The Economist advocates turning the clock back on trade

Last week’s Economist led on the dangers of changing political attitudes to world trade. The paper suggested that the rise of “zero-sum thinking” threatens capitalism, liberal democracy and the livelihoods of many. But we live in a world were the conventional wisdom of economists is being challenged – from inflation to interest rates to economic growth. The conventional wisdom on trade needs to be challenged too: not because the economics is wrong, but because the context has changed.

There are two central foundations to economists’ understanding of the benefits of trade. One is the logic of comparative advantage, one of the first insights of modern economics when it got going more than two centuries ago. What matters when resources are constrained (as they almost always are) is opportunity costs, and not absolute costs. It is more efficient for for a less productive supplier to produce goods, if the more efficient one is better able to produce other goods that are in short supply. It is one of the first things economics students are taught, and one of the most important challenges to “zero-sum thinking”, which suggests that imports are bad because they put local people out of work. Those people can be redeployed to make things things more productively in world terms, meaning that everybody can benefit.

The second foundation for the economic benefits of trade is economies of scale and the benefits of specialisation (or economies of scope). Industries may not have critical mass in their own market – but through trade they can access bigger markets, benefiting everybody. This idea can work alongside comparative advantage (the concentration of watchmakers in Switzerland presents economies of scope and scale, which in turn leads to comparative advantage, for example). That makes them easy to muddle. Economies of scale and scope do not necessarily lead to comparative advantage, and you can have comparative advantage in a particular area without economies of scale or scope. This needs to be picked through with care – which alas The Economist seldom does. Now let’s step back and look at how world trade has evolved in the last 40 years or so.

The massive explosion in global trade in the 1990s and 2000s is mainly explained by comparative advantage. The thing to understand about comparative advantage is that it is driven by differences in economic structure, which create differences in opportunity costs: it is a function of difference. China, the largest driver of this surge in global trade, was a very different place to the developed countries it traded with in 1990. A vast number of people were still employed on the land, in highly inefficient agriculture; in the developed world the agricultural workforce was nearly insignificant, while producing much more food than it could consume. By shifting workers from agriculture to manufacturing in China, a lot more manufacturing goods could be produced, with any shortfalls in agricultural production made up for by developed world production with a negligible increase in workforce. This meant that Chinese manufactured goods were dirt cheap, while its agricultural produce was expensive – a colossal opportunity for world trade, even if Chinese manufacturing productivity was much lower than in the developed world. The process worked something like this: low agricultural productivity ensured low wages; low wages meant cheap manufacturing products, even with low manufacturing productivity. The picture was a lot more complicated than this – it wasn’t actually a case of China importing grain while exporting washing machines (they imported more capital goods than food) – but comparative advantage was the driver.

That is all Economics 101. But while economists understand how comparative advantage works in principle, they are surprisingly ignorant of how it works in practice. It has improved impossible to model the dynamics of comparative advantage in a way that produces the detailed results and predictions that are most economists’ day job. So, after they have completed their undergraduate studies, few economists think much about it. If they did they would me more alive to the issue of convergence. The Chinese economy, like the Japanese and South Korean economies before it, did not stand still. Productivity shot up, especially in agriculture, and the agricultural workforce rapidly diminished, while that of manufacturing and services rose. Convergence with the developed world happened at astonishing speed, and as that happened the differences that drove comparative advantage diminished. Developed countries started to find Chinese products becoming more expensive. The incentives for long range trade between China and the rest of the world diminished. This hurt developed countries much more than it did the Chinese – as the Chinese benefited directly from increased productivity and rising wages. It is, I believe, one of the reasons for sluggish growth in the developed world since the great financial crisis of 2007-09, though it is almost never mentioned as a factor (and certainly not by The Economist), in spite of the great economist Paul Samuelson drawing attention to it.

This is where the second factor can come into play – economies of scale and scope. In Europe, for example, the leading economies converged in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries. Comparative advantage diminished. But, after the Second World War, trade within the continent flourished, so clearly something else was behind it. Why, for example, did Germany, France, Britain and Italy all have substantial car industries, all with a lot of cross-border trade? This shouldn’t happen under comparative advantage, unless the cars each country made were somehow very different from each other. In fact the economics of motor manufacture meant consolidation into larger and larger firms was required to be competitive. Cross-border trade gave consumers more choice, and the other benefits of competition, if their own country only had room for one or two car firms. As Europe developed its single market, economic benefits flowed – but on nothing on scale that flows between more diverse economies. There are two sorts of benefit here. The first is that the benefits of economies of scale lifting productivity; this can work in quite a similar way to comparative advantage, with some countries specialising and others happy to have cheaper products (the aero industry is a bit like this). The second derives from good old fashioned competition between businesses in different countries. This is very different, as this only works if multiple countries are making similar products. We must also bear in mind that as the gains or more limited, it requires a level playing field to work; if one country suffers a systemic disadvantage, such as high transport costs because they two oceans away, then the benefits of trade diminish. That is one reason that Europe had to develop detailed rules for free trade, while the Asian economies’ rise was based on much cruder arrangements, such as World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

The important thing to realise about economies of scale and scope is that they are dependent on technology and not any iron logic of economics, as is the case for comparative advantage, although you wouldn’t think it from the way many executives from large businesses talk. And technology changes with time. The late 20th Century was particularly good for economies of scale, but that is changing. And that is for two reasons. The first is the rise of technologies that diminish the costs of short production runs and individualisation (indeed the same edition of The Economist featured this in its business section – a new theory of the firm – one of the articles featured on the cover). The second is the diminishing importance of manufactured products in the economy as whole, compared to services, such as healthcare, which are largely untradeable. All this points to reduced benefits from trade, especially between big geographical blocks like America, Europe and East Asia, as opposed to within them.

