Category Archives: Globalization

International Factor Payments and the Pandemic

I have written a piece on international factor payments (migrants’ remittances, FDI income) and the pandemic for Econbrowser, the widely followed blog of Menzie Chinn of the University of Wisconsin and James Hamilton of the University of California-San Diego.

You can find it here:

http://econbrowser.com/archives/2020/07/guest-contribution-international-factor-payments-and-the-pandemic

The 2019 Globie: “Capitalism, Alone” by Branko Milanovic

The time to announce the recipient of this year’s “Globie” is finally here. Each year I choose a book as the Globalization Book of the Year. The prize is—alas—strictly honorific and does not come with a monetary reward. But it gives me a chance to draw attention to a book that is particularly insightful about some aspect of globalization.  Previous winners are listed at the bottom.

This year’s winner is Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World. (This is the second Globie for Milanovic, who won it in 2016 for Global Inequality.) The book is based on the premise that capitalism has become the universal form of economic organization. This type of system is characterized by “production organized for profit using legally free wage labor and mostly privately owned capital, with decentralized coordination.” However, there exist two different types of capitalism: the liberal meritocratic form that developed in the West, and state-led political capitalism, which exists primarily in Asia but also parts of Europe and Africa.

The two models are competitors, in part because of their adoption in different parts of the world and also because they arose in different circumstances. The liberal meritocratic system arose from the class capitalism of the late 19th century, which in turn evolved out of feudalism. Communism, Milanovic writes, took the place of bourgeoise development. Communist parties in countries such as China and Vietnam overthrew the domestic landlord class as well as foreign domination. These countries now seek to re-establish their place in the global distribution of economic power.

Milanovic highlights one characteristic that the two forms of capitalism share: inequality. Inequality in today’s liberal meritocratic capitalism differs from that of classical capitalism in several features. Capital-rich individuals are also labor-rich, which reinforces the inequality. Assortative mating leads to more marriages within income classes. The upper classes use their money to control the political process to maintain their position of privilege.

Because of limited data on income distribution in many of the countries with political capitalism, Milanovic focuses on inequality in China. He attributes its rise to the gap between growth in the urban areas versus the rural, as well the difference in growth between the maritime provinces and those in the western portion of the country. There is also a rising share of income from capital , as well as a high concentration of capital income. In addition, corruption has become systemic, as it was before the communist revolution.

The mobility of labor and capital allows capitalism to operate on a global basis. Migrants from developing economies benefit when they move to advanced economies. But residents in those countries often fear migration because of its potentially disruptive effect on cultural norms, despite the positive spillover effects on the domestic economy. Milanovic proposes granting migrants limited rights, such as a finite term of stay, in order to facilitate their acceptance. He points out, however, the potential downside of the creation of an underclass.

Multinational firms have organized global supply chains that give the parent units in their home countries the ability to coordinate production in different subsidiary units and their suppliers in their host nations. Consequently, the governments of home countries seek to limit the transfer of technology to the periphery nations to avoid losing innovation rents. The host countries, on the other hand, hope to use technology to jump ahead in the development process.

The Trump administration clearly shares these concerns about the impact of globalization. President Trump has urged multinational firms to relocate production facilities within the U.S. Government officials are planning to limit the export of certain technologies while carefully scrutinizing foreign acquisitions of domestic firms in tech-related areas. New restrictions on legal immigration have been enacted that would give priority to a merit-based system. Moreover, the concerns over migration are not unique to the U.S.

Milanovic ends with some provocative thoughts about the future of capitalism. One path would be to a “people’s capitalism,” in which everyone has an approximately equal share of both capital and labor income. This would require tax advantages for the middle class combined with increased taxes on the rich, improvements in the quality of public education, and public funding of political campaigns. But it is also feasible that there will be a move of liberal capitalism toward a form of political capitalism based on the rise of the new elite, who wish to retain their position within society.

Milanovic’s book offers a wide-ranging review of many of the features of contemporary capitalism. He is particularly insightful about the role of corruption in both liberal and political capitalism. Whether or not it is feasible to reform capitalism in order to serve a wider range of interests is one of the most important issues of our time.

