Achieving Export-Led Growth in Colombia

CID Working Paper No. 182

Ricardo Hausmann and Bailey Klinger
September, 2008


The purpose of this paper is to analyze Colombia’s experiences with and opportunities for export led growth. We first review Colombia’s growth and export performance over the past 30 years and find that the country is indeed facing an export challenge. We then go on to develop new metrics and apply them to Colombia’s export challenge. First, we consider the opportunities for upgrading quality within existing exports, and find that Colombia has very little opportunity for growth in this dimension. Second, we consider the level of sophistication of the current export basket, and find that it is low and commensurate with the lack of export dynamism. Although not a significant drag on growth, the current export basket will not be sufficient to fuel future output growth. Finally, we develop the concept distances between products, open forest, and the option value of exports to examine the possibility that Colombia’s current structure of production is itself a barrier to future structural transformation. While improvements in the export package have been slow in the past, this evidence suggests that Colombia does now enjoy more options for future structural transformation. As there are attractive options for structural transformation nearby, a parsimonious approach to industrial strategy, rather than a risky strategic bet to move to a new part of the product space, seems appropriate. In order to inform such a strategy, we use the metrics developed in the diagnostic to evaluate new export activities in terms of their proximity to current activities, their sophistication, and their strategic value. We identify the sectors representing the best tradeoffs between these aims for Colombia as a whole, as well as its regions. We also devote separate attention to the topic of Agricultural exports, and to exports of services. Finally, we use these metrics to analyze the list of ‘high-potential’ sectors in the United States, developed by another firm, as well as the sectors prioritized in Colombia’s Agenda Interna. These external lists of high-potential sectors are found to be sensible, but could be further rationalized using these metrics. This identification of nearby, high-potential, and strategically valuable sectors is not meant to be a definitive list for targeted subsidies and ‘picking winners’. Rather, it provides a robust data-driven approach to inform the next steps in achieving export-led growth in Colombia: which private sector actors should be consulted first? What sector-specific reforms should be stressed? How should public spending on infrastructure and training, which are also sector-specific, be prioritized? What foreign firms should be targeted by FDI promotion agencies? These decisions can be informed by our analysis and the accompanying data.

Keywords: Colombia, Structural Transformation, Product Space

JEL codes: O54, F19, O14