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COVID-19 | Is deglobalization helping or hindering the global economy during the coronavirus crisis? by Peter A.G. van Bergeijk

We are only starting to see the economic impact of the COVID-19, but it is likely to have far-reaching effects and will result in unprecedented economic transformation. We are currently in a phase of deglobalization and the impact on livelihoods is closely linked to how we respond to the pandemic. The bad news is that we’re not yet responding very well. The silver lining is that we will nevertheless stay globally connected.


Suddenly deglobalization is no longer a hypothetical possibility, but a reality: the IMF in its April 2020 World Economic Outlook predicts a reduction of the world trade volume for this year by 11%, which pales in comparison to the 13% best-case scenario of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in which the economy is somewhat robust and its 32% worst-case scenario that sees the world economy in free fall.

What can we learn from earlier periods of deglobalization?

World openness 1880 – 2021

graph

Source: P.A.G. van Bergeijk, Deglobalization 2.0, updated using IMF WEO April 2020

The Great Depression of the 1930s with its enormous negative impact on world openness and economic welfare was preceded by the worst pandemic of the previous century: the Spanish Flu. Estimates of its death toll vary widely from 20 to 100 million fatalities. With a world population of about two billion people, that amounts to a mortality rate of 1-5%. With COVID-19 these numbers look like a chilling possibility as well.

The pandemic that preceded the Great Depression did not cause it. Recovery of the recession triggered by the Spanish Flu was relatively quick and spontaneous. World trade did not collapse. A major difference between the context of the Spanish Flu and the economic background against which COVID-19 now is emerging is that our world was already in the downward phase of Deglobalization 2.0 when COVID-19 hit. The pandemic appeared at top of the deglobalization wave.

Pandemics are signs of the times

Indeed, in hindsight the Spanish Flu was a sign of the impact of a virus on a globalized world, in a sense a warning of a turning point in globalization. That turning point was due to the rising costs and decreasing benefits of globalization. It would bring the world what I have called Deglobalization 1.0.

COVID-19 can of course not be seen as such a sign, but the fact that preparation for pandemics was not sufficient, in addition to the breakdown of international cooperation, reflect the second underlying mechanism of deglobalization. We can observe both in the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the Great Recession that the leading power of the time (the hegemon) deserted the rules of the game that underpinned globalization and were actually designed by its interest in an open trade and investment climate. An open, stable and relatively peaceful system allows other countries to develop and grow faster, capturing a larger share of the benefits of globalization. In the early phase of globalization, a smaller share from a larger economic pie may still be an improvement. At some point, the costs of being a hegemon, however, outweigh the benefits. This is where the emergence of China as the new hegemon comes into play.

It is ironic, but sad, that the United States and the United Kingdom (the hegemons that helped to build a constellation in which trade, democracy, and peace were reinforcing aspects of the world order) are spoiling global and European governance. Proceeding with Brexit is a dangerous mistake, but it is an outright disaster that the United States, in the midst of a pandemic, has cut its support to the World Health Organization, in the same vein as it paralysed the World Trade Organization earlier this year. This attack on global governance is dangerous, but it is not unexpected—it is after all behaviour that one can expect from a declining hegemon in a period of deglobalization.

Lessons from history

The first thing is that isolationism offers no protection against a highly contagious virus. Indeed, probably the scariest thing about the Spanish Flu was its ability to reach even the most remote corners of our planet. Mind you, that was a world without mass tourism, global production networks and refugee flows. We have also learned that sound policies can counteract the negative economic forces that turned the 1930s into the Great Depression.

I do not think that the expansionary monetary policy does any good in this crisis that is essentially a negative supply shock x it is perhaps best seen as a signal – but support of effective demand is welcome especially if it can be organized more efficiently by focusing on the needs of new industries that we need to fight COVID-19—machinery and protective gear for the health sector, the testing industry (including case monitoring), distribution and logistics, and ICT. Finally, we have learned that the deglobalization virus in the 1930s spread especially in autocratically governed countries, but that it first showed up in the democratic world during the recent phase of deglobalization.

A striking difference between autocracies and democracies is the difference in death toll of the virus, and it may reflect the fragmentation and lack of solidarity in modern democracies.

