Asia’s Fragile Strategic Miracle


August 20, 2017

Asia’s Fragile Strategic Miracle

by Richard N.Haass*

http://www.project-syndicate.org

*Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. He is the author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

It is too soon to know whether and how the challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will be resolved. But it is not too early to consider what that challenge could mean for a part of the world that has in many ways defied history.

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The moniker “Asian Miracle” goes some way toward conveying just how extraordinary the last half-century of economic growth in many Asian countries has been. The first economy to take off was Japan, which, despite a slowdown in recent decades and a relatively small population, remains the world’s third-largest economy.

China’s ascent began a bit later, but is no less impressive: the country achieved over three decades of double-digit average GDP growth, making it the world’s second-largest economy today. India, soon to be the world’s most populous country, has lately been experiencing an impressive 7-8% annual rate of GDP growth. And the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations averaged some 5% growth in recent years.

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Crony Capitalism and Patronage

But contemporary Asia’s economic miracle rests on a less-discussed strategic miracle: the maintenance of peace and order. Since the end of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s, Asia has stood out for its lack of major conflicts within or across borders – an achievement that distinguishes it from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and even Latin America.

This stability is all the more extraordinary because Asia is home to a large number of unresolved disputes. When World War II ended in 1945, Japan and Russia did not sign a peace treaty, owing largely to their competing claims over the Southern Kuril Islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories. Eight years later, the Korean War also ended without a formal peace treaty, leaving behind a divided and heavily armed peninsula.

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Asia’s Future depends on this handshake between Abe and Abe?

Today, competing territorial claims – mostly involving China – continue to stoke tension across Asia. Japan is embroiled in a dispute with China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the East China Sea. More than half a dozen other Asian countries disagree vehemently with China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. And India is at loggerheads with China over their long-shared Himalayan border.

Despite all of these tensions, Asia has remained largely at peace, partly because no country has wanted to jeopardize economic growth by initiating a conflict. This perspective is most clearly associated with Deng Xiaoping. In leading China’s process of economic “reform and opening-up” from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Deng explicitly emphasized the importance of a stable external environment to facilitate internal economic development. The reliance on regional trade ties to support growth and employment has provided yet another incentive to sustain peace.

But economics was probably not the only factor at play. Because most Asian countries are host to relatively homogenous societies with strong national identities, the chance of civil conflicts erupting and spilling over national borders is relatively low. Last but certainly not least, America’s strong military presence in Asia – which underpins its robust regional alliance system – has reduced the need for Asian countries to develop large military programs of their own, and has reinforced a status quo that discourages armed adventurism.

These factors have contributed to peace and stability in Asia, but they cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, they are now coming under increasing pressure – putting the strategic miracle that has facilitated Asia’s economic miracle in jeopardy.

What changed? For one thing, China’s economic rise has allowed it to expand its military capabilities. As China adopts an increasingly assertive foreign policy – exemplified by its border dispute with India and territorial claims in the South China Sea – other countries are increasingly motivated to boost their own military spending. As that happens, it becomes more likely that a disagreement or incident will escalate into a conflict.

Meanwhile, the US – the only power with the capability to offset China – seems to be retreating from its traditional role in Asia. Already, US President Donald Trump’s administration has withdrawn his country from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and confronted US allies on their defense spending and persistent trade imbalances. More generally, the growing unpredictability of US foreign policy could weaken deterrence and prompt allies to take their security into their own hands.

The most immediate cause of potential instability is North Korea, which now poses not just a conventional military threat to South Korea, but also a nuclear threat to all of Asia, as well as to the US. This could invite a devastating preemptive strike from the US. But, if the US refrains from military action, the results could also be catastrophic, if the North actually does strike. Even just the threat of such a strike could be destabilizing, if it drives concerned US allies such as South Korea and Japan to increase their military spending and reconsider their non-nuclear postures.

Should any of these scenarios come to pass, the consequences would be far-reaching. Beyond the human costs, they would threaten the economic prosperity of not only Asia, but the entire world. A conflict between the US and China, in particular, could poison the single most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century.

The good news is that none of this is inevitable. There is still time for governments to embrace restraint, explore diplomacy, and reconsider policies that threaten to undermine stability. Unfortunately, we are living in a time of rising nationalism and at times irresponsible leadership. Add to that inadequate regional political-military arrangements, and it is not at all certain that wisdom will triumph over recklessness, or that Asia’s unique decades-long peace will endure.

 

Malaysia Sdn Berhad: Book Review


August 11, 2017

Malaysia Sdn Berhad: Fox guarding the henhouse?

BOOK REVIEW | Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia. Edmund T Gomez et al. Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), Kuala Lumpur.

by Prof. Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram

http://www.malaysiakini.com

In the late 1980s, the young Terence Gomez proved himself to be the worthy successor to a Malaysian research tradition begun by James Puthucheary in Singapore’s Changi Prison almost three decades earlier. Gomez single-handedly transformed our understanding of the role of politics in the ownership and control of the Malaysian corporate sector.

Employing novel methods as needed and appropriate, the auto-didact researcher showed how official policies and institutions had enabled an earlier generation of selected Malay business professionals to take over some commanding heights of the Malaysian economy.

Change and continuity

In their new book, Gomez and his team of researchers chart developments over the last three decades since he began his pioneering work, paying particular attention to developments following the 1997-1998 crisis. That crisis exposed the vulnerability of the earlier expansion closely associated with the Umno leadership then.

The corporate restructuring and refinancing institutions and processes that followed were not simply bailouts at the public expense, as alleged by some critics then. Instead, as the book shows, most major assets are now under new management, ultimately controlled by the current prime minister cum finance minister.

The authors focus on seven government-linked investment companies (GLICs), namely Khazanah Nasional, Permodalan Nasional (PNB), both under MoF Inc, Kumpulan Wang Simpanan Pekerja (KWSP or EPF), Kumpulan Wang Persaraan (KWAP), Lembaga Tabung Angkatan Tentera (LTAT) and Tabung Haji.

Malaysians may be comforted to learn that of the seven, only Tabung Haji is run by politicians, and the others by professionals. But after all, 1MDB too has been run by professionals (Jho Low is a Wharton graduate) while Felda Global Venture’s previous boss claimed to have a doctorate. The not-so-magnificent seven covered do not include others, such as those in the Felda group, controlled directly by the PM since 2004.

Most bumiputera entrepreneurs who emerged in the dozen years or so before the 1997 crisis also had impressive professional credentials. The apparently better performance of the more recent crop of professional managers may have less to do with their qualifications, than the ethos, checks and balances of the new institutional arrangements introduced and enforced by some GLICs.

Government control

The range of activities undertaken by government-linked companies (GLCs) overseen by the GLICs includes familiar ones from the 1980s such as utilities, finance, plantations, property and construction. Media, previously controlled by the ruling party and its trustees, are now held by GLCs, while investments in hospitals and other services have also grown. With development finance institutions now under GLCs, their original objectives and rationales have been undermined by commercial considerations.

