former group, while Finland led the latter.

Among major apparel suppliers, Hong Kong was ranked fourth, compared with 10th the year before, in the under 20 million category. Similarly, Thailand improved, to 10th from 13th, and Taiwan enhanced its ranking by one slot to be placed sixth on the larger-nations list.

But the correlation between overall economic competitiveness and strength in apparel manufacturing may not be that strong, since all three of those countries saw their exports of apparel and textiles fall last year.

The world’s largest exporter, China, remained for the third year unchanged on the competitiveness league in 12th place.

Among other leading apparel suppliers, Mexico, Canada, India, South Korea, Indonesia, and Turkey all slipped in competitiveness rankings.

Stephane Garelli, professor at the Lausanne, Switzerland-based international Institute for Management Development, which conducted the survey, cautioned that the gains posted in Asia took place before the SARS epidemic, which he said, “could have dire consequences on the Asian competitiveness.”

Garelli said the spread of SARS “is paralyzing economic activity” and may decrease growth in Asia by 0.5 percent.

Another noneconomic variable that could affect Asian competitiveness is the degree that terrorism is contained after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have significantly increased security spending in the region, Garelli said.

The study draws on a survey of more than 4,000 top and midlevel executives, as well as hard economic data.

Some of the 321 criteria?measured included prices, productivity?growth, gross domestic product, foreign direct investment, research and development, education levels, services, resilience of the economies and management skills of the populations.

Despite its 12th-place ranking, Garelli said China “is on its way to becoming the manufacturing center of the world.”Suzanne Rosselet, an economist who worked on the report, said in a telephone interview that despite China’s strong economic performance, not all parts of the country are as competitive and singled out major problems in business efficiency. She said the lack of business confidentiality was a problem and noted the country was also poorly rated in management practices, marketing experiences and attitudes to globalization.

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