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Globalisation in trouble - part II

By David Dapice - posted Tuesday, 23 February 2010


Thus far in the global financial crisis it would appear that globalisation has suffered few dents. While there have been some protectionist measures, trade continues relatively unfettered, if at lower levels. However, this may only be a false calm, as the clouds on the horizon suggest an impending backlash against greater integration and openness.

Maintaining an open global system is a political decision. It requires support from relevant groups in major countries. The financial crisis has sharpened doubts among many groups in the US and other rich countries about the wisdom of continuing the current system. Why? Because there is no longer clearly a benefit to playing by the existing rules!

Consider the situation from the point of view of a median or typical US family. Their real income was higher in 1999 than in any year after 2000. Private sector jobs have shrunk in the past decade. Real wages and benefits are not higher than five years ago. If there is an invisible hand, it has not been helping the typical American family for some time.

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Consider the average investor. The real S&P 500 (a stock index representing larger US companies, including most multinationals) is lower in real terms now than in 1997 - and that is after a 60 per cent recovery in stock prices from the low point of last year. Normally, stock prices rise when their competition (bonds) offer a lower interest rate. But bond rates were much higher in 1997 than now. It is not monetary stringency but anxiety over future growth that is holding down stock prices.

Consider a CEO in a multinational. If you run an oil company, you look at the reserves held by the top 15 oil companies in the world and not one is a western multinational. If you are a software, music or film executive, you see piracy and controls on distribution in emerging markets, along with hacking attacks that threaten to unravel your business model. If you are a drug company, you see counterfeit drugs and frequent infringement of patents, even for non-life threatening diseases. If you are an average OECD exporter or even local supplier, you see China with a $20 billion a month trade surplus and a weakening currency against its trading partners, refusing to stop accumulating outlandish amounts of foreign currency reserves except to buy up raw materials while hoarding theirs. Depending on methodology, current estimates of China’s currency undervaluation differ, from a low of 10 per cent to a high of nearly 50 per cent - but few doubt that the Yuan should have risen in the last year instead of falling with the dollar.

Consider the intellectuals like Larry Summers or Paul Krugman, arguing that the game is stacked with state purchasing, managed exchange rates and other distortions. They are openly asking if free trade in the current environment makes sense. They should. The case for free trade relies on reasonably full employment. If unemployment is persistently high, it may be better for a country to use its workers somewhat inefficiently to produce for the home market than to import lower-cost goods from elsewhere. If the savings in unemployment compensation and crime, health, etc. expenditures are averted, the difference in production costs may be much less.

The financial crisis was caused by many things, but it could not have developed as it did without gaping external imbalances.

The US imported much more than it exported; China exported a great deal more than it imported, and then lent to the US where weak regulators and feckless risk management in financial institutions combined to create too much debt of doubtful quality.

It is now clear that US households will save more and spend less as they work down their mountains of debt, which are still near historic highs. This will restrain growth for many US companies unless they can find growth overseas. Yet when they try to sell overseas, they often run into offset or technology transfer requirements that, combined with weak patent and intellectual property protection, means that their trade secrets and proprietary technologies will be used against them by those who paid little to get them.

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And it is not only high-tech industries that are under threat - even basic industries face some draconian domestic policies. For example, China is adding immense amounts of electrical generating capacity and effectively requiring that the equipment be made in the country.

It is not surprising that nationalism should be mixed with globalisation, but the world may be close to a breaking point where “globalisation with Chinese (or some other nation’s) characteristics” is viewed as so unfavorable that there is a strong push back. Initial signs of punitive tariffs on tyres or shoes (in the EU) or steel are but a small taste of what might come. The 2005 Congressional bill to put a 27.5 per cent tariff on all Chinese goods never became law, but is a hint at what could happen in the current climate.

There is one more element that is important in the re-examination of globalisation. When companies were rooted in a community, they tended to incorporate the values and priorities of the places they lived in. This was reflected in executive to median pay ratios that were relatively modest. As financial capital has overwhelmed industrial capital, more and more companies seem to be rootless. If it is cheaper to set up in Mexico or Asia, it is done without much internal debate. This has happened during a period of rising inequality in pay.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright 2010, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.



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About the Author

David Dapice is associate professor of economics at Tufts University and the economist of the Vietnam Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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