Comparative Advantage and Global Trade Fragility

One of the cornerstones of the global economic status quo is globalisation and integration of markets. Here’s the growth in world trade as a percentage of global GDP since the 1970s:

worldtrade

There have been two key forces behind this outgrowth in global trade. First of all, the American military acting as hegemonic global policeman with bases in more than 150 countries and backed has created a situation generally known as the Pax Americana where goods and intermediaries can be shipped around the globe with minimal fear of piracy, seizure, theft, etc. Second, the international community has incentivised trade liberalisation through the policies of organisations including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Trade Organization (WTO) requiring nations requesting loans or aid to open their markets to foreign trade competitors.

Most global policymakers and trade economists remain committed to and ultra-bullish about the agenda of global integration of markets. The OECD claims:

If G20 economies reduced trade barriers by 50%, they could gain:

More jobs: 0.3% to 3.3% rise in jobs for lower-skilled workers and 0.9 to 3.9% for higher-skilled workers, depending on the country.

Higher real wages 1.8% to 8% increase in real wages for lower-skilled workers and 0.8% to 8.1% for higher-skilled workers, depending on the country.

Increased exports: All G20 countries would see a boost in exports if trade barriers were halved. In the long run, many G20 countries could see their exports rise by 20% and in the Eurozone by more than 10%.

The overarching intellectual motivation for these policies is found in the work of the English classical economist David Ricardo and his neoclassical successors. The concept of comparative advantage introduced by Ricardo and expanded and formalised via equilibrium models by neoclassical economists including Samuelson, Mankiw, Hecksher and Ohlin (etc) has underpinned most of these policies.

Comparative advantage is the idea that nations benefit from specialising in what they are best at. Ricardo introduced the notion during debates about Britain opening her markets to European trade. Ricardo pointed out that total output and welfare would be greater for all countries in total if they specialised in what they were best at, and traded with each other to get what they wanted.

This principle works in Ricardo’s simple verbal model (and in the more sophisticated equilibrium models developed since). However empirical studies and meta-studies of modern day trade liberalisation suggest that there are some problems with this theory in practice.

Dani Rodrik noted in 2001:

Do lower trade barriers spur greater economic progress? The available studies reveal no systematic relationship between a country’s average level of tariff and nontariff barriers and its subsequent economic growth rate. If anything, the evidence for the 1990s indicates a positive relationship between import tariffs and economic growth.

The evidence on the benefits of liberalizing capital flows is even weaker. In theory, the appeal of capital mobility seems obvious: If capital is free to enter (and leave) markets based on the potential return on investment, the result will be an efficient allocation of global resources. But in reality, financial markets are inherently unstable, subject to bubbles (rational or otherwise), panics, shortsightedness, and self-fulfilling prophecies. There is plenty of evidence that financial liberalization is often followed by financial crash — just ask Mexico, Thailand, or Turkey — while there is little convincing evidence to suggest that higher rates of economic growth follow capital-account liberalization.

So what’s the difference between theory and reality?

There are a number of potential reasons why the theoretical promise of comparative advantage has not played out in reality.

First is graft and corruption. If countries are taking on loans from international institutions, and those loans are being deposited in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt officials or businessmen instead of being spent on improving industry, skills or infrastructure, then what chance do developing countries have of developing?

Second is the danger of bubbles during the liberalisation process. Global capital flows into newly-liberalised countries can stoke bubbles in almost every sector (but especially equities, real estate, etc). When the bubble bursts, capital flows out, leaving the domestic economy deeply depressed.

Third is the social upheaval costs to labour, skills and institutions. As we have seen in the United States, manufacturing jobs and skills migrated abroad. Workers often cannot be retrained cheaply and easily, and often do not want or cannot afford to migrate to wherever their skills would be best-compensated. This stickiness can result in endemic unemployment and resultant economic weakness.

Fourth is the cost to capital stock.

As Steve Keen noted:

Some capital is necessarily destroyed by the opening up of trade.

Since capital is destroyed when trade is liberalised, the watertight argument that trade necessarily improves material welfare springs a leak.