Room for optimism

The first reason to be optimistic is because of the significant resilience of world trade and investment during global crises. Global firms have had a good exercise with the collapse of world trade by 20 percent in 2008. That collapse did set in motion the process of deglobalization, but the good news is that world trade and investment recovered to previous peak levels within a year. The finding that deglobalization started during the Financial Crisis is also a reason for optimism because Deglobalization 2.0 thus preceded Brexit and the “Make America Great Again” movement.

We should not confuse the symptoms and the disease. The attack on supranational governance has an underlying disease that can be cured if we fight the underlying causes that have driven the deglobalization process so far, that is greater inequality and a lackluster trickling down of the benefits of international trade and investment.

And last but not least, the outlook for openness of the world economy is still much better than in the 1930s. Yes, deglobalization exists. Yes openness will be much lower than previously expected. But as illustrated in Figure 1, it will in all likelihood remain at a level that is two to three times the level in the 1950s. Even if trade and investment flows would decrease according to the WTOs gloom and doom scenario our societies would remain much more open than in the 1950s, connected via the internet at a level never seen before in history.


This blogpost appeared April 21 on Edward Elgar blog and is reproduced with permission. Readers of Bliss can order the paperback Deglobalization 2.0 by Peter A.G. van Bergeijk at a discount (enter VANB15 in the discount code box at the basket stage of ordering here). The article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


pag van bergeijkAbout the authors:

Peter van Bergeijk (www.petervanbergeijk.org) is Professor of International Economics and Macroeconomics at the ISS.

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The imperial intentions of Trump’s trade war babble by Andrew M. Fischer

In defence of his trade war with China, Trump claims that ‘when you’re $500bn down you can’t lose.’ The problem with this stance is that persistent US trade deficits with China are arguably a sign of US strength or even imperial privilege, not weakness. However, on this issue, he has much of conventional economics wisdom supporting him in his delusions that the US is being treated unfairly or is ‘behind’ based on these deficits.


Trump’s trade tirades are being vigorously disputed by liberal economists the world over, although the riposte is usually in defence of free trade and existing trade deals. However, many of these same economists have promulgated the underlying idea that US trade deficits are the result of some sort of disadvantage or decline.

For instance, as I discussed in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, many prominent economists such as Paul Krugman argued then (and many still do now) that China’s undervalued currency gave it an unfair advantage, causing deficits and even financial bubbles in the US. Many economists on the left have taken a similar line of argument. For instance, Yanis Varoufakis argues that US trade deficits have planted the seeds for the downfall of the US ‘Minotaur’ because it has made the country increasingly dependent on the willingness of other countries to finance these deficits.

Beyond methodological nationalism

The problem with this reasoning is that international trade, income and financial data mostly represent the trade, income and asset movements made by corporations. Conversely, our system of international accounts is severely out of date given that these data are still reported on the basis of country residence rather than ownership. It also treats these flows as if they were arm’s length trades in final goods, or so-called ‘autonomous’ flows of income or finance, rather than the internalised operations of lead firms and their networks of subsidiaries, affiliates, or subcontractors.

The country-based framing of the international accounts serves to obscure the very resilient and virulent foundations of US power, based in the private corporate sector. Corporate ownership and/or control of trade, income and financial flows have become increasingly internationalised, even while remaining predominantly centred in the North and with a strong allegiance to maintaining US dominance. International efforts to track and govern these aspects of ownership or control from the 1970s onwards have also been systematically undermined, especially by the US. As a result, the antiquated international accounting system is very unfit for the task of tracking these corporate activities. Most of the discussion on global imbalances avoids this reality.

In this sense, as argued by Jan Kregel already a decade ago, the US shift to systemic trade deficits from the late 1970s onwards is best understood as a reflection of this internationalisation of US-centred corporations as well as the increased profitability of these US corporations operating in the international economy.

A simple stylised example is the iPhone. When Apple sends a production order to a subcontractor, this is not recorded as a service export from the US. However, the return export of the iPhone is reported as a goods export from China, even though the export is contracted by Apple, a US company. The iPhone is then sold in the US at many times its exported value, and the vast majority of the value of the final sale is accrued in the US. The US has a merchandise trade deficit in this production and distribution network, even though this deficit is associated with the immense value-added accrued in the US and the profitability of Apple. The same applies when Walmart exports from itself in China to itself in the US.

