A Baffling Global Economy

By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

We've been having the wrong discussion about globalization. For years, we've argued over whether this or that industry and its workers might suffer from imports and whether the social costs were worth the economic gains from foreign products, technologies and investments. By and large, the answer has been yes. But the harder questions, I think, lie elsewhere. Is an increasingly interconnected world economy basically stable? Or does it generate periodic crises that harm everyone and spawn international conflict?

These questions go to the core of a great puzzle: the yawning gap between the U.S. economy's actual performance (poor, but not horrific) and mass psychology (almost horrific). June's unemployment rate of 5.5 percent, though up from 4.4 percent in early 2007, barely exceeds the average of 5.4 percent since 1990. Contrast that with consumer confidence, as measured by the Reuters-University of Michigan survey. It's at the lowest point since 1952 with two exceptions (April and May 1980).

Granted, the present U.S. economic slowdown -- maybe already a recession -- stems mostly from familiar domestic causes, dominated by the burst housing "bubble." The Bush administration's rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the struggling government-sponsored housing enterprises, is the latest reminder. Still, global factors, notably high oil and food prices, have aggravated the slump. The line between what's local and what's global seems increasingly blurred, and there is a general anxiety that we are in the grip of mysterious worldwide forces.

The good that globalization has done is hard to dispute. Trade-driven economic growth and technology transfer have alleviated much human misery. If present economic trends continue (a big "if"), the worldwide middle class will expand by 2 billion by 2030, estimates a Goldman Sachs study. (Goldman's definition of middle class: people with incomes from $6,000 to $30,000.) In the United States, imports and foreign competition have raised incomes by 10 percent since World War II, some studies suggest. Job losses, though real, are often exaggerated.

But a disorderly global economy could reverse these advances. By disorderly I mean an economy plagued by financial crises, interruptions of crucial supplies (oil, obviously), trade wars or violent business cycles. This is globalization's Achilles' heel. Connections among countries have deepened and become more contradictory. Take oil producers. On one hand, high oil prices hurt advanced countries. But on the other, oil countries have an interest in keeping advanced countries prosperous, because that's where much surplus oil wealth is invested.

Vast global flows of money threaten unintended side effects. Foreigners own more than $1 trillion of debt issued or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, reports economist Harm Bandholz of UniCredit. In the past six years, he notes, foreigners have purchased $5.7 trillion of U.S. stocks and bonds. Bandholz says the inflow of money cut U.S. interest rates by 0.75 percentage points. So: Surplus savings from Asia and the Middle East, funneled into U.S. financial markets, may have abetted the "subprime" mortgage crisis by encouraging sloppy American credit practices. Too much money chased too few good investment opportunities.

A loss of confidence in U.S. financial markets could be calamitous; that was one reason for the rescue of Fannie and Freddie. But just possibly, we're at a crucial -- and desirable -- turning point. For several decades, the U.S. economy has been the world's economic locomotive. Americans borrowed and shopped; the U.S. trade deficit ballooned to $759 billion in 2006, stimulating exports from other countries. The trouble is that this pattern of growth could not continue indefinitely, because it required that Americans raise their debt burdens indefinitely. Now, China and other emerging markets may be moving beyond export-led growth. Unfortunately, that shift could abort, if high inflation (8 percent in China and India) derails domestic expansion.

Today's global economy baffles experts -- corporate executives, bankers, economists -- as much as it puzzles ordinary people. Countries are growing economically more interdependent and politically more nationalistic. This is a combustible combination. The old global economy had few power centers (the United States, Europe, Japan), was defined mainly by trade and was committed to the dollar as the central currency. Its major countries shared democratic values and alliances. Today's global economy has many power centers (including China, Saudi Arabia and Russia), is also defined by finance and is exploring currency alternatives to the dollar. Major trading nations now lack common political values and alliances.

It is no more possible to undo globalization than it was possible, in the 19th century, to undo the Industrial Revolution. But our understanding of international markets, shaped by impersonal economic forces and explicit political decisions, is poor. Countries try to maximize their advantages rather than make the system work for everyone. Considering how much could go wrong, the record is so far remarkably favorable. Alas, that's no guarantee for the future.

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