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The Gomez team has done Malaysians a great service by describing how things have changed, tracing the bewildering variety of new arrangements. However, how to interpret this variety remains moot, and some informed readers will have their own bones to pick with what is considered most significant in their analysis.

Protracted crisis

Two economic developments help us better understand the recent growing unrest, especially among informed Malays. First, the Saudi-initiated oil price collapse in late 2014 precipitated a more general commodity price collapse. Meanwhile, lacklustre growth in Malaysia since 1998 has been exacerbated by premature deindustrialisation unconvincingly presented as inevitable in achieving developed country status.

Second, despite heavy censorship, news has been leaking out of corporate abuses involving not only 1MDB, but also FGV and other corporations associated with the legendary ‘Malaysian Official 1’. Easy money from China may have helped the regime with its immediate financing problems, but a generation familiar with mounting personal debt senses that this is at the public’s, taxpayers’ and future generations’ expense.

This ‘double whammy’ has been reflected in the much-weakened ringgit and by other indicators. Meanwhile, there have been heightened concerns about the recent foreign investor resurgence, especially with official non-disclosure of ownership data since 2008. Recent erosion of public faith in the state and ruling coalition has been accelerated by unprecedented recent abuses for personal gain and nepotism.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Even if successfully challenged on some details, this important book should open an important new debate on how Malaysia is to progress. Gomez offers some proposals, apparently at odds with the book’s sponsor. Others, especially participants in and observers of Malaysia’s corporate sector and political economy, will promote their own alternative purported solutions. The ensuing debate can only benefit the nation, as Gomez’s first decade of publications shaped the earlier debate and reforms, even if most outcomes may have disappointed him.

While this regime is undoubtedly associated with unprecedented abuses, there is little in the study to support the publisher’s faith in leaving things to the market and simplistic insistence on government withdrawal from the economy as a universal panacea to the myriad problems the nation faces. In the face of the wide-ranging and complex issues involved, this would be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Unsurprisingly, this publication on the regime’s role in ownership and control of contemporary corporate Malaysia is silent on the current political crisis as the nation approaches the next general election. Nevertheless, IDEAs must be congratulated for sponsoring and publishing this important work.

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JOMO KS received the 2007 Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

 

 

The Marshall Plan and “America First”


August 6, 2017

The Marshall Plan and “America First”

by Benn Steil

https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/the-marshall-plan-and-america-first-by-benn-steil-2017-08

 

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General George C. Marshall–Secretary of State

 

Over the years 1948-1952, the US devoted the equivalent of $800 billion in today’s dollars to the reconstruction of western Europe. But whereas the Marshall Plan is widely regarded as the largest and most effective foreign-aid program in history, it is less widely appreciated for being the most successful example of an “America First” foreign policy.

Six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the White House website still proudly proclaims his administration’s new “America First Foreign Policy.” No longer will the United States allow its physical and economic security to be undermined by what Trump calls “bad deals.” Alliances and trade pacts will all be revisited and, where necessary, renegotiated to ensure that “American interests” are paramount.

What is striking about this policy, however, is not that it places American interests first. It is the misguided way in which those interests are being defined.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the US established cooperative structures designed to address the catastrophic failure of international economic and security arrangements in the inter-war years. From 1945 to 1949, the administration of President Harry S. Truman propelled the establishment of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And the 1947 Marshall Plan created the institutional machinery that, over the subsequent decade, paved the path to European integration and the eventual creation of the European Union.

On November 29, 1948, President Harry S Truman conferred with the top leaders of the Marshall Plan—(left to right) George C. Marshall, Paul G. Hoffman (1891–1974), and Averell Harriman (1891–1986).
On November 29, 1948, President Harry S Truman conferred with the top leaders of the Marshall Plan—(left to right) George C. Marshall, Paul G. Hoffman), and Averell Harriman

These ambitious undertakings were a conscious repudiation of George Washington’s admonition, delivered in his Farewell Address at the end of his presidency, that the US should avoid foreign entanglements, particularly with Europe. They were born not of charity or naiveté, but of a clear-eyed recognition that America’s role in the world had to change as its global connections, and therefore its vulnerabilities, expanded. As Senator Arthur Vandenberg, once a leading Republican isolationist, reflected: “My convictions regarding international cooperation and collective security for peace took firm form on the afternoon of the Pearl Harbor attack. That day ended isolationism for any realist.”

From Isolationism to Global America

Vandenberg became the Republican Party’s driving force in support of the legislation that financed the Marshall Plan, the 70th anniversary of which is being commemorated this summer. With Britain’s empire collapsing and Stalin’s ascendant, US officials under Secretary of State George C. Marshall set out to rebuild Western Europe as an integrated bulwark against communist authoritarianism. This massive, costly, and ambitious undertaking would confront Europeans and Americans alike with a vision at odds with their history and self-conceptions.

Over the years 1948-1952, the US devoted $130 billion in current dollars to the reconstruction of Western Europe. As a share of total US output over the period, this would be equivalent to $800 billion today. But whereas the Marshall Plan is widely regarded as the largest and most effective foreign-aid program in history, it is less widely appreciated as the most successful example of an “America First” foreign policy.

Of course, the humanitarian impulse underpinning the Marshall Plan remains at the heart of its enduring legacy worldwide. But the plan was, in fact, the first major component of the new Truman Doctrine, which pledged US support for “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” and of George F. Kennan’s strategy to “contain” the Soviet Union. (Kennan’s famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” also recently marked its 70th anniversary.)

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President Harry S. Truman

Marshall’s State Department believed that unless war-torn Western Europe could be quickly rebuilt, and confidence in liberal-democratic government restored, the European public would seek salvation in populism and authoritarianism. Such a shift among America’s most important trading partners would in turn undermine America’s own physical and economic security, necessitating a massive increase in defense expenditure and government economic control. Only by ensuring that the US had strong, independent allies and stable trade and security relationships, Truman and Marshall believed, could it hope to maintain its own freedoms and way of life.

Establishing a stable environment within the 16 Marshall Plan countries, and thereby enabling trust and cooperation to take hold among government, business, and workers, was vital to the reestablishment of a market economy in Europe. And across the participating countries, US security guarantees and financial support were indispensable to enabling reconstruction and integration to proceed without generating unmanageable domestic or foreign conflict.

Doing Well by Doing Good

Contrary to Soviet propaganda and revisionist Western accounts, America did not aid its allies by forcing its surplus production on them. Had that been the case, Europe’s balance-of-payments deficit (known then as “the dollar gap”) would have widened, which in turn would have frustrated America’s aim to foster European integration. Such a policy would also have exacerbated the postwar shortages that still affected the US economy.

