Globalisation is at a turning point

After a period of relative silence the idea of “globalisation” is re-entering political commentary.  But almost none of the commentators seem have seem to have grasped its dynamics – and that its pressure on developed economies is easing rapidly to both good and bad effect.

Maybe it’s Davos.  But globalisation has been coming up a lot lately.  It is the subject of this week’s Bagehot Column in the Economist, which claims that its effect lie behind a lot of the political debate in Britain.  An FT article drew attention to recent speeches by President Obama and French Presidential hopeful Francois Hollande apparently attacking its effects. And the IPPR launched a heavy (108 page) report on The Third Age of Globalisation, recommending that Britain in particular develops a proper industrial strategy.

I have already worried about how much political debate centres on abstract nouns, in particular “capitalism” and “neoliberalism” (a favourite on the left).  “Globalisation” has to be added to this list.  It is much better for the debate to move to the concrete (income and wealth distribution, for example).  But there is value in trying to unpick the concept a bit.  And what arises from this, at least in my view, is that the globalisation process is changing in way that few commentators recognise.

“Globalisation” is used as a collective word to refer to three inter-related phenomena in particular: international trade, cross-border investment, and international finance.  These three have worked together in the last couple of decades (the IPPR’s “third age”) to transform the world economy, with developing economies being at the heart of it.  It is associated with positive outcomes: the rise of so many developing economies, and negative – the increase in inequality in developed and developing nations alike.  But to understand how this process will evolve it is best to consider the trade aspect, from which all the rest flows.

The central phenomenon had been the growth of trade between less developed economies and more developed developed ones, with the former taking over the manufacture of many consumer goods, and also many services too.  Economists find this type of trade particularly easy to understand: it is a straightforward application of the principle of comparative advantage, first described some 200 years ago by David Ricardo.

Comparative advantage is one of those ideas that tend to separate “proper” economists from those that just try to follow economics from newspapers.  I think many of the latterle think it is similar to the much more familiar idea of competitive advantage – but it is quite different.  Basically it says that benefits in trade between two economies arise when there are differences between them in the opportunity costs of producing different goods.  So if one economy can produce 10 tons of wheat to one of beef, and another 5 tons, there are benefits in trade which each economy specialising in the good where it has comparative advantage.  In this case the first economy has a comparative advantage in beef and the second in wheat.  It makes no difference how efficient each economy is in producing either good.  And a comparative advantage in one good means a disadvantage in another – unlike competitive advantage (which applies to individual businesses rather than to whole economies) where one party can dominate the other.

So this theory predicts that there will be trade between economies that are different to each other – which is why the trade between developed and developing economies is to easy to explain.  Economists struggle in using the theory to explain trade between similar, developed economies – but that’s another story, and it is a different type of trade.

Developing countries have emerged with a comparative advantage in low and middle tech manufacturing.  Developing countries typically have the balancing comparative advantages in higher-end goods and services, raw materials (where they have endowments) and agriculture.  Of course what we notice is the very low wages in developing countries, which make us think that the whole business is unfair.  But it is a sideshow, and very easy to explain using basic economics.  Wage rates are low because the developing economy as a whole is massively unproductive.  The manufacturing plants may be relatively efficient, but other industry, and especially agriculture, is so unproductive that it drags wages down for the whole labour market.  If factories paid higher wages, nobody would man the farms and people would starve (to greatly oversimplify things).  It takes some getting used to the idea that developed countries have a comparative advantage in agriculture, when so much of a developing country’s resources are tied up in the sector – but that is what is going on.  Full free trade in agriculture would put most developing world farmers out of business – except where tropical conditions gave them an advantage (bananas, perhaps).

And here’s the point.  As the developing economy advances this picture changes.  More and more people come off the land, and agriculture becomes more productive.  Wages across the economy rise, and the developing economy slowly comes to resemble a developed one.  The gains from trade disappear.  Trade continues but it is on much more equal terms and much more about the competitive advantage of particular businesses than about the circumstances of a whole economy.

And this is exactly what has happened.  In the 1990s the globalisation trend was mainly about the so-called “tiger” economies, of Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, and so on.  I remember Tory ministers wandering around saying how this country was under existential threat unless workers’ pay and conditions were cut so that we the country would be competitive.  But eventually a South Korean firm decided to build a factory here because it was cheaper producing goods here than at home.  South Korea had caught up.  But as the Tigers caught up and went to the next phase, China and India entered the picture, and gave the process a boost.  The two most populous countries in the world were bound to have a massive effect and the whole process accelerated.

But these countries are catching up.  This is especially clear in China, where rising wages have become a big issue.  This week’s Economist has a very interesting briefing on the subject.  The same processes are visible in the rather more chaotic India too.  In both cases the attention is shifting to raising the standard of living for the domestic population, rather than international competitiveness.  The worm has turned.

And on to the next wave?  There are plenty of less developed economies in the queue: Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and various countries in Africa.  But none have the size and weight of the big two.  And it’s not just a matter of supply: the developed world is becoming that much bigger as new countries enter it – so impact of these poorer countries entering the market will be spread more widely; they will be busy exporting to India and China.

So the basic driving force behind the globalisation trend of the last 20 years is grinding to a halt.  What effect does that have on us in the developed countries?  The good news is that the pressure to offshore will ease, producing a bit more stability on our work landscape.  The bad news is that the gains on trade will vanish.  This has been an important part of the general rise in living standards in the last couple of decades, which we have been relying on to produce forward momentum to a greater extent than many realise.  Another reason why the “new normal” is slower growth.

So the developed countries will stay grumpy, but more from the slowdown of globalisation than from its continued rise.  But the big question is whether the trends to inequality will reverse.  On that score things are much less clear.