Converting capital stock again and again to keep up with changing economic winds can be an expensive, difficult and mistake-ridden process.

Fifth is the problem of trade fragility.  Events like natural disasters and foreign wars can disrupt production and trade flows. Specialisation could cripple a country that depends on imports from foreign disrupted countries. Dependency on imported goods and intermediates renders countries vulnerable to shocks outside their borders. Wars and disasters that affect exporters have at times seriously disrupted and damaged the economies of importers, and vice versa.

The fact that trade liberalisation can have large social costs, create economic fragility and produce asset bubbles is a cause for pause. Is IMF-imposed globalisation opposed by the wider public really producing freer markets, or is it a misguided central planning experiment? Has the dogmatic pursuit of globalisation left global industry fragile to supply chain shocks caused by natural disasters and wars? Can the status quo really even be considered free trade, given that it is supported and smoothed by huge military-industrial subsidies? Does freedom of trade not also include freedom of nations to choose to protect domestic industries, institutions and supply chains from foreign competition? Why should the industries of developing countries be expected to compete against corporate multinational juggernauts?

While global trade may have provide a major disincentive against trade-disrupting wars, it seems probable that it has created a deep underlying systemic fragility. Trade interdependence means that regional or domestic shocks to production like a war or natural disaster may have consequences throughout the entire world, transmitted through dependencies. Similarly to the interconnective global financial system and the 2008 financial crisis, geopolitical shocks in coming years may well be magnified by globalisation.

About these ads

The Great Pacification

Since the end of the Second World War, the major powers of the world have lived in relative peace. While there have been wars and conflicts  — Vietnam, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq (twice), the Congo, Rwanda, Israel and Palestine, the Iran-Iraq war, the Mexican and Colombian drug wars, the Lebanese civil war — these have been localised and at a much smaller scale than the violence that ripped the world apart during the Second World War. The recent downward trend is clear: Many thinkers believe that this trend of pacification is unstoppable. Steven Pinker, for example, claims:

Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth. It has not brought violence down to zero, and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

While the relative decline of violence and the growth of global commerce is a cause for celebration, those who want to proclaim that the dawn of the 21st Century is the dawn of a new long-lasting era of global peace may be overly optimistic. It is possible that we are on the edge of a precipice and that this era of relative peace is merely a calm before a new global storm. Militarism and the military-industrial complex never really went away — the military of the United States is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world. Weapons contractors are still gorging on multi-trillion dollar military spending. Let’s consider another Great Moderation — the moderation of the financial system previous to the bursting of the bubble in 2008.

One of the most striking features of the economic landscape over the past twenty years or so has been a substantial decline in macroeconomic volatility. Ben Bernanke (2004)

Bernanke attributed this outgrowth of macroeconomic stability to policy — that through macroeconomic engineering, governments had created a new era of financial and economic stability. Of course, Bernanke was wrong — in fact those tools of macroeconomic stabilisation were at that very moment inflating housing and securitisation bubbles, which burst in 2008 ushering in a new 1930s-style depression. It is more than possible that we are in a similar peace bubble that might soon burst. Pinker highlights some possible underlying causes for this decline in violent conflict:

The most obvious of these pacifying forces has been the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. A disinterested judiciary and police can defuse the temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties to a dispute believe that they are on the side of the angels. We see evidence of the pacifying effects of government in the way that rates of killing declined following the expansion and consolidation of states in tribal societies and in medieval Europe. And we can watch the movie in reverse when violence erupts in zones of anarchy, such as the Wild West, failed states and neighborhoods controlled by mafias and street gangs, who can’t call 911 or file a lawsuit to resolve their disputes but have to administer their own rough justice.

Really? The state is the pacifying force? This is an astonishing claim. Sixty years ago, states across the world mobilised to engage in mass-killing the like of which the world had never seen — industrial slaughter of astonishing efficiency. The concentration of power in the state has at times led to more violence, not less. World War 2 left sixty million dead. Communist nations slaughtered almost 100 million in the pursuit of communism. Statism has a bloody history, and the power of the state to wage total destruction has only increased in the intervening years. Pinker continues:

Another pacifying force has been commerce, a game in which everybody can win. As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead. They switch from being targets of demonization and dehumanization to potential partners in reciprocal altruism. For example, though the relationship today between America and China is far from warm, we are unlikely to declare war on them or vice versa. Morality aside, they make too much of our stuff, and we owe them too much money. A third peacemaker has been cosmopolitanism—the expansion of people’s parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media. These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.