Instead, the Truman administration, supported by a striking change in the priorities of American business lobbies, orchestrated a deft policy shift. Backed by a bipartisan consensus, Truman moved the US from protectionism toward encouragement of imports.

The Marshall Plan’s lead official in Europe, Ambassador Averell Harriman, was steadfast in insisting that “the purpose of [US aid] is to stimulate countries to help themselves,” and that, consistent with the legislation authorizing it, the funds could not be used “to buy surpluses” from “American industry.” In turn, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), America’s premier business lobbying organization at the time, warned its members that “efforts to direct [Marshall] funds to [exporting surpluses] must be firmly resisted.”

The Chamber of Commerce, America’s other major business lobby, echoed NAM, stating that “US exports [must] be consistent with the ability of our customers abroad to pay for them by their own exports.” A State Department directive further stressed that whereas the US sought “non-discrimination in world trade, it is recognized that during the period in which Germany’s balance of payments is in substantial disequilibrium, [it] will, like other countries in the Organization for European Economic Cooperation, find it necessary to restrict imports.” The State Department insisted, therefore, that the US High Commission in Germany not interfere in German trade policy.

Germany First

American underwriting of the European Payments Union (EPU) from 1950 to 1958 deliberately redirected West European imports from the US to Germany. Western Europe’s large dollar deficits between 1945 and 1948 reflected Germany’s disappearance as its main capital goods supplier. The region’s massive reconstruction needs therefore had to be met by the US. But it was an important goal of the Marshall Plan to eliminate simultaneously Germany’s need for American aid and its neighbors’ need for dollar imports by restoring Germany to its traditional export role.

This effort was assisted by a relaxation of official US resistance to currency devaluation abroad. The US recognized, for example, that if Germany could not devalue the new Deutschmark it would simply “revert to [the] tactics of the 1930s” through which it “fostered … exports by dumping and other unethical methods.”

This represented a departure from the mindset of Harry Dexter White, the architect of the 1944 Bretton Woods conference under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. White’s approach was to support US exports by prodding indebted countries to keep their currencies overvalued and to finance trade deficits with more debt – that is, IMF loans. By contrast, under the Marshall Plan, greater US openness to imports and a stronger dollar helped smooth implementation of the GATT and spur a revival of international trade generally.

By recreating a European division of labor, with Germany importing raw materials and exporting capital goods, the Marshall Plan succeeded in cutting the transatlantic umbilical cord through which Western Europe was sucking in unaffordable dollar imports of coal and other industrial supplies. As Europe’s dollar balance strengthened under the EPU, doubling between 1950 and 1956, its governments’ incentives to discriminate against dollar imports weakened as well. The higher dollar balance thus enabled the Marshall Plan countries to begin restoring currency convertibility after the EPU wound down.

The financial assistance provided by the Marshall Plan was also organized in a way that departed from earlier, less successful American efforts. Instead of extending new loans to Europe and deepening its indebtedness, the US wiped out Germany’s debt and extended grants-in-aid to the participating countries. The grants provided a cushion with which the recipient governments alleviated the short-term hardships and insecurity that accompanied important homegrown economic initiatives. And, by severely denting popular support for Western Europe’s Communist parties, which wanted to reject the aid, the Marshall Plan helped America achieve a primary political objective.

The Aid that Ties

The Marshall Plan was, of course, only one component of America’s containment strategy in the early years of the Cold War. Yet economic rehabilitation became a primary tool of its so-called strongpoint defense of critical geostrategic regions, in Northeast Asia as well as in Europe, aimed at building up independent, self-confident, and energetic centers of power capable of resisting Soviet pressure.

“The recovery of Western Europe is a twenty-five to fifty-year proposition,” Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. wrote to Vandenberg in October 1947, “and … the aid which we extend now and in the next three or four years will in the long future result in our having strong friends abroad.” How right he was. America’s containment doctrine successfully guided US foreign policy between appeasement and war for four decades, and the Marshall Plan played a principal role in binding the West together for the struggle.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, so did the communist alliances, which had been built and maintained by Soviet domination and the Kremlin’s willingness – as demonstrated in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 – to impose its will by force. By contrast, the alliances America built, having been forged on genuine partnership and enduring American allegiance, were as strong as ever.

But for how much longer will they remain so? Trump has already walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement. He has threatened to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement and toyed with the sanctity of America’s commitment to the security of its NATO partners. In the name of “America First,” Trump risks transforming US allies into free agents – all of whom, like Trump, will go in search of a better deal. In an age in which America’s relative economic and military power is necessarily declining, this is foolhardy.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – NATO’s mutual defense guarantee – has been invoked only once in the Alliance’s 68-year history. It was invoked not by the US, but by its allies, after New York and Washington, DC, were attacked on September 11, 2001. Could the Trump administration count on such solidarity today? If not, it should ask whether it really wants to allow China, Russia, and others to rewrite the global norms that formed the foundation of America’s post-war prosperity and security. 

 

The Quiet Demise of Austerity


July 21, 2017

The Quiet Demise of Austerity

by James McCormack

James McCormack is Managing Director and Global Head of the Sovereign and Supranational Group at Fitch Ratings.

https://www.project-syndicate.org

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It has been several years since policymakers seriously discussed the merits of fiscal austerity. Debates about the potential advantages of using stimulus to boost short-term economic growth, or about the threat of government debt reaching such a level as to inhibit medium-term growth, have gone silent.

There is no mistaking which side won, and why. Austerity is dead. And as conventional politicians continue to take rearguard action against populist upstarts, they will likely embrace more fiscal-policy easing – or at least avoid tightening – to reap near-certain short-term economic gains. At the same time, they are not likely to heed warnings of the medium-term consequences of higher debt levels, given widespread talk of interest rates remaining “lower for longer.”

One way to confirm that an international fiscal-policy consensus has emerged is to review policymakers’ joint statements. The last time the G7 issued a communiqué noting the importance of fiscal consolidation was at the Lough Erne Summit in 2013, when it was still the G8.

Since then, joint statements have contained amorphous proposals to implement “fiscal strategies flexibly to support growth” and ensure that debt-to-GDP ratios are sustainable. Putting debt on a sustainable path presumably means that it will not increase without interruption. But in the absence of a definite timeframe, debt levels can undergo lengthy deviations, the sustainability of which is open to interpretation.

Objections to austerity were understandable in the period following the 2008 financial crisis. Fiscal policy was being tightened when growth was languishing below 2% (after bouncing back in 2010), and sizeable negative output gaps suggested that overall employment would be slow to recover.

In late 2012, at the peak of the post-crisis austerity debate, advanced economies were in the midst of a multi-year tightening equivalent to more than one percentage point of GDP annually, according to cyclically-adjusted primary balance data from the International Monetary Fund.

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But just as fiscal policy was being tightened when cyclical economic conditions seemed to call for easing, it is now being eased when conditions seem to call for tightening. The output gap in advanced economies has all but disappeared, inflation is picking up, and world economic growth is forecast to be its strongest since 2010.

