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It's clear that all is not well in the U.S. marketplace: Unemployment is high. Investors worry about the implications of enormous debts and deficits at home and across Europe. The U.S. housing market has been a mess since the collapse of home prices in 2007 and is showing few signs of improvement. We've lost faith in our politicians. It's hard not to wonder if the U.S. has lost its competitive edge.
Emerging economies are catching up rapidly. China, the world's second-largest economy next to the U.S., expects an average of 9% growth a year for the next decade. The U.S., whose economy barely grew during the first half of this year, will be lucky to see much more than 2% growth this year.
But amid the doom and gloom, the U.S. is still the place most investors and businesses around the world turn to for opportunity — even though Brazil, Russia and other emerging economies are increasingly catching up. Analysts at U.S. Trust, the private wealth management division of Bank of America, recently reminded clients in a note about "What's right with America."
Fortune highlights five of those points, along with a dose of analysis and — ahem — skepticism.
Biggest and Most Productive Economy
The Chinese may buy more Prada handbags these days than most Americans, but the U.S. is still the world's biggest and most productive economy in the world.
Around this time last year, China passed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy. But while many analysts say the East Asian giant could eventually surpass the U.S. by 2027, most Americans are still far richer than most Chinese. China's GDP per capita was $4,393 in 2010, while the U.S. is much wealthier at $47,184 per capita, according to the World Bank.
The U.S. is also the most productive economy in the world, with just as much output in a year ($14.6 trillion) as the next three biggest economies — Japan, China and Germany. Admittedly, while American workers are the world's most productive on an output per person basis, Norway in 2010 produced 25% more per hour (the best measure of productivity) than the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Tops in Foreign Investment
China and Germany may sell many more goods and services abroad, but the U.S. remains the world's hot spot for foreigners investors. In 2009, foreign companies invested $3.1 trillion in the U.S. — triple that of France and the United Kingdom and more than six times that of China, according to a June 2011 report by the President's Council of Economic Advisers.
Admittedly, other countries, China in particular, have been steadily catching up. While the U.S. has lured foreign investors with its open economy and very low barriers to investments, businesses are turning to the East Asian giant to bolster sales as rising unemployment and government indebtedness erode confidence in developed nations.
In 2009, China overtook the U.S. to become the world's biggest auto market and companies from Kia Motors to VW have been investing billions into the country. For instance, Wolfsburg, Germany-based VW opened its first engine reprocessing plant in China in August and said it plans to invest $14.6 billion through its auto manufacturing ventures in the country by 2015.
Even if others are gaining ground, the U.S. is much more open to foreign direct investments than emerging economies like India, Russia, China and Mexico, according to the OECD's Foreign Direct Investment Restrictiveness Index.
World's Top Global Brands
Think of the world's most popular brands, and chances are most are born in the U.S.A. The U.S. may not manufacture most of the world's automobiles or computers, but it's known for many top brands that do so.
In 2011, nearly half of the world's top 100 brands were American, according to BrandZ, a brand equity database that lists 100 most valuable global brands. Of the top 10, nine are American — with Apple taking the top spot, followed by Google, IBM, and McDonald's.
Many U.S. brands may symbolize different things in varying parts of the world. If you live in Europe, McDonald's might allude a level of urban sophistication — and not just because folks in France call the Quarter Pounder with Cheese a Royal with Cheese.
"Unlike in North America and in some other parts of the world, McDonald's restaurants are considered in Europe to be a symbol of cosmopolitanism and a modern urban lifestyle among the young rather than simply a caterer of fast food to low income people," write economists at New Zealand's University of Waikato.
Indeed, emerging economies have been developing their own brands with varying successes. But the U.S. clearly leads in the world's images and ideas.
World's Best Universities
U.S. public schools may be flagging, but the nation is still home to many of the world's top universities. And foreign students in the U.S. make up an important piece of its economy.
While the number of American students fell slightly amid the recession in 2009, U.S. universities continued to attract students from abroad, according to a 2010 report by the Institute of International Education. Chinese students in the U.S. helped drive the overall increase of foreign scholars studying here — a record 690,923. Aside from China, students from India, South Korea, Canada and Taiwan accounted for more than half of all foreign students studying in the U.S.
For the most part, they pursued studies in business and management or engineering. The universities hosting the largest number include the University of South California, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and New York University.
So while China and Germany may outrank the U.S. as being the world's biggest exporter of goods, America clearly tops as the exporter of education (the U.S. Commerce Department regards money spent by foreign students at U.S. universities an export service).
If only U.S. policies did more to keep such talent here.
World's Top Reserve Currency
The value of the U.S. dollar may be declining, but it remains the currency of choice for many nations. The greenback accounted for roughly 61% of global central bank reserves during the first three months of 2011, according to the International Monetary Fund. The euro, which has been under attack amid Europe's ongoing debt crisis, ranks second with a 27.8% share.
The financial crisis has weakened foreign investors' faith in the U.S. dollar. And if there is to be a rival to the mighty greenback in this century, some analysts think it would surely be the Chinese renminbi given China's economic and trade power.
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