Thursday, June 10, 2021


Aurora College Economics HSC Study Day, Sydney

Every year there’s some event in the news that’s relevant to your study of the global economy, and this year’s is the continuation of the biggest ever: the pandemic entering its second year. A pandemic is a global event by definition, and this pandemic has had big implications for global economic growth and for the future of the globalisation push. There’s nothing new about epidemics starting in one country then spreading to many other countries. It’s been happening for millennia. Even so, it’s the world’s worst pandemic since the “Spanish” flu epidemic immediately after World War I, and the first where the greater economic integration of the world’s countries – and particularly, the huge number of people at any time flying around the world on jumbo jets – caused the virus to reach all corners of the world in a few weeks rather than years. We’ll discuss aspects of the pandemic before discussing a problem special to our economy: the trade sanctions imposed on us by China.

The pandemic

Most governments have responded to the pandemic by restricting people’s ability to cross their international borders, and our government has imposed more comprehensive restrictions than most, greatly disrupting our airlines, inbound tourism industry and universities’ export earnings from overseas students. Like other governments, ours acted to limit the spread of the virus by locking down much of the economy for some time. This caused the world economy to plunge into a deep recession, which governments sought counter by applying considerable fiscal stimulus. We have been more successful than most at suppressing the virus and so were soon able to lift the lockdown. So, although our coronacession was the deepest recession since World War II, it was also the shortest, with the economy taking only about three quarters to rebound to where it was before virus arrived. The recovery will be much slower in most other countries. In Australia, the main issue is how long it will take to vaccinate enough of our population so we can safely re-open our borders.

The end of hyperglobalisation

The pandemic has greatly disrupted international trade and thus confirmed that the period of “hyperglobalisation” has ended. One measure of the extent of globalisation is the growth in two-way trade between countries (exports plus imports) as a proportion of gross world product (world GDP). Between 1990 and 2008, global trade rose from 39 pc to 61 pc of GWP – the period of rapid globalisation. But the proportion fell after the global financial crisis, and even by 2019 had not regained its peak in 2008. The absolute level of world trade is expected to have fallen 9 pc in 2020.

It’s worth noting that the poor countries did well out of the quarter-century of rapid globalisation. Between 1995 and 2019, real GDP per person in the emerging economies more than doubled, whereas in the advanced economies it grew by only 44 pc (after allowing for differences in purchasing power).

The temptation of returning to protectionism

Much of the strong global economic growth during the period of hyperglobalisation can be attributed to increased trade in goods and services between the developed and developing countries. But it’s likely that, in the period of slower growth that has followed the global financial crisis, some countries have yielded to the temptation to return to protecting their domestic industries against foreign competition, returning to the (failed) strategy of growth through “import replacement” rather than “export-led” growth. Regrettably, this trend is being led by the two biggest developing economies, China and India.

The Economist magazine reports that during the pandemic, countries have passed more than 140 special trade restrictions. Some of these may arise from concerns in the rich countries over the lack of availability of personal protective equipment, or vaccines. Worries about the pandemic’s disruption of global supply chains may be another reason for the return of protectionist attitudes in the advanced economies.

 China’s trade sanctions against Australia

Australia’s deteriorating relations with China – which could have been handled much more skilfully by our own government – have led it to impose a succession of sanctions, including very high tariffs and non-tariff barriers, against our exports of barley, beef, coal, copper, cotton, seafood, sugar, timber and wine. Together, these exports were worth about $25 billion in 2019, or 1.3 pc of our GDP.

This is an unfortunate development. Our government will challenge the legality of some of these measures at the World Trade Organisation. But two points are worth noting. First, any loss of export earnings from China caused by these sanctions has been far more than offset by the exceptionally high prices China is paying for our exports of iron ore. Second, estimates by the Lowe Institute suggest that our exporters of most of those sanctioned products have been able to find other overseas markets for them.


The OECD defines globalisation as “the economic integration of different countries through growing freedom of movement across national borders of goods, services, capital, ideas and people”.

That’s a good definition, but I like my own: globalisation is the process by which the natural and government-created barriers between national economies are being broken down.

A process

With this definition I’m trying to make a few points. The first is that globalisation is a process, not a set state of being. Because it’s a process, it can go forward – the world can become more globalised – or it can go backwards, as national governments, under pressure from their electorates, seek to stop or even reverse the process of economic integration. This is just what Donald Trump promised to do in the US presidential election in 2016.