In 2013, Japan was the only advanced economy to loosen fiscal policy. But this year, the United Kingdom appears to be the only one preparing to tighten its policy – and that is assuming recent political ruptures haven’t altered its fiscal orientation, which will be reflected in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Autumn Statement.

Most observers would agree that government debt levels are uncomfortably high in many advanced economies, so it would be prudent for policymakers to discuss strategies for bringing them down. Moreover, there are several options for doing this, some of which are easier or more effective than others.

In the end, government deleveraging is about the relationship between economic growth and interest rates. The higher the growth rate relative to interest rates, the lower the level of fiscal consolidation needed to stabilize or reduce debt as a share of GDP.

As economic growth continues to pick up while interest rates lag, at least outside the US, fiscal authorities will have further opportunities to reduce debt, and create fiscal space for stimulus measures when the next cyclical downturn inevitably arrives. But policymakers are not doing this, which suggests that they have prioritized largely political considerations over fiscal prudence.

After the recent elections in the Netherlands and France, a growing chorus is now proclaiming that “peak populism” has passed. But one could argue just as easily that populist ideals are being absorbed into more mainstream political and economic agendas. As a result, politicians, particularly in Europe, have no choice but to favor inclusive growth policies and scrutinize the potential impact that a given policy could have on the income distribution.

This political environment is hardly conducive to fiscal consolidation. Any tax increases or spending cuts will have to be designed exceptionally well – perhaps impossibly so – for leaders to avoid a populist backlash. Some people will always lose more than others from fiscal consolidation, and deciding who those people are is never a pleasant exercise.

So far, those decisions are being delayed on political grounds. But the economic implications of high government debt cannot be ignored forever. Monetary policy is already starting to change in the US, and it could be on the verge of changing globally. One way or another, fiscal authorities will have to confront challenging tradeoffs in the years ahead.

Globalisation: The Rise and Fall of an Idea that swept the World


July 15, 2017

Globalisation: The Rise and Fall of an Idea that swept the World

It’s not just a populist backlash – many economists who once swore by free trade have changed their minds, too. How had they got it so wrong?

by Nikil Saval

https://www.theguardian.com

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The Annual January gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos is usually a placid affair: a place for well-heeled participants to exchange notes on global business opportunities, or powder conditions on the local ski slopes, while cradling champagne and canapes. This January, the ultra-rich and the sparkling wine returned, but by all reports the mood was one of anxiety, defensiveness and self-reproach.

The future of economic globalisation, for which the Davos men and women see themselves as caretakers, had been shaken by a series of political earthquakes. “Globalisation” can mean many things, but what lay in particular doubt was the long-advanced project of increasing free trade in goods across borders. The previous summer, Britain had voted to leave the largest trading bloc in the world. In November, the unexpected victory of Donald Trump, who vowed to withdraw from major trade deals, appeared to jeopardise the trading relationships of the world’s richest country. Elections in France and Germany suddenly seemed to bear the possibility of anti-globalisation parties garnering better results than ever before. The barbarians weren’t at the gates to the ski-lifts yet – but they weren’t very far.

In a panel titled Governing Globalisation, economist Dambisa Moyo, otherwise a well-known supporter of free trade, forthrightly asked the audience to accept that “there have been significant losses” from globalisation. “It is not clear to me that we are going to be able to remedy them under the current infrastructure,” she added. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, called for a policy hitherto foreign to the World Economic Forum: “more redistribution”. After years of hedging or discounting the malign effects of free trade, it was time to face facts: globalisation caused job losses and depressed wages, and the usual Davos proposals – such as instructing affected populations to accept the new reality – weren’t going to work. Unless something changed, the political consequences were likely to get worse.

The backlash to globalisation has helped fuel the extraordinary political shifts of the past 18 months. During the close race to become the Democratic party candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders relentlessly attacked Hillary Clinton on her support for free trade. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump openly proposed tilting the terms of trade in favour of American industry. “Americanism, not globalism, shall be our creed,” he bellowed at the Republican national convention last July. The vote for Brexit was strongest in the regions of the UK devastated by the flight of manufacturing. At Davos in January, British Prime Minister Theresa May, the leader of the party of capital and inherited wealth, improbably picked up the theme, warning that, for many, “talk of greater globalisation … means their jobs being outsourced and wages undercut.” Meanwhile, the European far right has been warning against free movement of people as well as goods. Following her qualifying victory in the first round of France’s presidential election, Marine Le Pen warned darkly that “the main thing at stake in this election is the rampant globalisation that is endangering our civilisation.”

It was only a few decades ago that globalisation was held by many, even by some critics, to be an inevitable, unstoppable force. “Rejecting globalisation,” the American journalist George Packer has written, “was like rejecting the sunrise.” Globalisation could take place in services, capital and ideas, making it a notoriously imprecise term; but what it meant most often was making it cheaper to trade across borders – something that seemed to many at the time to be an unquestionable good.

In practice, this often meant that industry would move from rich countries, where labour was expensive, to poor countries, where labour was cheaper. People in the rich countries would either have to accept lower wages to compete, or lose their jobs. But no matter what, the goods they formerly produced would now be imported, and be even cheaper. And the unemployed could get new, higher-skilled jobs (if they got the requisite training). Mainstream economists and politicians upheld the consensus about the merits of globalisation, with little concern that there might be political consequences.

Back then, economists could calmly chalk up anti-globalisation sentiment to a marginal group of delusional protesters, or disgruntled stragglers still toiling uselessly in “sunset industries”. These days, as sizable constituencies have voted in country after country for anti-free-trade policies, or candidates that promise to limit them, the old self-assurance is gone. Millions have rejected, with uncertain results, the punishing logic that globalisation could not be stopped. The backlash has swelled a wave of soul-searching among economists, one that had already begun to roll ashore with the financial crisis. How did they fail to foresee the repercussions?

Anti-Globalisation protesters in Seattle, 1999. Photograph: Eric Draper/AP

In the heyday of the globalisation consensus, few economists questioned its merits in public. But in 1997, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik published a slim book that created a stir. Appearing just as the US was about to enter a historic economic boom, Rodrik’s book, Has Globalization Gone Too Far?, sounded an unusual note of alarm.

Rodrik pointed to a series of dramatic recent events that challenged the idea that growing free trade would be peacefully accepted. In 1995, France had adopted a programme of fiscal austerity in order to prepare for entry into the eurozone; trade unions responded with the largest wave of strikes since 1968. In 1996, only five years after the end of the Soviet Union – with Russia’s once-protected markets having been forcibly opened, leading to a sudden decline in living standards – a communist won 40% of the vote in Russia’s presidential elections. That same year, two years after the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), one of the most ambitious multinational deals ever accomplished, a white nationalist running on an “America first” programme of economic protectionism did surprisingly well in the presidential primaries of the Republican party.