The idea that China’s surpluses and foreign exchange reserves constitute increasing power is similarly based on this flawed understanding of international accounts. As I have argued in 2010 and 2015, a rarely acknowledged attribute of the explosion of China’s surpluses in the 2000s was their rapid denationalisation. Foreign funded enterprises (FFEs)—most fully foreign funded—quickly came to dominate the exports of China, and then the trade surpluses themselves, to the extent that by 2011, FFEs accounted for over 84% of the merchandise trade surplus.

This share subsequently fell sharply due to a surge in exports from non-FFEs, although this was also in a context of falling current account surpluses as a proportion of GDP. As shown in the figure below, this was due to increasing deficits on China’s services account, which reached 2% of China’s GDP in 2014-16, knocking out about half of its goods surplus in 2014 and 2016.

China also returned to running deficits on its income account from 2009 onwards (with the slight exception of 2014), despite being a major international creditor. As explained by Yu Yongding, this is because China’s foreign assets mostly earn very low returns, such as in US treasury bills, whereas foreign investment in China is very profitable, possibly in excess of 20-30% per year, thereby cancelling out any of the balance of payments benefits that would normally accrue to being a major international creditor.

Graph Andrew Fischer article
Source: Author’s calculations from IMF balance of payments and international finance statistics (last accessed 21 March 2018).

Notably, the US is the mirror image of China: it is a major international debtor and yet it earns a surplus on its income account. Both situations were due to profit remittances, e.g. profits leaving China and entering the US. Indeed, Yilmaz Akyüz estimates that the net current account position of FFEs in China has been in deficit in recent years, meaning that their profit remittances were cancelling out their merchandise trade surpluses.

In other words, after the exceptional but historically brief period of running very large ‘twin surpluses’ (on both the current and financial accounts), the current account structure of China has reverted to a pattern that, as I explain in a recent article, is common among peripheral developing countries. The pattern is characterised by goods trade surpluses that counterbalance service account deficits (dominated by payments to foreign corporations) as well as the profit remittances of foreign corporations (and of other foreign investments, whether licit or illicit).

These rapid transformations have been reflective of the increasingly deep integration of China’s foreign trade into international networks dominated by Northern-based transnational corporations. The model has resulted in exceptional export performance, although this has occurred through the injection of considerable but underappreciated sources of vulnerability.

Indeed, as noted by Yu Yongding, from 2015 to 2017 the People’s Bank of China undertook the largest intervention in foreign exchange markets that any central bank has ever taken in order to prevent a run on the renminbi. This depleted its foreign exchange reserves by over 1 trillion US dollars. In another recent article, Yu adds that from 2011 to 2017, around 1.3 trillion US dollars of China’s foreign assets had effectively disappeared, probably reflecting capital flight. Together with the run on the renminbi, these were the principal reasons that the Bank of China put a hold on capital account liberalisation and tightened capital controls to an extent not seen since the East Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.

Considering that much of such capital flight is destined for the US, either directly or indirectly via multiple offshore financial centres, in addition to the profitability that US corporations derive from China’s trade with the US, it is clear that the US is in the more powerful position in this bilateral relationship.

The imperial utility of trade decline discourses

From this perspective, the deep US trade deficits that have persisted since the early 1980s arguably represent a new form of advanced capitalist imperialism, the emergence of a system of tributes whereby states around the world effectively subsidise the expansion of US-centred capitalism. At the very least, the deficits are signs of a structural shift underlying global power relations, based on an increasingly predatory form of financialised capitalism, with the US still at its helm.

Much like with discourses of Soviet rivalry in the 1960s and 1970s, the current babble of US decline and lagging serve an ideological purpose within these continuing transmutations of US-centered power. It is effectively aimed at subordinating other countries and shifting the burden of adjustment onto them, while distracting attention away from the US-centered, corporate-led restructurings of global production systems that underlie US deficits in the first place.

 


Main photo: https://pixabay.com/en/donald-trump-politician-america-1547274/

About the author:

Andrew mug shot.JPGAndrew M. Fischer is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Development Studies at the ISS, and laureate of the European Research Council Starting Grant, which he won in the 2014 round. He is also the founding editor of the book series of the UK and Ireland Development Studies Association, published by Oxford University Press, titled Critical Frontiers of International Development Studies. He is also editor of the journal Development and Change. His forthcoming book, Poverty as Ideology, won the 2015 International Studies in Poverty Prize, awarded by the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP).