Global: From Globalization to Localization
Stephen Roach | New York
On one level, there seems to be no stopping the powerful forces of globalization. Not only has the world just completed four years of the strongest global growth since the early 1970s, but in 2006, cross-border trade as a share of world GDP pierced the 30% threshold for the first time ever — almost three times the portion prevailing during the last global boom over 30 years ago. What a great testament to the stunning successes of globalization!
On another level, however, there are increasingly disquieting signs. That’s because of a striking asymmetry in the benefits of globalization. While living standards have improved in many segments of the developing world, a new set of pressures is bearing down on the rich countries of the developed world. Most notably, an extraordinary squeeze on labor incomes has occurred in the industrial world — an outcome that challenges the fundamental premises of the “win-win” models of globalization.
It is a great theory — but it’s not working as advertised. The first win — that going to the developing world — is hard to dispute. China has led the way, with more than a quadrupling of its per capita GDP since the early 1990s. Other developing countries have lagged the Chinese experience but have still made considerable progress in boosting living standards.
The problem lies with the second win — the supposed benefits accruing to the rich countries of the developed world. And that’s where the going has gotten especially tough. In recent years, the benefits of the second win have accrued primarily to the owners of capital at the expense of the providers of labor. At work is a powerful asymmetry in the impacts of globalization and global competition on the world’s major industrial economies — namely, record highs in the returns accruing to capital and record lows in the rewards going to labor. The global labor arbitrage has put unrelenting pressure on employment and real wages in the high-cost developed world — resulting in a compression of the labor income share down to a record low of 53.7% of industrial world national income in mid-2006. With labor costs easily accounting for the largest portion of business expenses, this has proved to be a veritable bonanza for the return to capital — pushing the profits share of national income in the major countries of the industrial world to historical highs of 15.6% in 2Q06.
This asymmetry in the second win is not without very important consequences. In days of yore — when labor and its organized unions actually had bargaining power — the current squeeze on labor income in the developed world would have undoubtedly resulted in some form of a “worker backlash.” In today’s increasingly globalized world, however, workers have no such power. But their elected political representatives most certainly do. And there can be no mistaking the important shift that has recently occurred in the political alignment of the industrial world — with the majority shifting from the pro-capital right to the pro-labor left. Not only is that the case in the United States, but such a tendency is also evident in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, and possibly even Australia.
The stunning results of the recent mid-term elections in the US could well be the canary in this coalmine. A newly-elected Democratic Congress is about to find itself center stage in the battle between capital and labor. The old Congress was quite transparent as to where it was headed in this regard — having introduced, by our count, 27 separate pieces of legislation since early 2005 that would impose some type of punitive actions on trade with China. The new Congress could go further — not just on the trade frictions front but also in embracing additional elements of a pro-labor agenda. In fact, newly elected Democratic leaders already have promised immediate passage of the first increase in the minimum wage in ten years. In my view, these are just the early warning signs of a US Congress that is likely to be far more sympathetic to the plight of labor than it was in the past.
Nor is America alone in tilting to the pro-labor left. In France, the ascendancy of Ségolène Royal offers a modern-day mix of pro-labor politics with a protectionist bias. Italy’s Prodi is also pro-labor, and in Spain, Zapatero is certainly more sympathetic to the plight of labor than Aznar was. In Germany, Merkel has tilted increasingly toward labor after she nearly lost the election running on a pro-market reform agenda. The new Abe government in Japan has teamed up with the center right in support of the “second chance society” — attempting to make certain that the victims in the rough and tumble arena of global competition are given the opportunity to come back. And in Australia, Kevin Rudd, the newly anointed opposition leader, seems set to center his platform on the struggle of the average worker.
I am not heralding the demise of globalization. What I suspect is that a partial backtracking is probably now at hand, as a leftward tilt of the body politic in the industrial world voices a strong protest over the extraordinary disparity that has opened up between the returns to capital and the rewards of labor. The extent of any backtracking is a verdict that lies in the hands of the politicians — specifically, how far they are willing to go in legislating an effort to narrow this disparity.
As the self-interests of nation-states become increasingly prominent, the pendulum of political power should swing from globalization to “localization.” That would imply very different characteristics to the macro climate. The most obvious — wages could go up and corporate profits could come under pressure. But it also seems reasonable to expect pro-labor politicians to direct regulatory scrutiny at excess returns on capital — focusing, in particular, on the perceptions of excess returns in financial markets (i.e., hedge funds and private equity) as well as on the inequities of rewards at the upper end of the income distribution (i.e., tax cuts for wealthy citizens and the excesses of executive compensation). Moreover, localization taken to its extreme could also spell heightened risks of protectionism — especially if the global economy slows and unemployment starts to rise in 2007, as we anticipate. Under those circumstances, inflation could accelerate, leading to higher interest rates, greater volatility in financial markets, and a potentially vicious unwinding of an over-extended credit cycle. And, of course, the protectionist ramifications of localization could prove equally challenging for the beneficiaries of globalization’s first win — dynamic new companies in the developing world and the employment growth they generate.
Don’t confuse prognosis with advocacy. Many of these potential developments, especially a drift toward protectionism, are without any redeeming merit, in my view. But this is what happens when trends go to extremes. In free-market systems, the pendulum of economic power then invariably swings the other way. An era of localization will undoubtedly have more frictions than the unfettered strain of capitalism and globalization that has been so dominant over the past decade. The big question, in my view, pertains mainly to degree — how far the pendulum swings from globalization to localization. The answer rests with the body politic. The repercussions lie in economics and financial markets.