2018    Adam Tooze,  Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World

2017    Stephen D. King, Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History

2016    Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality

2015    Benjamin J. Cohen. Currency Power: Understanding Monetary Rivalry

2014    Martin Wolf, The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned–and Have Still to Learn–from the Financial Crisis

The Parting of Ways: The U.S. and China

The agreement of U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jingping to restart trade talks put offs planned increases of tariffs on Chinese exports. But there is little doubt that the U.S. intends to move ahead with its intention to undo the economic integration that has been underway since the 1990s. Even when it proves impossible to reverse history, the consequences of such a move will have long-lasting consequences for the global economy.

To understand what is at stake, think of the following simple guide to the status of the world’s nations in the aftermath of World War II. Countries separated into three groups, each anchored on its own tectonic plate. The “first world” consisted of the advanced economies of the U.S., Canada, the West European nations, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. These economies enjoyed rapid growth in the 1950s and 1960s, due in part to the expansion of trade amongst them. The formation of the European Community (now Union) eventually led to a single market in goods and services, capital and labor for its members. The largest of the advanced economies exerted their control through the “Group of Seven,” i.e., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S. Their leaders met periodically to discuss economic and other types of policies and issued communiques that listed their agreements. Their predominance extended to their control of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The “second world” included the Communist nations: the Soviet Union and the countries it controlled in Eastern Europe, as well as China and North Korea. These were command economies, run by government ministers. There was some commerce between the Soviet Union and its East European satellites, but all trade was managed. There were virtually no commercial or financial interactions with the first world.

Finally, there was the “third world,” consisting of the remaining nations located in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and South and East Asia. These countries, also known as the developing economies, encompassed a wide range of economic and political models. Many of them formed an association of “nonaligned” countries that sought to preserve their political independence from the first and second worlds.

The third world had limited trade with the first world nations, and this usually consisted of commodity exports in exchange for imports of industrial goods. Import substitution, i.e., the domestic production of manufactured goods, was proposed in the 1950s as a means to counteract the disadvantageous terms of trade these nations faced for their goods. There was some migration between the first and third worlds, and there was a shift in the home countries of U.S. immigrants from Europe to Latin American and Asia. But the movements of people never approached the magnitudes of the first wave of globalization of 1870-1914.

This account is simplistic, and there are important exceptions. Yugoslavia, for example, escaped the control of the Soviet Union and had its own form of a command economy. Taiwan and South Korea began implementing export-led development policies in the 1970s. There were important differences between the capitalist economies of the U.S. and the Scandinavian nations. But the relative separation of the three “worlds” did limit their interaction, as did the political tensions between the U.S. and its allies on the one hand and the Communist governments on the other.

The partition, however, began to dissolve at the end of the 1980s as the economic tectonic plates underneath these clusters of countries began to split and move. China sought to grow its economy through the use of markets and private firms. The government promoted foreign trade, and allowed investments by foreign firms that could provide capital, technology and managerial expertise.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc of nations was followed by the integration of the eastern European nations with the rest of Europe. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other countries provided workforces for foreign–particularly German–firms and their economies grew rapidly. The European Union expanded to include these new members, Russia itself was less successful in adapting its economy to the new configuration, and remained dependent on its oil and natural gas resources.

While the nations of the second world were moving towards those of the first world, the countries in the third world also sought to become part of the global economy. Asian nations, such as India, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, adopted pro-market policies in order to accelerate development. Their expanded trade brought these countries closer to the first world. Global poverty fell, principally due to a fall in the proportion of the poor in the populations of China and India.

But there were serious disruptions to these advances, particularly in those emerging market economies that suffered financial crises: Mexico in 1995, several of the East Asian countries in 1997, Russia in 1998, and Argentina and Turkey in 2001. While some of the crises were the result of unsustainable government policies, there were also outflows of private capital that had fueled credit bubbles. The massive disruption of economic activity in the wake of these “sudden stops” necessitated outside assistance for the countries to recover. The reputation of the IMF suffered a serious blow for its slow response to the Asian crisis, and the Fund subsequently acknowledged that it had underestimated the extent and consequences of their financial fragility.

Moreover, there was collateral damage accompanying the melding of the economic tectonic plates. China’s emergence as a mega-trader had an impact on the production of manufactured goods in the U.S. and other nations. The resulting job losses, that were often conflated with those lost due to technology, turned parts of the populations of the advanced economies against globalization. Migrants were also blamed for the loss of jobs, as were global supply chains by multinational firms.

