Thursday, June 15, 2023


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 it’s the growing realisation that the process of globalisation has stopped and begun to reverse – “deglobalisation”. The pandemic hasn’t helped, nor has the invasion of Ukraine, but it’s the increasing tension between the US and China that has raised the spectre of the world being divided into two rival trading blocs. It’s likely the value of world trade will fall in 2023.

The arrival of the pandemic in early 2020 led to an immediate fall in world trade, but it recovered sharply the following year. However, the disruption to the supply of many imported goods has led some countries and companies to “re-shore” their supply chains, by producing more goods and components at home rather than abroad. While making their supply more reliable, this will raise the cost of those products. For some, this has just been the latest excuse for protection against competition from imports. The IMF has argued that supply chains can be diversified – made reliant on a wider range of foreign suppliers – without losing the benefits from trade.

The invasion of Ukraine has disrupted the supply of oil and gas from Russia to many European economies, as well as the supply of wheat and other foodstuffs to developing countries. This has happened not so much because of the war as because of the trade sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and its many allies. As the war drags on, the Europeans and others move to alternative suppliers, a process known as “friend-shoring” – moving your trade to countries you get on with, not necessarily those offering the best prices or service.

America’s swing to protectionism

For many decades, the US was the great champion of free trade and rules-based trading under the GATT – the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – and its successor, the World Trade Organisation. It was the support of the US that allowed China to become a member of the WTO in 2001, leading to huge growth in international trade and globalisation. Much manufacturing activity moved to China from the developed economies, leading to decades of lower prices for manufactured goods throughout the world, and the accelerated growth of the Chinese economy. But it also led to much unemployment for displaced factory workers in the US. While all consumers benefited from the cheaper imports, far too little was done to help those workers find employment elsewhere. This was the grass-roots cause of America’s swing to protectionism.

President Donald Trump won election in 2016 on a promise of protecting American industry against “unfair” competition from developing countries and, in particular, China. He launched a trade war with China, made changes to various trade agreements, and refused to join a US-sponsored trade agreement with Japan, Australia and various other Asian economies (which went ahead anyway). What’s now apparent is that US protectionism, and the trade war with China, have continued under President Joe Biden. He has resorted to subsidies and export controls, contrary to WTO rules.

It's now clear the US is motivated not just by protectionism, but also big-power rivalry with China. America is unwilling to share power with the rising superpower, China. It is particularly unwilling to have China overtake it as leader in advances in digital technology. When politicians and officials say they are worried about the effect of “geostrategic conflict” on world trade, this is what they mean. When they worry about the “fragmentation” of world trade, they mean they fear the world could divide into two rival trading blocs, led by America and China. This would involve great losses of the “gains from trade” through pursuit of “comparative advantage”. In October 2022, the US imposed sweeping restrictions on exports of semiconductors (chips), aimed at preventing China from advancing technologically. This also explains America’s efforts to stop Huawei and TikTok from expanding outside China.


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 broken down.

Globalisation’s two driving forces

With this definition I’m trying to make a few points. One is that globalisation has had two quite different driving forces. The one we hear most about is the decisions of governments around the world to break down the barriers they have created to limit flows of goods and money between countries by reducing their protection of domestic industries and by deregulating their financial markets and floating their currencies.

But the second factor promoting globalisation is just as important, if not more so: advances in technology – including advances in telecommunications, digitisation and the internet, which have hugely reduced the cost of moving information and news around the world, as well as increasing the speed of its movement. This has allowed a huge increase in trade in digitised services. As well, advances in shipping – containerisation, bigger and more fuel-efficient ships – and in air transport have led to increased movement of goods and people between countries.  

Globalisation is a process

Another point my definition makes 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. Among the advocates of globalisation there tended to be an assumption that the process of ever greater integration was inevitable and inexorable. That was always a mistaken notion.

Earlier globalisation

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, 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 become the World Trade Organisation – were intended to dismantle all the barriers to trade built up in the period between the wars.

The era of hyperglobalisation

The period between the end of World War II in 1945 and the late 1980s saw huge growth in trade between the advanced economies, as a consequence of those successive rounds of tariff reductions. But from the late ’80s until the global financial crisis and Great Recession of 2008 there was a period of “hyperglobalisation” in which trade between the developed and developing countries grew hugely. This was partly because of the way the digital revolution and other technological change broke down the natural barriers between countries. But also the result of the eighth and final “Uruguay round” of the GATT in 1994 reducing tariff and other trade barriers between the developed and developing countries.  Many poor countries joined the new WTO at this time, with China joining in 2001.

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.

Note 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 era of deglobalisation

But the end of hyperglobalisation can be dated to the global financial crisis in 2008, and the new era of “deglobalisation” has continued during the pandemic. Two-way trade as a proportion GWP fell after the global financial crisis, and even by 2019 had not regained its peak in 2008.

Among the signs of deglobalisation are Britain’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union – Brexit – and thus to reduce its 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 withdrew 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 finalised an agreement without the US.  Third, the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Fourth, Trump launched a trade war with China. President Biden has re-joined the Paris agreement and repaired America’s relations with its allies, but continues the contest with China.

The temptation of returning to protectionism

The period of hyperglobalisation saw the shift of much manufacturing from the rich countries (including Australia) to China and other developing countries with cheaper labour. But it’s likely that, in the period of slower growth that followed the global financial crisis, some countries 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. China raised its import barriers against many Australian exports, but is now lowering them.

This trend has continued during the pandemic, with The Economist magazine reporting that countries have passed more than 140 special trade restrictions during the pandemic. Some of these may arise from concerns in the rich countries during the pandemic 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.

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 focused on the belief that America’s greater openness to trade – particularly with developing countries – 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.

Surprisingly, financial globalisation didn’t get as much blame as it could have for the global financial crisis and the Great Recession it precipitated. Most countries have not liberalised the flow of labour into their economy in the way they have the other factors of production.

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, 2021

GWP Exports Population

China          19   13     18

United States   16     9         4

Euro area (19 countries)   12   26         4

India     7     2       18

Japan     4     3         2

Advanced economies (40) 42   61       14

Developing economies (156) 58   39       86

            100 100     100

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