Where does that leave the current debate on trade? The first point is that I don’t think the benefits of trade are diminishing because of political obstacles; I think those political obstacles are arising because the benefits of trade are diminishing. The second thing is that, for developed economies, there is no great box of goodies that can be unlocked through trade liberalisation to help flagging growth along. Doubtless there are further benefits to be had – and especially with less developed countries if done in the right way, but not on the scale that saw the economic transformation of the 1990s and 2000s.

Now let’s look at biggest specific issue bothering The Economist – the problem of US government subsidies for green industries. Europeans are worried that this will make their own industries uncompetitive. That is a legitimate worry, but if Europeans match those subsidies with their own, the damage will be limited – and, indeed, it might hasten the transition to clean technology, with the benefits that will flow from that. The Economist worries that it will lead to inefficiency and, horror, duplication. And yet duplication is a prerequisite of competition.

Still, trade remains integral to the modern way of life and deserves continued political attention. For some things, the importance of both comparative advantage and economies of scale and scope remain undiminished. Only a few countries have direct access to metals such as cobalt and lithium, which play a critical role modern industries. And serious economies of scale or scope remain in others, such as the mining of iron ore (Australia has unmatched scale economies), or the manufacture of advanced microchips (Taiwan leads in scope economies). But the key the issue is not just economic costs, it is the potential for serious dislocation if supplies are interrupted. The modern economy contains many bottlenecks. We have to balance the benefits of short term cost savings with the risks of natural disaster and conflict. Alas the solutions are likely to make manufactured products yet more expensive.

The reason for the rise of “zero-sum thinking” is that the economics of trade is moving in that direction too, though the benefits of free trade remain substantial. It is not surprising that other issues loom larger than trade freedom, such as security of supply and the need to accelerate the transition to clean energy. It is easy to understand why The Economist wants to turn the clock back to the days of easy trade gains and steady economic growth – but it does not help prepare its readers for the hard choices ahead.

Re-shoring: good news that does not make us feel better

The British economy is perplexing economists. The economy as a whole is growing but we as individuals don’t seem to be any better off. Unemployment tumbles but pay stays rooted to the spot. This is called the “productivity puzzle”. Added to this puzzle is the phenomenon of “re-shoring”: the reversal of offshoring, the process by which manufacturing and services were migrated abroad, typically to China or India. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, made a speech promoting it last week.  It is worth stepping back to think through just what is going on.

After all, when offshoring was popular, in the years of the Labour government from 1997 to 2010, it was hailed as a good thing in the long term, worth a little disruption in the short run. It meant that prices for goods and services were kept down, and therefore our collective living standards improved. Looking at the components of retail price inflation in the 2000s told quite a startling story: prices of manufactured goods were actually falling. Locally produced services could advance in price by 4% or so, and the Bank of England could still meet its 2% inflation target. That 4% reflected the advance in average pay – so advancing living standards were largely explained by lower priced imports. Offshoring was a very important part of this phenomenon.

And this conformed very neatly to the elementary economic theory of Comparative Advantage, first explained by 18th century economist David Ricardo, and part of any first-year economics course. This says that the benefits of trade arise from differences in opportunity cost, or comparative advantage, and not actual cost, or absolute efficiency. The Chinese had a comparative advantage in basic manufacturing; Britain had a comparative advantage in high-end services. So, even if British workers were more efficient than Chinese ones in basic manufacturing, it still made sense for Britons to import from China – and both countries drew benefits. Trade between the developed and developing world follows the predictions of Ricardo’s theory very closely. And supporters of globalisation, like the Labour big beast Peter Mandelson, pointed this out endlessly.

But economists rarely follow through the logic of Comparative Advantage. If two identical economies have identical opportunity costs for different goods, there are no gains from trade (not on the basis of this theory, anyway). Trade arises from differences in the shape of economies. Since developed and developing economies are very different, big gains from trade are to be expected. But what happens as the developing economy starts to catch up with, and resemble the developed one? The gains from trade reduce. I have taken the trouble to work this out with a crude model of a developed and developing economy. The catch up process is marked by an appreciation of the developing country’s exchange rate, so that it converges with purchasing power parity. The interesting thing is where the loss in gains from trade falls. The developing economy becomes more productive and efficient, so its losses from reduced trade are made up for by gains in productivity. But for the developed economy, there is no corresponding level of compensation; the gains from trade disappear and the economy is worse off as a result.

And this is exactly what seems to be happening now. China and (in a rather different way) India are catching up; their exchange rates appreciate relative to ours. Their wages rise faster than ours. The gains from trade disappear, and it is the developed countries (us) that pay the price. Re-shoring is simply part of this process. The great gains from globalisation prove to be quite temporary, in this respect at least.

But as China and India catch up with the West and Japan, won’t other developing countries take their place, just as China and India took the place of South Korea and Taiwan? Vietnam, Indonesia and African economies stand ready. But these emergent economies are as interested in dealing with China’s and India’s vast economies as they are with the developed world’s. The world is rebalancing and the old economies of the west cannot expect to stay in the driving seat.

So, what’s the bottom line? I think re-shoring is one of the factors that explains Britain’s productivity puzzle. We had outsourced lower productivity jobs abroad, and they are returning. It is good news for employment, and will help balance the country’s trade. It will make the British economy more sustainable. But it will not make us feel any better off.

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.