The global financial crisis of 2007-09 and the ensuing weak recovery increased the questioning of the policies of the previous two decades. Unemployment in the U.S. fell slowly, and debt crises in several European nations kept growth rates depressed. There was an acknowledgement that the benefits of globalization had not been shared equally as public awareness of income and wealth inequality increased.

There was also adverse reactions to political integration. European governments bristled against EU restrictions on their budgetary policies, while In the United Kingdom nationalists argued that EU officials in Brussels had usurped their government’s sovereignty. The waves of refugees who fled to Europe from Syria and elsewhere awakened fears of a loss of national identity.

The election of Donald Trump and the vote in the United Kingdom in favor of leaving the EU made clear the depth of the reaction against the global integration of 1990-2006. Trump’s campaign was based on a pledge to return to some past era when America had been “great,” while proponents of Brexit promised that their country would prosper outside the boundaries of the EU. The bases of support for these policies were not always wide, but they were strongly motivated.

At the same time, the Chinese government has been keen to assert its control of the country’s economic future and to resist outside interference. The Chinese also seek to establish a zone of political domination in Asia. Similarly, Russia’s President Putin has sought to set up a sphere of political and military influence around its borders. Neither government wants to cut their ties with the U.S. and other advanced economies, but they do want to maintain control over their respective geographic areas.

The China-U.S. split, therefore, is part of a larger reaction to the integration of the global economy. The removal of the barriers separating the three post-World War II “worlds” has led to anxiety and fear in those countries that were part of the first world. They look for a return to the economic dominance that they once enjoyed.

But it is not feasible to undo all the ties that have developed over recent decades, and the nations of what had been the second and third worlds will never accept subordinate status. Moreover, it is possible for the U.S. to place barriers on trade and finance that will undo the gains of the last two decades without any offsetting benefits. Even more worrisome is the possibility that economic and political divisions will exacerbate military division and result in conflict.

The earth has several geographic plates, and they move at a rate of one to two inches (three to five centimeters) per year. Over very long periods of time, the plates do collide, and the force of their movements as they smash into each other creates mountain ranges such as the Himalayas. Economic plates can move more quickly, and their collisions can be equally powerful.

We have entered into a reactionary period as self-proclaimed populists promise to segregate their countries from the outside world to achieve some form of national destiny. But it is not feasible to live in isolation, and ignoring the linkages that exist means that we are not responding to global challenges such as climate change. There may be multiple plates, but they all share one planet.

Global Firms, National Policies

Studies of international transactions often assume that national economies function as separate “islands” or “planets.” Each has its own markets and currency, and international trade and finance occurs when the residents of one economy exchange goods and services or financial assets with those of another. The balance of payments keeps track of the transactions. But in reality firms treat the differences across nations as opportunities to increase their profits, and their decisions on basing the location of their activities–or how they report the basing of the activities–reflect this.

Multinational companies are not new entities; they can be traced back to the European trading companies that colonized the Americas, Asia and Africa. In the twentieth century, firms expanded across borders to get around trade barriers, to obtain access to raw materials, and to produce their goods more cheaply using foreign labor. Advances in the technology of shipping (container ships) and communications (Internet) spurred the development of global supply chains. Firms divided the production of goods among countries in order to manufacture them at the lowest cost before assembly into a final product. Shipments of these intermediate goods have become a major component of international trade, and intermediate inputs represent a significant portion of the value of exports .

This stratification of production has several implications, as Shimelse Ali and Uri Dadush of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have pointed out. Bilateral trade balances, for example, are distorted. U.S. imports from China contain a significant amount of intermediate inputs from other countries. Measuring only the value-added by Chinese firms to their exports lowers its trade surplus with the U.S. by a significant amount.

Moreover, tariffs on intermediate goods have impacts all along the global supply chain. The trade restrictions imposed by the Trump administration are rippling through the U.S. economy, raising the costs of production for those firms that depend on foreign supplies of goods that are subject to the tariffs. Daniel Ikenson of the Cato Institute has found that the U.S. transportation, construction and manufacturing sectors are those that are among those most affected by the tariffs. If the tariffs are not removed, firms will reconsider investing in new production facilities.