Commerce has been an extremely effective incentive toward peace. But commerce may not be enough. Globalisation and mass commerce became a reality a century ago, just prior to the first global war. The world was linked together by new technologies that made it possible to ship products cheaply from one side of the globe to the other, to communicate virtually instantaneously over huge distances, and a new culture of cosmopolitanism. Yet the world still went to war.

It is complacent to assume that interdependency will necessitate peace. The relationship between China and the United States today is superficially similar to that between Great Britain and Germany in 1914. Germany and China — the rising industrial behemoths, fiercely nationalistic and determined to establish themselves and their currencies on the world stage. Great Britain and the United States  — the overstretched global superpowers intent on retaining their primacy and reserve currency status even in spite of huge and growing debt and military overstretch.

In fact, a high degree of interdependency can breed resentment and hatred. Interconnected liabilities between nations can lead to war, as creditors seek their pound of flesh, and debtors seek to renege on their debts. Chinese officials have claimed to have felt that the United States is forcing them to support American deficits by buying treasuries.

Who is to say that China might not view the prize of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines as worthy of transforming their giant manufacturing base into a giant war machine and writing down their treasury bonds? Who is to say that the United States might not risk antagonising Russia and China and disrupting global trade by attacking Iran? There are plenty of other potential flash-points too — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Venezuela, Egypt, South Africa, Georgia, Syria and more. Commerce and cosmopolitanism may have provided incentives for peace, but the Great Pacification has been built upon a bedrock of nuclear warheads. Mutually assured destruction is by far the largest force that has kept the nuclear-armed nations at peace for the past sixty seven years.

Yet can it last? Would the United States really have launched a first-strike had the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe during the Cold War, for example? If so, the global economy and population would have been devastated. If not, mutually assured destruction would have lost credibility. Mutually assured destruction can only act as a check on expansionism if it is credible. So far, no nation has really tested this credibility. Nuclear-armed powers have already engaged in proxy wars, such as Vietnam. How far can the limits be pushed? Would the United States launch a first-strike on China if China were to invade and occupy Taiwan and Japan, for example? Would the United States try to launch a counter-invasion? Or would they back down? Similarly, would Russia and China launch a first-strike on the United States if the United States invades and occupies Iran?

Launching a first-strike is highly unlikely in all cases — mutually assured destruction will remain an effective deterrent to nuclear war. But perhaps not to conventional war and territorial expansionism. With the world mired in the greatest economic depression since the 1930s, it becomes increasingly likely that states — especially those with high unemployment, weak growth, incompetent leadership and angry, disaffected youth —  will (just as they did during the last global depression in the 1930s) turn to expansionism, nationalism, trade war and even physical war. Already, the brittle peace between China and Japan is rupturing, and the old war rhetoric is back. These are the kinds of demonstrations that the Communist Party are now sanctioning:

And already, America and Israel are moving to attack Iran, even in spite of warnings by Chinese and Pakistani officials that this could risk global disruption. Hopefully, the threat of mutually assured destruction and the promise of commerce will continue to be an effective deterrent, and prevent any kind of global war from breaking out. Hopefully, states can work out their differences peacefully. Hopefully nations can keep war profiteers and those who advocate crisis initiation in check. Nothing would be more wonderful than the continuing spread of peace. Yet we must be guarded against complacency. Sixty years of relative peace is not the end of history.

Paul vs Paul: Round #2

Bloomberg viewers estimate that Ron Paul was the winner of the clash of the Pauls (Ron Paul fans, of course, are very studious at phoning in their support him for). But that is very much beside the point. This wasn’t really a debate. Other than the fascinating moment where Krugman denied defending the economic policies of Diocletian, very little new was said, and the two combatants mainly talked past each other.

The first debate happened early last decade.

