Interviewing presidents, finance ministers and chief executives, reading rating agency reports, talking to local commentators - these are all ways in which to develop an understanding of a country's economic development and potential. But there is a much more infallible way. The Manicure Test, which I may well patent, has so far given me the sort of rapid insight into a country that mirrors the results of time-consuming research and might even, in a less facts-based world, be a substitute for it.
Take the beauty salon at the Shangri-La Hotel in Makati, Manila's upmarket business district. Two hours were spent by a manicurist on perfecting my nails. That level of care, at a reasonable cost, is typical of the country's most important export: people. Eight million Filipinos, about 10 per cent of the population, live overseas with many of them in service professions like nursing or housekeeping where attention to detail is imperative. They are responsible for steadily growing remittances of $8.5bn in 2004, although unofficially it was $14bn, according to the Asian Development Bank. The money sent home helps to underpin the growth of the local economy.
The abysmal manicure at the Cairo Marriott, a former palace, was just as indicative of the Egyptian economy. A disheartening experience, it involved a grumpy therapist in the empty hotel salon who left cuticles untrimmed and applied a second coat of bubbly nail polish so sloppily that it had to be redone. Meanwhile, on the macro front, reformist prime minister Ahmed Nazif is battling with the corruption of a party that has been in power too long; a president -- Hosni Mubarak -- who shows no inclination to leave even after leading the country for 24 years; and an economy that, despite hefty injections of US aid on the back of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has not been growing sufficiently to improve the standard of living.
At the same time unemployment is kept artificially low through government jobs -- unofficially it is now as much as 20 per cent. Nazif admitted in an interview that less than half the 5.6m government workforce was needed. But, to avoid political unrest and criticism, he has to tie himself in knots over the firing of state employees: "In the recent reform of customs, we made about 6,000 people redundant but without firing them," he said. "Now you [a businessperson] just don't go to these people any more, you don't need to. They are just sitting there." The government is looking at how to give these jobless workers -- who are still taking home their salaries -- training to fill gaps in areas such as teaching.
In the meantime, though, they are doing nothing for something -- and badly at that -- rather like the manicurist at the Marriott.
Meanwhile, a Cuban manicure is a virtual impossibility. The US embargo makes nail polish and any make-up expensive commodities, a huge frustration for the exuberantly flirtatious Cuban woman. Partly as a consequence, manicurists are scarce. Another reason is the overeducation of the population. The women who qualify as, say, nurses on the back of the much-trumpeted universal education system, often end up as escort girls for the hordes of male visitors from Europe.
The nurses' peso salaries are nowhere near enough to cover their costs of living, let alone buy an extra pair of shoes or a new dress. Instead, many rely on dollar income from sex tourists. When Fidel Castro dies and masses of American tourists flood in, the sex tourism won't stop but at least there will be other options -- such as giving expensive manicures to wealthy American matrons using the latest Estee Lauder red nail varnish.
I could go on at length about the manicure at the Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi. The blood-red nail polish was so carefully applied that the smiley manicurist could well have been a surgeon. An arm massage was thrown in for good measure, all at negligible cost and indicative of the outstanding service sector that is the locomotive of the Indian economy. There are the New York nail bars, staffed by recently immigrated workers who, in a work-like fashion, churn out manicures by the dozen. Most London residents would welcome that sort of service but, instead, end up paying far too much for a manicure. That is undoubtedly one of the reasons why New York girls have the super-groomed look missing from the streets of London.
What all these examples share is infallibility in reflecting economic performance. Whether the Manicure Test has any predictive powers has yet to be proved. But, in the meantime, I will continue my investigations as I wander the world.
Under syndication arrangement with FE