Global supply links also affect the current accounts of the nations where the multinationals are based. When these firms establish foreign subsidiaries in order to take advantage of cheaper costs abroad, then their home countries record less trade but more primary income resulting from the operations of the subsidiaries. The countries that receive the largest amounts of primary income include the U.S., Japan, France and Germany, all home countries of multinationals with extensive foreign operations. Net primary income does not receive as much publicity as fluctuations in the balance of trade, but the primary income balance has increased in magnitude, and in some cases dominates the current account. Japan’s net income surplus has in some years more than offset its trade deficits, while the United Kingdom’s current account deficit is due primarily to its net income deficit.

These foreign operations also give the multinational firms the opportunity to take advantage of differences in national tax systems. Stefan Avdjiev and Hyun Song Shin of the of the Bank for International Settlements and Mary Everett and Philip R. Lane of the Central Bank of Ireland have shown some of the consequences of these maneuvers. Firms can manipulate the value of their foreign profits in order to lower their tax liabilities. Until recently, the U.S. taxed multinational firms headquartered here on their global profits, with credits given for foreign taxes. The foreign profits were not taxed until they were repatriated. Firms could book profits in low-tax jurisdictions—known as “tax havens”—and keep those profits outside the U.S.

Those foreign profits could be increased by lowering the recorded cost of inputs from the U.S. and raising the value of goods sent back, thus increasing the profits recorded by the foreign subsidiary. Such “transfer prices” should be based on their market value, but in many cases there are none, which give the firms the opportunity to understate their domestic profits and overstate their foreign profits, which are subject to the lower tax. Similarly, intellectual property assets could be shifted to low-tax jurisdictions.

Thomas R. Tørsløv and Ludvig Wier of the University of Copenhagen and Gabriel Zucman of UC-Berkeley have investigated this movement of profits to tax havens. They estimate that about 40% of multinational profits are shifted to tax havens, such as Ireland, Luxembourg and Singapore.  As a result, the home countries of the multinational firms—particularly the non-haven European Union nations—lose tax revenues. The shareholders of the multinationals—particularly those based in the U.S.—are among the main winners.

Governments are well aware of the activities of the multinationals, and the loss of tax revenues. Kim Clausing of Reed College has estimated that profit shifting by U.S. multinational corporations reduces U.S. government tax revenues by more than $100 billion each year. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development has taken the lead in formulating policies to tackle what it calls “Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS). To date over 100 countries have agreed to participate. The recent tax code changes in the U.S. have greatly reduced the incentive for U.S. firms to record and hold profits overseas. Multinationals such as Google and Starbucks are receiving close scrutiny of their international profits, and Apple has been ordered to pay back taxes to Ireland.

The OECD’s initiative, as well as the work of advocacy groups such as the Tax Justice Network, has increased the visibility of the activities of the multinationals designed to lower taxes. But the existence of different factor costs and divergent tax codes will always provide incentives for tax lawyers and accountants to devise new ways of lowering the taxes of the multinationals. In a Westphalian world, domestic governments are reluctant to give up their sovereignty. As a result, multinationals that are much more adept in dancing around national borders will  take advantage of any opportunities they see.

Global Networks and Financial Instability

The ten-year anniversary of the global financial crisis has brought a range of analyses of the current stability of the financial system (see, for example, here). Most agree that the banking sector is more robust now due to increased capital, less leverage, more prudent balance sheets and better regulation. But systemic risk is an inherent feature of finance, and a disturbance in one area can quickly spread to others through global networks.

The growth of financial markets and institutions during the 1990s and 2000s benefitted many, including those in emerging market economies that became integrated with world markets during this period. But the large-scale extension of credit to the housing sector led to property bubbles in the U.S., as well as in Ireland and Spain. The development of financial instruments such as mortgage backed securities (MBS), collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and credit default swaps (CDS) were supposed to spread the risk of lenders in order to mitigate the impact of a negative price shock. However, these instruments and the extension of credit to subprime borrowers increased the vulnerability of financial institutions to reversals in the housing markets. Risk increased in a non-linear fashion as balance sheets became highly leveraged, and national regulators simply did not understand the nature and scale of these risks.

The holdings of assets across borders amplified the impact of the disruption of the U.S. financial markets once housing prices fell. European banks that had borrowed dollars in order to participate in the U.S. MBS markets found themselves exposed when dollar funding was no longer available. The gross flows of money between the U.S. and Europe increased the ties between their institutions and increased the fragility of their financial markets. It took the the establishment of swap networks between the Federal Reserve and European central banks to provide the necessary dollar funding.