To wit:

And so, round two. Krugman wants more inflation; Paul is scared of the prospect. From Paul’s FT editorial yesterday:

Control of the world’s economy has been placed in the hands of a banking cartel, which holds great danger for all of us. True prosperity requires sound money, increased productivity, and increased savings and investment. The world is awash in US dollars, and a currency crisis involving the world’s reserve currency would be an unprecedented catastrophe. No amount of monetary expansion can solve our current financial problems, but it can make those problems much worse.

Or, as Professor Krugman sees it:

Would a rise in inflation to 3 percent or even 4 percent be a terrible thing? On the contrary, it would almost surely help the economy.

How so? For one thing, large parts of the private sector continue to be crippled by the overhang of debt accumulated during the bubble years; this debt burden is arguably the main thing holding private spending back and perpetuating the slump. Modest inflation would, however, reduce that overhang — by eroding the real value of that debt — and help promote the private-sector recovery we need. Meanwhile, other parts of the private sector (like much of corporate America) are sitting on large hoards of cash; the prospect of moderate inflation would make letting the cash just sit there less attractive, acting as a spur to investment — again, helping to promote overall recover.

Ron Paul believes that inflationary interventions into the dollar economy will have unpredictable and dangerous ramifications. Paul Krugman believes that a little more inflation will spur economic activity and decrease residual debt overhang. Krugman gives no credence to the prospect of inflation spiralling out of hand, or of such policies triggering other deleterious side-effects, like a currency crisis.

The prospect of a currency crisis is a topic I have covered in depth lately: as more Eurasian nations ditch the dollar as reserve currency, more dollars (there are $5 trillion floating around Asia, in comparison to a domestic monetary base of just $1.8 trillion — the dollar is an absurdly internationalised currency) will be making their way back into the domestic American economy. Will that have an impact?

I don’t really know how much of this is to do with the Fed’s reflationary policies, and how much is to do with the United States’ endangered role as global hegemon. I tend to think that the dollar hegemony has always been backed by American military force, and with the American military overstretched, the dollar’s role comes into question. If America can’t play the global policeman for global trade, why would the dollar be the currency on global trade?

However it must be noted that America’s creditors do believe that their assets are threatened by the Fed’s inflationism.

As the Telegraph noted last year:

There has been a hostile reaction by China, Brazil and Germany, among others, to the Federal Reserve’s decision to resume quantitative easing.

Or as a Xinhua editorial rather bluntly put it:

China, the largest creditor of the world’s sole superpower, has every right now to demand the United States to address its structural debt problems and ensure the safety of China’s dollar assets.

Of course, China may be totally bluffing, or getting it wrong on the danger of inflation to its assets.

If the reflationism is angering the exporter nations perhaps it is a cause for concern. After all, if America’s consumption-based economy is dependent on China’s continued exportation, and Krugman is advocating inflating away their debt-denominated financial assets, then to what extent do Krugman’s suggestions imperil the trans-Pacific consumer-producer relationship?

And this is a crucial matter — there is nothing, I think, more crucial than the free availability of goods and resources through the trade infrastructure. Getting into a fight with China is risky.

As commenter Thomas P. Seager noted yesterday:

[The situation today] is directly analogous to the first Oil Shock in 1973. In the decades prior, the US had been a major oil producer. However, efficiency gains and discoveries overseas resulting in an incrementally increasing dependence of foreign petroleum. Price signals failed to materialize that would caution policy makers and industrialists of the risks.

Then, the disruption of oil supplies from the Middle East caused tremendous economic dislocations.

Manufacturing is undergoing the same process. The supply chain disruption from the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami was merely a warning shot. Imagine if S Korean manufacturing were taken off-line for any length of time (a plausible scenario). The disruption to US industry would be catastrophic.

In the name of increased efficiency, we have introduced brittleness.

Time will tell whether Krugman’s desire for more inflation is wise or not.

Treasuries Still Not Cracking

Tyler Durden pointed out yesterday that just three weeks after Goldman made the case for equities relative to bonds, the muppets who had listened to their advice were getting skewered:

I wrote a while back that (unlike some others) I didn’t believe it was likely that  this was going to be a cataclysmic rate spike. Readers who want to detect one need to watch whether sovereign creditors especially Russia and China are selling, and at what pace — the faster the liquidation, the more rates may spike.