Among the advocates of globalisation there has tended to be an assumption that the process of ever greater integration is inevitable and inexorable. That was always a mistaken notion, but this has become more obvious since Brexit and the amazing exploits of Trump. First, the British have voted to reduce their degree of economic integration with the rest of Europe – a decision most outsiders see as involving a significant economic cost to the Brits’ economy. Second, the Trump Administration has withdrawn from the Trans Pacific Partnership, an agreement between the US and 11 other selected countries (including Australia) to reduce barriers to trade between them – although the remaining 11 have finalised the agreement without the US.  Third, the Trump Administration has withdrawn from the Paris global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Fourth, Trump has launched a trade war with China. President Biden will re-join the Paris agreement and repair America’s relations with its allies, but continue the contest with China.

Earlier globalisation

The point is that the process of globalisation is and always was reversible. People should know this because this isn’t the first time the process of globalisation has occurred and then been rolled back. The decades leading up to World War I saw reduced barriers and greatly increased flows of goods, funds and people between the old world of Europe and the new world of America, Australia and other countries. But this integration was brought to a halt in 1914 by the onset of a world war. And the period of beggar-thy-neighbour increases in trade protection, to which countries resorted in response to the Great Depression of the early 1930s, greatly increased the barriers between national economies. Indeed, you can see that, in the years after World War II, the many rounds of multilateral tariff reductions brought about under the GATT – the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which has since turned into the World Trade Organisation – were intended to dismantle all the barriers to trade built up in the period between the wars.

The channels of globalisation

The four main economic channels through which the world’s economies have become more integrated are:

1) Trade in goods and services

2) Finance and investment

3) Labour

4) Information, news and ideas.

Trade is probably the channel that gets most attention from the public. Donald Trump’s populist campaigning against globalisation has focus on the belief that America’s greater openness to trade – particularly with developing countries – has caused it to lose many jobs, particularly in manufacturing, as cheaper imports caused many domestic producers to lose sales, or as factories have been moved offshore to countries where wages are lower, without America receiving anything much in return. These sentiments would be shared by many voters for One Nation.

Surprisingly, financial globalisation didn’t get as much blame as it could have for the global financial crisis and the Great Recession it precipitated. But it’s easier for Australians to remember that the global crisis of 2008 was preceded by the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, indicating that our highly integrated global financial markets are prone to crises – crises which invariably spill over from the “financial economy” of borrowing and lending, saving and investing, to the “real economy” of producing and consuming goods and services. The push by the G20 to strengthen the capital and liquidity requirement imposed on the world’s banks, though the Basel agreements, is intended to make financial markets more stable.

Most countries have not liberalised the flow of labour into their economy in the way they have the other factors of production. Although increasing numbers of people are fleeing their country to escape war, famine and persecution, many choose the country they’d like to arrive at on economic grounds. Many voters object to the inflow of immigrants, whether they be boat people arriving in Australia, Mexicans crossing the border to the US, or Poles taking advantage of the European Union’s single market to look for jobs in Britain. Immigration seems to have been a major motive for some Brits voting in favour of Brexit.

Income distribution and the gains from trade

One of economists’ core beliefs is that there are mutual gains from trade. Provided the exchange of goods is voluntary, each side participates only because it sees some advantage for itself. This is undoubtedly true, but in the era of renewed globalisation we’ve been reminded that, though the gains may be mutual, they are not necessarily equal. Some countries do better than others.

Similarly, the benefits to a particular country from its trade aren’t necessarily equally distributed between the people within that country. When, for example, a country imports more of its manufactured goods because they are cheaper than its locally made goods, all the consumers who buy those goods are better off (including all the working people), but many workers in the domestic manufacturing industry may lose their jobs.

Another factor that has been working in the same direction is digitisation and other technological change which, in its effect on employers’ demand for labour, seems to be “skill-biased” – that is, it tends to increase the value of highly skilled labour, while reducing the value of less-skilled labour. It seems likely that, between them, trade and technological advance have worked to shift the distribution of income in America, Britain and, to a lesser extent, Australia, in favour of high-income families and against many middle and lower-income families.

The unwelcome surprise many politicians and economists have received from the high protest votes for Brexit, Trump and One Nation is causing them to wonder if too little has been done to assist the workers and regions adversely affected to retrain and relocate, and too little to ensure the winners from structural change bear most of the cost of this assistance.

Shares of the World Economy, 2018

GWP Exports Population

China          19   11     19

United States   15   10         4

Euro area (19 countries)   11   26         5

India     8     2       18

Japan     4     4         2

Advanced economies (39) 41   63       14

Developing economies (155) 59   37       86

            100 100     100

Source: IMF WEO statistical appendix; GWP based on purchasing power parity