John Kay has written about the inability to recognize and minimize systemic risk in financial systems in Other People’s Money: The Real Business of Finance. He draws from engineers the lesson that “…stability and resilience requires conscious and systematic simplification, modularity, which enables failures to be contained, and redundancy, which allows failed elements to be by-passed. None of these features—simplification, modularity, redundancy—characterized the financial system as is had developed in 2008.”

Similarly, Ian Goldin of Oxford University and Chris Kutarna examined the impact of rising financial complexity on the stability of financial systems in the period leading up to the crisis: “Cumulative connective and developmental forces produced a global financial system that was suddenly far bigger and more complex than just a decade before. This made the new hazards harder to see and simultaneously spread the dangers more widely—to workers, pensioners, and companies worldwide.”

Goldin and Mike Marithasan of KU Leuven also looked at the impact of increasing complexity on financial systems in The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to Do About It. They use Iceland as an example of how complex financial relationships were constructed with virtually no understanding of the consequences if they unraveled. They draw several lessons for dealing with a more complex financial networks. These include global oversight by regulators using systemic analysis, and the use of simple rules such as leverage ratios rather than complex regulations.

The Basel III regulatory regime follows this advice in a number of areas. But the basic vulnerability of financial networks remains. Yevgeniya Korniyenko, Manasa Patnam, Rita Maria del Rio-Chanon and Mason A. Porter have analyzed the interconnectedness of the global financial system in an IMF working paper, “Evolution of the Global Financial Network and Contagion: A New Approach.” They use a multilayer network framework with data on foreign direct investment, portfolio equity and debt and bank loans over the period 2008-15 to analyze the global financial network.

The authors compare the networks for the years 2009 and 2015, and report which countries are systematically important in the networks. They find that the U.S. and the U.K. appear at the top of these rankings in both of the selected years, although the cross-border holdings of U.S. financial institutions has increased over time while those of the U.K.’s institutions fell. China has moved up in the rankings, as have other Asian countries such as Singapore and South Korea. The authors conclude that “The global financial network remains most susceptible to shocks coming from large central countries…and countries with large financial systems (namely, the USA and the UK)…”

A decade after the global crisis, the possibility of the rapid propagation of a financial shock remains. There is more resiliency in those parts of the financial system that failed in 2008, but the current most vulnerable areas may not be identified until there is a new crisis. Policymakers who ignore this reality will be tripped up when the next shock occurs, and they will learn that  “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

The 2018 Globie: “Crashed”

Each year I choose a book to be the Globalization Book of the Year, i.e., the “Globie”. The prize is strictly honorific and does not come with a check. But I do like to single out books that are particularly insightful about some aspect of globalization.  Previous winners are listed at the bottom.

This year’s choice is Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze of Yale University. Tooze, an historian, traces the events leading up to the crisis and the subsequent ten years. He points out in the introduction that this account is different from one he may have written several years ago. At that time Barak Obama had won re-election in 2012 on the basis of a slow but steady recovery in the U.S. Europe was further behind, but the emerging markets were growing rapidly, due to the demand for their commodities from a steadily-growing China as well as capital inflows searching for higher returns than those available in the advanced economies.

But the economic recovery has brought new challenges, which have swept aside established politicians and parties. Obama was succeeded by Donald Trump, who promised to restore America to some form of past greatness. His policy agenda includes trade disputes with a broad range of countries, and he is particularly eager to impose trade tariffs on China. The current meltdown in stock prices follows a rise in interest rates normal at this stage of the business cycle but also is based on fears of the consequences of the trade measures.

Europe has its own discontents. In the United Kingdom, voters have approved leaving the European Union. The European Commission has expressed its disapproval of the Italian government’s fiscal plans. Several east European governments have voiced opposition to the governance norms of the West European nations. Angela Merkel’s decision to step down as head of her party leaves Europe without its most respected leader.