What was the pathology of which all of these disturbing events were symptoms? For Rodrik, it was “the process that has come to be called ‘globalisation’”. Since the 1980s, and especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union, lowering barriers to international trade had become the axiom of countries everywhere. Tariffs had to be slashed and regulations spiked. Trade unions, which kept wages high and made it harder to fire people, had to be crushed. Governments vied with each other to make their country more hospitable – more “competitive” – for businesses. That meant making labour cheaper and regulations looser, often in countries that had once tried their hand at socialism, or had spent years protecting “homegrown” industries with tariffs.

These moves were generally applauded by economists. After all, their profession had long embraced the principle of comparative advantage – simply put, the idea countries will trade with each other in order to gain what each lacks, thereby benefiting both. In theory, then, the globalisation of trade in goods and services would benefit consumers in rich countries by giving them access to inexpensive goods produced by cheaper labour in poorer countries, and this demand, in turn, would help grow the economies of those poorer countries.

Construction workers in Beijing, China. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

But the social cost, in Rodrik’s dissenting view, was high – and consistently underestimated by economists. He noted that since the 1970s, lower-skilled European and American workers had endured a major fall in the real value of their wages, which dropped by more than 20%. Workers were suffering more spells of unemployment, more volatility in the hours they were expected to work.

While many economists attributed much of the insecurity to technological change – sophisticated new machines displacing low-skilled workers – Rodrik suggested that the process of globalisation should shoulder more of the blame. It was, in particular, the competition between workers in developing and developed countries that helped drive down wages and job security for workers in developed countries. Over and over, they would be held hostage to the possibility that their business would up and leave, in order to find cheap labour in other parts of the world; they had to accept restraints on their salaries – or else. Opinion polls registered their strong levels of anxiety and insecurity, and the political effects were becoming more visible. Rodrik foresaw that the cost of greater “economic integration” would be greater “social disintegration”. The inevitable result would be a huge political backlash.

As Rodrik would later recall, other economists tended to dismiss his arguments – or fear them. Paul Krugman, who would win the Nobel prize in 2008 for his earlier work in trade theory and economic geography, privately warned Rodrik that his work would give “ammunition to the barbarians”.

It was a tacit acknowledgment that pro-globalisation economists, journalists and politicians had come under growing pressure from a new movement on the left, who were raising concerns very similar to Rodrik’s. Over the course of the 1990s, an unwieldy international coalition had begun to contest the notion that globalisation was good. Called “anti-globalisation” by the media, and the “alter-globalisation” or “global justice” movement by its participants, it tried to draw attention to the devastating effect that free trade policies were having, especially in the developing world, where globalisation was supposed to be having its most beneficial effect. This was a time when figures such as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had given the topic a glitzy prominence by documenting his time among what he gratingly called “globalutionaries”: chatting amiably with the CEO of Monsanto one day, gawking at lingerie manufacturers in Sri Lanka the next. Activists were intent on showing a much darker picture, revealing how the record of globalisation consisted mostly of farmers pushed off their land and the rampant proliferation of sweatshops. They also implicated the highest world bodies in their critique: the G7, World Bank and IMF. In 1999, the movement reached a high point when a unique coalition of trade unions and environmentalists managed to shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

In a state of panic, economists responded with a flood of columns and books that defended the necessity of a more open global market economy, in tones ranging from grandiose to sarcastic. In January 2000, Krugman used his first piece as a New York Times columnist to denounce the “trashing” of the WTO, calling it “a sad irony that the cause that has finally awakened the long-dormant American left is that of – yes! – denying opportunity to third-world workers”.

Where Krugman was derisive, others were solemn, putting the contemporary fight against the “anti-globalisation” left in a continuum of struggles for liberty. “Liberals, social democrats and moderate conservatives are on the same side in the great battles against religious fanatics, obscurantists, extreme environmentalists, fascists, Marxists and, of course, contemporary anti-globalisers,” wrote the Financial Times columnist and former World Bank economist Martin Wolf in his book Why Globalization Works. Language like this lent the fight for globalisation the air of an epochal struggle. More common was the rhetoric of figures such as Friedman, who in his book The World is Flat mocked the “pampered American college kids” who, “wearing their branded clothing, began to get interested in sweatshops as a way of expiating their guilt”.

Arguments against the global justice movement rested on the idea that the ultimate benefits of a more open and integrated economy would outweigh the downsides. “Freer trade is associated with higher growth and … higher growth is associated with reduced poverty,” wrote the Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati in his book In Defense of Globalization. “Hence, growth reduces poverty.” No matter how troubling some of the local effects, the implication went, globalisation promised a greater good.

Image result for Jagdish Bhagwati in his book In Defense of Globalization.

 

The fact that proponents of globalisation now felt compelled to spend much of their time defending it indicates how much visibility the global justice movement had achieved by the early 2000s. Still, over time, the movement lost ground, as a policy consensus settled in favour of globalisation. The proponents of globalisation were determined never to let another gathering be interrupted. They stopped meeting in major cities, and security everywhere was tightened. By the time of the invasion of Iraq, the world’s attention had turned from free trade to George Bush and the “war on terror,” leaving the globalisation consensus intact.

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Above all, there was a widespread perception that globalisation was working as it was supposed to. The local adverse effects that activists pointed to – sweatshop labour, starving farmers – were increasingly obscured by the staggering GDP numbers and fantastical images of gleaming skylines coming out of China. With some lonely exceptions – such as Rodrik and the former World Bank chief and Columbia University Professor Joseph Stiglitz – the pursuit of freer trade became a consensus position for economists, commentators and the vast majority of mainstream politicians, to the point where the benefits of free trade seemed to command blind adherence. In a 2006 TV interview, Thomas Friedman was asked whether there was any free trade deal he would not support. He replied that there wasn’t, admitting, “I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.”

In the wake of the financial crisis, the cracks began to show in the consensus on globalisation, to the point that, today, there may no longer be a consensus. Economists who were once ardent proponents of globalisation have become some of its most prominent critics. Erstwhile supporters now concede, at least in part, that it has produced inequality, unemployment and downward pressure on wages. Nuances and criticisms that economists only used to raise in private seminars are finally coming out in the open.
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A few months before the financial crisis hit, Krugman was already confessing to a “guilty conscience”. In the 1990s, he had been very influential in arguing that global trade with poor countries had only a small effect on workers’ wages in rich countries. By 2008, he was having doubts: the data seemed to suggest that the effect was much larger than he had suspected.

In the years that followed, the crash, the crisis of the eurozone and the worldwide drop in the price of oil and other commodities combined to put a huge dent in global trade. Since 2012, the IMF reported in its World Economic Outlook for October 2016, trade was growing at 3% a year – less than half the average of the previous three decades. That month, Martin Wolf argued in a column that globalisation had “lost dynamism”, due to a slackening of the world economy, the “exhaustion” of new markets to exploit and a rise in protectionist policies around the world.

Image result for Wolf Why Globalization Works

In an interview earlier this year, Wolf suggested to me that, though he remained convinced globalisation had not been the decisive factor in rising inequality, he had nonetheless not fully foreseen when he was writing Why Globalization Works how “radical the implications” of worsening inequality “might be for the US, and therefore the world”. Among these implications appears to be a rising distrust of the establishment that is blamed for the inequality. “We have a very big political problem in many of our countries,” he said. “The elites – the policy making business and financial elites – are increasingly disliked. You need to make policy which brings people to think again that their societies are run in a decent and civilised way.”

That distrust of the establishment has had highly visible political consequences: Farage, Trump, and Le Pen on the right; but also in new parties on the left, such as Spain’s Podemos, and curious populist hybrids, such as Italy’s Five Star Movement. As in 1997, but to an even greater degree, the volatile political scene reflects public anxiety over “the process that has come to be called ‘globalisation’”. If the critics of globalisation could be dismissed before because of their lack of economics training, or ignored because they were in distant countries, or kept out of sight by a wall of police, their sudden political ascendancy in the rich countries of the west cannot be so easily discounted today.

Over the past year, the opinion pages of prestigious newspapers have been filled with belated, rueful comments from the high priests of globalisation – the men who appeared to have defeated the anti-globalisers two decades earlier. Perhaps the most surprising such transformation has been that of Larry Summers. Possessed of a panoply of elite titles – former Chief Economist of the World Bank, former Treasury Secretary, President emeritus of Harvard, former Economic Adviser to President Barack Obama – Summers was renowned in the 1990s and 2000s for being a blustery proponent of globalisation. For Summers, it seemed, market logic was so inexorable that its dictates prevailed over every social concern. In an infamous World Bank memo from 1991, he held that the cheapest way to dispose of toxic waste in rich countries was to dump it in poor countries, since it was financially cheaper for them to manage it. “The laws of economics, it’s often forgotten, are like the laws of engineering,” he said in a speech that year at a World Bank-IMF meeting in Bangkok. “There’s only one set of laws and they work everywhere. One of the things I’ve learned in my short time at the World Bank is that whenever anybody says, ‘But economics works differently here,’ they’re about to say something dumb.”

Over the last two years, a different, in some ways unrecognizable Larry Summers has been appearing in newspaper editorial pages. More circumspect in tone, this humbler Summers has been arguing that economic opportunities in the developing world are slowing, and that the already rich economies are finding it hard to get out of the crisis. Barring some kind of breakthrough, Summers says, an era of slow growth is here to stay.

In Summers’s recent writings, this sombre conclusion has often been paired with a surprising political goal: advocating for a “responsible nationalism”. Now he argues that politicians must recognise that “the basic responsibility of government is to maximise the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good”.

One curious thing about the pro-globalisation consensus of the 1990s and 2000s, and its collapse in recent years, is how closely the cycle resembles a previous era. Pursuing free trade has always produced displacement and inequality – and political chaos, populism and retrenchment to go with it. Every time the social consequences of free trade are overlooked, political backlash follows. But free trade is only one of many forms that economic integration can take. History seems to suggest, however, that it might be the most destabilising one.

Nearly all economists and scholars of globalisation like to point to the fact that the economy was rather globalised by the early 20th century. As European countries colonised Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, they turned their colonies into suppliers of raw materials for European manufacturers, as well as markets for European goods. Meanwhile, the economies of the colonisers were also becoming free-trade zones for each other. “The opening years of the 20th century were the closest thing the world had ever seen to a free world market for goods, capital and labour,” writes the Harvard Professor of Government Jeffry Frieden in his standard account, Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the 20th Century. “It would be a hundred years before the world returned to that level of globalisation.”

Image result for Jeffry Frieden Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the 20th Century.

 

In addition to military force, what underpinned this convenient arrangement for imperial nations was the gold standard. Under this system, each national currency had an established gold value: the British pound sterling was backed by 113 grains of pure gold; the US dollar by 23.22 grains, and so on. This entailed that exchange rates were also fixed: a British pound was always equal to 4.87 dollars. The stability of exchange rates meant that the cost of doing business across borders was predictable. Just like the eurozone today, you could count on the value of the currency staying the same, so long as the storehouse of gold remained more or less the same.

When there were gold shortages – as there were in the 1870s – the system stopped working. To protect the sanctity of the standard under conditions of stress, central bankers across the Europe and the US tightened access to credit and deflated prices. This left financiers in a decent position, but crushed farmers and the rural poor, for whom falling prices meant starvation. Then as now, economists and mainstream politicians largely overlooked the darker side of the economic picture.

In the US, this fuelled one of the world’s first self-described “populist” revolts, leading to the nomination of William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic party candidate in 1896. At his nominating convention, he gave a famous speech lambasting gold backers: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Then as now, financial elites and their supporters in the press were horrified. “There has been an upheaval of the political crust,” the Times of London reported, “and strange creatures have come forth.”

Businessmen were so distressed by Bryan that they backed the Republican candidate, William McKinley, who won partly by outspending Bryan five to one. Meanwhile, gold was bolstered by the discovery of new reserves in colonial South Africa. But the gold standard could not survive the first world war and the Great Depression. By the 1930s, unionisation had spread to more industries and there was a growing worldwide socialist movement. Protecting gold would mean mass unemployment and social unrest. Britain went off the gold standard in 1931, while Franklin Roosevelt took the US off it in 1933; France and several other countries would follow in 1936.

The prioritisation of finance and trade over the welfare of people had come momentarily to an end. But this wasn’t the end of the global economic system.

The trade system that followed was global, too, with high levels of trade – but it took place on terms that often allowed developing countries to protect their industries. Because, from the perspective of free traders, protectionism is always seen as bad, the success of this postwar system has been largely under-recognised.

Over the course of the 1930s and 40s, liberals – John Maynard Keynes among them – who had previously regarded departures from free trade as “an imbecility and an outrage” began to lose their religion. “The decadent international but individualistic capitalism, in the hands of which we found ourselves after the war, is not a success,” Keynes found himself writing in 1933. “It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous – and it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short, we dislike it, and we are beginning to despise it.” He claimed sympathies “with those who would minimise, rather than with those who would maximise, economic entanglement among nations,” and argued that goods “be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible”.

The international systems that chastened figures such as Keynes helped produce in the next few years – especially the Bretton Woods agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – set the terms under which the new wave of globalisation would take place.

The key to the system’s viability, in Rodrik’s view, was its flexibility – something absent from contemporary globalisation, with its one-size-fits-all model of capitalism. Bretton Woods stabilised exchange rates by pegging the dollar loosely to gold, and other currencies to the dollar. GATT consisted of rules governing free trade – negotiated by participating countries in a series of multinational “rounds” – that left many areas of the world economy, such as agriculture, untouched or unaddressed. “GATT’s purpose was never to maximise free trade,” Rodrik writes. “It was to achieve the maximum amount of trade compatible with different nations doing their own thing. In that respect, the institution proved spectacularly successful.”

Partly because GATT was not always dogmatic about free trade, it allowed most countries to figure out their own economic objectives, within a somewhat international ambit. When nations contravened the agreement’s terms on specific areas of national interest, they found that it “contained loopholes wide enough for an elephant to pass”, in Rodrik’s words. If a nation wanted to protect its steel industry, for example, it could claim “injury” under the rules of GATT and raise tariffs to discourage steel imports: “an abomination from the standpoint of free trade”. These were useful for countries that were recovering from the war and needed to build up their own industries via tariffs – duties imposed on particular imports. Meanwhile, from 1948 to 1990, world trade grew at an annual average of nearly 7% – faster than the post-communist years, which we think of as the high point of globalisation. “If there was a golden era of globalisation,” Rodrik has written, “this was it.”

GATT, however, failed to cover many of the countries in the developing world. These countries eventually created their own system, the United Nations conference on trade and development (UNCTAD). Under this rubric, many countries – especially in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia – adopted a policy of protecting homegrown industries by replacing imports with domestically produced goods. It worked poorly in some places – India and Argentina, for example, where the trade barriers were too high, resulting in factories that cost more to set up than the value of the goods they produced – but remarkably well in others, such as east Asia, much of Latin America and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where homegrown industries did spring up. Though many later economists and commentators would dismiss the achievements of this model, it theoretically fit Larry Summers’s recent rubric on globalisation: “the basic responsibility of government is to maximise the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good.”

The critical turning point – away from this system of trade balanced against national protections – came in the 1980s. Flagging growth and high inflation in the west, along with growing competition from Japan, opened the way for a political transformation. The elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were seminal, putting free-market radicals in charge of two of the world’s five biggest economies and ushering in an era of “hyperglobalisation”. In the new political climate, economies with large public sectors and strong governments within the global capitalist system were no longer seen as aids to the system’s functioning, but impediments to it.

Not only did these ideologies take hold in the US and the UK; they seized international institutions as well. GATT renamed itself as the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the new rules the body negotiated began to cut more deeply into national policies. Its international trade rules sometimes undermined national legislation. The WTO’s appellate court intervened relentlessly in member nations’ tax, environmental and regulatory policies, including those of the United States: the US’s fuel emissions standards were judged to discriminate against imported gasoline, and its ban on imported shrimp caught without turtle-excluding devices was overturned. If national health and safety regulations were stricter than WTO rules necessitated, they could only remain in place if they were shown to have “scientific justification”.

The purest version of hyper-globalisation was tried out in Latin America in the 1980s. Known as the “Washington Consensus”, this model usually involved loans from the IMF that were contingent on those countries lowering trade barriers and privatising many of their nationally held industries. Well into the 1990s, economists were proclaiming the indisputable benefits of openness. In an influential 1995 paper, Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner wrote: “We find no cases to support the frequent worry that a country might open and yet fail to grow.”

But the Washington consensus was bad for business: most countries did worse than before. Growth faltered, and citizens across Latin America revolted against attempted privatisations of water and gas. In Argentina, which followed the Washington Consensus to the letter, a grave crisis resulted in 2002, precipitating an economic collapse and massive street protests that forced out the government that had pursued privatising reforms. Argentina’s revolt presaged a left-populist upsurge across the continent: from 1999 to 2007, left wing leaders and parties took power in Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, all of them campaigning against the Washington consensus on globalisation. These revolts were a preview of the backlash of today.

Rodrik – perhaps the contemporary economist whose views have been most amply vindicated by recent events – was himself a beneficiary of protectionism in Turkey. His father’s ballpoint pen company was sheltered under tariffs, and achieved enough success to allow Rodrik to attend Harvard in the 1970s as an undergraduate. This personal understanding of the mixed nature of economic success may be one of the reasons why his work runs against the broad consensus of mainstream economics writing on globalisation.

“I never felt that my ideas were out of the mainstream,” Rodrik told me recently. Instead, it was that the mainstream had lost touch with the diversity of opinions and methods that already existed within economics. “The economics profession is strange in that the more you move away from the seminar room to the public domain, the more the nuances get lost, especially on issues of trade.” He lamented the fact that while, in the classroom, the models of trade discuss losers and winners, and, as a result, the necessity of policies of redistribution, in practice, an “arrogance and hubris” had led many economists to ignore these implications. “Rather than speaking truth to power, so to speak, many economists became cheerleaders for globalisation.”

In his 2011 book The Globalization Paradox, Rodrik concluded that “we cannot simultaneously pursue democracy, national determination, and economic globalisation.” The results of the 2016 elections and referendums provide ample testimony of the justness of the thesis, with millions voting to push back, for better or for worse, against the campaigns and institutions that promised more globalisation. “I’m not at all surprised by the backlash,” Rodrik told me. “Really, nobody should have been surprised.”

But what, in any case, would “more globalisation” look like? For the same economists and writers who have started to rethink their commitments to greater integration, it doesn’t mean quite what it did in the early 2000s. It’s not only the discourse that’s changed: globalisation itself has changed, developing into a more chaotic and unequal system than many economists predicted. The benefits of globalisation have been largely concentrated in a handful of Asian countries. And even in those countries, the good times may be running out.

Statistics from Global Inequality, a 2016 book by the development economist Branko Milanović, indicate that in relative terms the greatest benefits of globalisation have accrued to a rising “emerging middle class”, based preponderantly in China. But the cons are there, too: in absolute terms, the largest gains have gone to what is commonly called “the 1%” – half of whom are based in the US. Economist Richard Baldwin has shown in his recent book, The Great Convergence, that nearly all of the gains from globalisation have been concentrated in six countries.

Barring some political catastrophe, in which right wing populism continued to gain, and in which globalisation would be the least of our problems – Wolf admitted that he was “not at all sure” that this could be ruled out – globalisation was always going to slow; in fact, it already has. One reason, says Wolf, was that “a very, very large proportion of the gains from globalisation – by no means all – have been exploited. We have a more open world economy to trade than we’ve ever had before.” Citing The Great Convergence, Wolf noted that supply chains have already expanded, and that future developments, such as automation and the use of robots, looked to undermine the promise of a growing industrial workforce. Today, the political priorities were less about trade and more about the challenge of retraining workers, as technology renders old jobs obsolete and transforms the world of work.

Rodrik, too, believes that globalisation, whether reduced or increased, is unlikely to produce the kind of economic effects it once did. For him, this slowdown has something to do with what he calls “premature deindustrialisation”. In the past, the simplest model of globalisation suggested that rich countries would gradually become “service economies”, while emerging economies picked up the industrial burden. Yet recent statistics show the world as a whole is deindustrialising. Countries that one would have expected to have more industrial potential are going through the stages of automation more quickly than previously developed countries did, and thereby failing to develop the broad industrial workforce seen as a key to shared prosperity.

For both Rodrik and Wolf, the political reaction to globalisation bore possibilities of deep uncertainty. “I really have found it very difficult to decide whether what we’re living through is a blip, or a fundamental and profound transformation of the world – at least as significant as that one brought about the first world war and the Russian revolution,” Wolf told me. He cited his agreement with economists such as Summers that shifting away from the earlier emphasis on globalisation had now become a political priority; that to pursue still greater liberalisation was like showing “a red rag to a bull” in terms of what it might do to the already compromised political stability of the western world.

Rodrik pointed to a belated emphasis, both among political figures and economists, on the necessity of compensating those displaced by globalisation with retraining and more robust welfare states. But pro-free-traders had a history of cutting compensation: Bill Clinton passed NAFTA, but failed to expand safety nets. “The issue is that the people are rightly not trusting the centrists who are now promising compensation,” Rodrik said. “One reason that Hillary Clinton didn’t get any traction with those people is that she didn’t have any credibility.”

Rodrik felt that economics commentary failed to register the gravity of the situation: that there were increasingly few avenues for global growth, and that much of the damage done by globalisation – economic and political – is irreversible. “There is a sense that we’re at a turning point,” he said. “There’s a lot more thinking about what can be done. There’s a renewed emphasis on compensation – which, you know, I think has come rather late.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/14/globalisation-the-rise-and-fall-of-an-idea-that-swept-the-world

Martin Khor looks back at the East Asian Financial Crisis 1997


July 5, 2017

Martin Khor looks back at the East Asian Financial Crisis 1997

http://www.thestar.com.my

It is useful to reflect on whether lessons have been learnt and if the countries are vulnerable to new crises.

IT’S been 20 years since the Asian financial crisis struck in July 1997. Since then, there has been an even bigger global financial crisis, starting in 2008. Will there be another crisis?

The Asian crisis began when speculators brought down the Thai baht. Within months, the currencies of Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia were also affected. The East Asian Miracle turned into an Asian Financial Nightmare.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/Suharto_resigns.jpg

Despite the affected countries receiving only praise before the crisis, weaknesses had built up, including current account deficits, low foreign reserves and high external debt.

In particular, the countries had recently liberalised their financial system in line with international advice. This enabled local private companies to freely borrow from abroad, mainly in US dollars. Companies and banks in Korea, Indonesia and Thailand had in each country rapidly accumulated over a hundred billion dollars of external loans. This was the Achilles heel that led their countries to crisis.

These weaknesses made the countries ripe for speculators to bet against their currencies. When the governments used up their reserves in a vain attempt to stem the currency fall, three of the countries ran out of foreign exchange.

They went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for bailout loans that carried draconian conditions that worsened their economic situation. Malaysia was fortunate. It did not seek IMF loans. The foreign reserves had become dangerously low but were just about adequate. If the ringgit had fallen a bit further, the danger line would have been breached.

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Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed and Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin introduced selective capital controls and pegged the Ringgit at RM3.80 to USD1.00.

 

After a year of self-imposed austerity measures, Malaysia dramatically switched course and introduced a set of unorthodox policies.These included pegging the ringgit to the dollar, selective capital controls to prevent short-term funds from exiting, lowering interest rates, increasing government spending and rescuing failing companies and banks.

This was the opposite of orthodoxy and the IMF policies (The Washington Consensus). The global establishment predicted the sure collapse of the Malaysian economy. But surprisingly, the economy recovered even faster and with fewer losses than the other countries. Today, the Malaysian measures are often cited as a successful anti-crisis strategy.

The IMF itself has changed a little. It now includes some capital controls as part of legitimate policy measures.

Image result for Korea and The East Asian Financial Crisis 1997

The Asian countries, vowing never to go to the IMF again, built up strong current account surpluses and foreign reserves to protect against bad years and keep off speculators. The economies recovered, but never back to the spectacular 7% to 10% pre-crisis growth rates.

Then in 2008, the global financial crisis erupted with the United States as its epicentre. The tip of the iceberg was the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the massive loans given out to non-credit-worthy house-buyers.

The underlying cause was the deregulation of US finance and the freedom with which financial institutions could devise all kinds of manipulative schemes and “financial products” to draw in unsuspecting customers. They made billions of dollars but the house of cards came tumbling down.

To fight the crisis, the US, under President Barack Obama, embarked first on expanding government spending and then on financial policies of near-zero interest rates and “quantitative easing”, with the Federal Reserve pumping trillions of dollars into the US banks.

It was hoped the cheap credit would get consumers and businesses to spend and lift the economy. But instead, a significant portion of the trillions went via investors into speculative activities, including abroad to emerging economies.

Europe, on the verge of recession, followed the US with near zero interest rates and large quantitative easing, with limited results.

The US-Europe financial crisis affected Asian countries in a limited way through declines in export growth and commodity prices. The large foreign reserves built up after the Asian crisis, plus the current account surplus situation, acted as buffers against external debt problems and kept speculators at bay.

Just as important, hundreds of billions of funds from the US and Europe poured into Asia yearly in search of higher yields. These massive capital inflows helped to boost Asian countries’ growth, but could cause their own problems.

First, they led to asset bubbles or rapid price increases of houses and the stock markets, and the bubbles may burst when they are over-ripe.

Second, many of the portfolio investors are short-term funds looking for quick profit, and they can be expected to leave when conditions change.

Third, the countries receiving capital inflows become vulnerable to financial volatility and economic instability.

If and when investors pull some or a lot of their money out, there may be price declines, inadequate replenishment of bonds, and a fall in the levels of currency and foreign reserves.

A few countries may face a new financial crisis. A new vulnerability in many emerging economies is the rapid build-up of external debt in the form of bonds denominated in the local currency.

The Asian crisis two decades ago taught that over-borrowing in foreign currency can create difficulties in debt repayment should the local currency level fall.

To avoid this, many countries sold bonds denominated in the local currency to foreign investors. However, if the bonds held by foreigners are large in value, the country will still be vulnerable to the effects of a withdrawal.

As an example, almost half of Malaysian government securities, denominated in ringgit, are held by foreigners.

Though the country does not face the risk of having to pay more in ringgit if there is a fall in the local currency, it may have other difficulties if foreigners withdraw their bonds.

What is the state of the world economy, what are the chances of a new financial crisis, and how would the Asian countries like Malaysia fare? These are big and relevant questions to ponder 20 years after the start of the Asian crisis and nine years after the global crisis.

 

Martin Khor (director@southcentre.org) is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
Read more at http://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/global-trends/2017/07/03/the-asian-financial-crisis-20-years-later-it-is-useful-to-reflect-on-whether-lessons-have-been-lear/#EEkW3MiZXu87cFZM.99