Of course, I am still convinced that the real fragility to America’s economy isn’t actually a rate spike or inflation.The Fed has a very good handle on both of these things (but not, perhaps on unwanted side effects. They can effectively do QE without really inflating the currency much; simply shoot the money to primary dealers for treasuries.

When volatility is artificially suppressed, there are always unwanted side effects. And that — the unwanted side effects, not the widely-reported fears of inflation and rate spikes — I believe, is the true danger.

One unwanted side effect could be provoking a damaging trade war with China, from which the West imports so much. That is my pet theory, and one I’ve devoted a few thousand words to over the last few months. But the trouble with side-effects is that it is very hard to tell what the weakest link (i.e. the point that will break) in a volatility-suppressed system is. Tyler Durden reports that systemic financial fragility (as measured by CDS) is at a recent-high, too:

Believers in technical analysis (I am very sceptical) are pointing to a head-and-shoulders top in the “recovery” (to go with the bigger head and shoulders top that is very much one of the stories of the last ten years):

I don’t know when the black swans will come home to roost and the strange creature that we call the present global economic order will go ka-put. I don’t even know if they ever will! But I see the fragilities caused by central planners suppressing the system’s natural volatility.

The Diminishing Chances of an Israeli Strike

From Haaretz:

At 8:58 P.M. on Tuesday, Israel’s 2012 war against Iran came to a quiet end. The capricious plans for a huge aerial attack were returned to the deep recesses of safes and hearts. The war may not have been canceled but it has certainly been postponed. For a while, at least, we can sound the all clear: It won’t happen this year. Until further notice, Israel Air Force Flight 007 will not be taking off.

According to a war simulation conducted by the U.S. Central Command, the Iranians could kill 200 Americans with a single missile response to an Israeli attack. An investigative committee would not spare any admiral or general, minister or president. The meaning of this U.S. scenario is that the blood of these 200 would be on Israel’s head.

Yeah. But I don’t really think that there was any real chance of a strike, even before that, and I haven’t for a long time.

As I wrote in January:

The real threat to Israel and America is not inaction on Iran, but excessive force. Iran poses little threat, but military intervention to effect regime change in Tehran runs the risk of huge and widespread blowback throughout the Muslim world: terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and deeper intergovernmental hostility, a breakdown of regional trade, and even a wider land war involving Eurasian nations who wish to protect Iran, including China and Russia.

The curious thing is that if the critical wargame was one involving a retaliatory Iranian missile strike, perhaps the people at the Pentagon would be wiser to allocate their not inconsiderable resources to a closure of the Strait of Hormuz, instead? After all, the economic damage of destabilising global trade seems a much greater danger to global, American and Israeli security than an Iranian retaliation.

From the Huffington Post:

Blocking the Strait of Hormuz would create an international and economic calamity of unprecedented severity. Here are the crude realities. America uses approximately 19 to 20 million barrels of oil per day, almost half of which is imported. If we lose just 1 million barrels per day, or suffer the type of damage sustained from Hurricane Katrina, our government will open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), which offers a mere six- to eight-week supply of unrefined crude oil. If we lose 1.5 million barrels per day, or approximately 7.5 percent, we will ask our allies in the 28-member International Energy Agency to open their SPRs and otherwise assist. If we lose 2 million barrels per day, or 10 percent, for a protracted period, government crisis monitors say the chaos will be so catastrophic, they cannot even model it. One government oil crisis source recently told me: “We cannot put a price tag on it. If it happens, just cash in your 401(k).”

Of course, there are plenty of examples of nations enacting policies that end up damaging their own interests, not least America’s costly, destructive and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. But given the deep and serious opposition that Netanyahu faces from within the Israeli establishment (e.g. Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief), it seems unlikely that they will at any point engage in such a strike. The rhetoric appears to be mostly designed stir up resistance to the Iranian regime (although frankly this appears to have had the opposite effect — galvanising the Iranian people to rally around a relatively unpopular regime).