All these events are outcomes of the crisis, which Tooze emphasizes was a trans-Atlantic event. European banks had purchased held large amounts of U.S. mortgage-backed securities that they financed with borrowed dollars. When liquidity in the markets disappeared, the European banks faced the challenge of financing their obligations. Tooze explains how the Federal Reserve supported the European banks using swap lines with the European Central Bank and other central banks, as well as including the domestic subsidiaries of the foreign banks in their liquidity support operations in the U.S. As a result, Tooze claims:

“What happened in the fall of 2008 was not the relativization of the dollar, but the reverse, a dramatic reassertion of the pivotal role of America’s central bank. Far from withering away, the Fed’s response gave an entirely new dimension to the global dollar” (Tooze, p. 219)

The focused policies of U.S. policymakers stood in sharp contrast to those of their European counterparts. Ireland and Spain had to deal with their own banking crises following the collapse of their housing bubbles, and Portugal suffered from anemic growth. But Greece’s sovereign debt posed the largest challenge, and exposed the fault line in the Eurozone between those who believed that such crises required a national response and those who looked for a broader European resolution. As a result, Greece lurched from one lending program to another. The IMF was treated as a junior partner by the European governments that sought to evade facing the consequences of Greek insolvency, and the Fund’s reputation suffered new blows due to its involvement with the various rescue operations.The ECB only demonstrated a firm commitment to its stabilizing role in July 2012, when its President Mario Draghi announced that “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.”

China followed another route. The government there engaged in a surge of stimulus spending combined with expansionary monetary policies. The result was continued growth that allowed the Chinese government to demonstrate its leadership capabilities at a time when the U.S. was abandoning its obligations. But the ensuing credit boom was accompanied by a rise in private (mainly corporate) lending that has left China with a total debt to GDP ratio of over 250%, a level usually followed by some form of financial collapse. Chinese officials are well aware of the domestic challenge they face at the same time as their dispute with the U.S. intensifies.

Tooze demonstrates that the crisis has let loose a range of responses that continue to play out. He ends the book by pointing to a similarity of recent events and those of 1914. He raises several questions: “How does a great moderation end? How do huge risks build up that are little understood and barely controllable? How do great tectonic shifts in the global world order unload in sudden earthquakes?” Ten years after a truly global crisis, we are still seeking answers to these questions.

Previous Globie Winners:

2017    Stephen D. King, Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History

2016    Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality

2015    Benjamin J. Cohen. Currency Power: Understanding Monetary Rivalry

2014    Martin Wolf, The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned–and Have Still to Learn–from the Financial Crisis

 

Empires, Past and Present

Economists rarely write about “empires,” unless they are referring to historical examples such as the Roman empire. But Thomas Hauner of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis,  Branko Milanovic of the Graduate Center of City University of New York and Suresh Naidu of Columbia University have presented a study of empires using criteria drawn from an economics classic, John Hobson’s Imperialism (1902). The same criteria can be used to examine whether any empires exist today.

Hobson was not a Marxist, but his work greatly influenced later Marxist writers who wrote about imperialism, including Vladimir Lenin, Rudolf Hilferding and Rosa Luxemburg. Hobson believed that there was chronic underconsumption in advanced capitalist countries due to unequal distributions of income. This lowered the return on domestic investment, and as a result the owners of financial capital turned to foreign markets where returns would be higher. These investors relied on their governments to guarantee the safety of their foreign holdings from seizure.

Hauner, Milanvic and Naidu demonstrate that there was a high degree of inequality within the advanced capitalist countries in the late 19th century. The foreign assets held by wealthy investors in Britain and France expanded greatly during this period, and these assets generated rates of return higher than those available from domestic investments. They also present evidence of a linkage between the accumulation of foreign assets and militarization that led to World War I. These results are consistent with Hobson’s work.

Hobson’s empires established positive net international investment positions (NIIP) and received income from these foreign investments. The payments appear in the current account of the balance of payments as “net primary income.” This component of the current account records the difference between payments received by domestic residents for providing productive resources, such as their labor, financial resources or land, to foreigners minus the payments made to foreigners for their productive resources made available to the domestic economy. For most countries, receipts and payments on financial assets are the largest component of their net primary income.

Great Britain was a financial center and the preeminent creditor nation during the zenith of its empire, and a net recipient of foreign income. It earned net income worth 5.4% of GDP in the period 1874-1890, and 6.8% from 1891 to 1913 (Matthews, Feinstein and Odling-Smee 1982). The surpluses were large enough to offset a trade deficit and allow the country to continue to invest abroad and expand their foreign holdings.

What are the largest creditor nations today? Are they also Hobsonian empires? Japan is the leading creditor nation, with a net international investment position of $2.8 trillion in 2015, which represented 67% of its GDP. It earned $165.88 billion in net primary income, worth 3.8% of its GDP. Germany is also a creditor nation, with a NIIP of about $1.5 trillion (45% of GDP) in 2015 and net income of $74.6 billion (2.2% of its GDP).

But Japan and Germany nations do not fulfill the other criteria to be called empires. They do not have the disparities in wealth that the U.S. and many developing countries possess. Their Gini coefficients are almost identical: 32.1 for Japan and 31.4 for Germany. These are similar in magnitude to those of other European countries, higher than those of the Scandinavian nations but below those of Portugal and Spain.

Moreover, the two nations are not militaristic powers. Japan’s constitution forbids the use of force, although the country does have Self-Defense Forces. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to amend the country’s constitution in order to clarify the rules governing the disposition of these troops. Germany is part of NATO, but the foreign deployment of German forces is strictly supervised by Parliament.

The situation of other large countries is more anomalous. China is a leading creditor nation, with a NIIP in 2015 only slightly lower than Germany’s and equal to 194% of its GDP. But that country registered a deficit of net primary income of $41.8 billion. On the other hand, the country with the largest inflow of income in absolute terms was the U.S., a debtor nation with a NIIP of -$7.8 trillion in 2015, worth about 45% of GDP. Its net income inflow of $204.5 billion represented 1.1% of its GDP.

The explanation for these seemingly inconsistent results lies with the composition of the external assets and liabilities. The U.S. is “long equity, short debt,” with assets largely composed of foreign direct investments (FDI) and portfolio equity, and liabilities primarily in the form of debt (bonds, such as U.S. Treasury securities, or bank loans). In 2015, for example, 60% of its assets were held in the form of FDI or portfolio equity, which earn an equity premium because of their riskier nature. China, on the other hand, is “long debt and short equity,” where the debt includes the central bank’s foreign reserves held in the form of U.S. Treasury bonds. Debt assets and foreign reserves constituted 79% of China’s foreign assets in 2015, and the returns on these have been quite low in recent years. FDI and portfolio equity liabilities, on the other hand, accounted for 74% of the external liabilities.

The unusual nature of these income flows have attracted great attention. Yu Yongding of China’s Academy of Social Sciences, for example, has written about his country’s “irrational IIP structure.” He attributes this to an undervalued exchange rate that has allowed the country to have surpluses in both the current and capital accounts that were balanced by increases in foreign reserves, as well as government policies that favored FDI from abroad.

The positive return that the U.S. receives has been called an “exorbitant privilege” that is due to the status of the dollar as a reserve currency. In 1966 Emile Despres of Stanford University, Charles P. Kindleberger of MIT and Walter S. Salant of the Brookings Institution wrote that the configuration of the U.S. balance of payments was due to its status as the “world’s banker”, issuing short-term liabilities in exchange for long-term assets. More recently, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas of UC-Berkeley and Hélène Rey of the London Business School updated this description of the U.S. to the “world venture capitalist.”

The global financial crisis might have ended this status of the U.S., but the influence of the U.S. economy and its monetary policies has not diminished. Changes in U.S. interest rates have widespread effects on capital flows and credit creation. Several recent studies, including one by Òscar Jordàof UC-Davis, Moritz Schularick of the University of Bonn and Alan Taylor of UC-Davis, have referred to the existence of a global financial cycle that is very responsive to U.S. monetary policy. Similarly, Matteo Iacoviello and Gaston Navarro  of the Federal Reserve Board have written about the spillover effects of U.S. interest rates on foreign economeis.

It may be time for a new definition of imperialism. If the U.S. possesses an empire, it is based on its ownership of foreign capital that it accumulates in return for the issuance of “safe assets.” It takes advantage of this position to invest in more lucrative equity. In addition, it hosts the largest and most liquid financial markets and networks. Moreover, the U.S. government has shown its willingness to use financial sanctions as a policy tool.

With respect to the other attributes of 19thcentury empires, we no longer send Marines to Central America to safeguard our foreign holdings. But our military spending greatly exceeds that of other nations. Wealth is heavily concentrated; the richest U.S. families—those in the top 1% of the distribution of wealth—own 40% of the wealth in this country. Those assets undoubtedly include direct and indirect ownership in foreign enterprises, which contribute to the returns they receive.

What could end this arrangement? The renminbi and the euro are rival currencies, but it is doubtful that they will attain the global status of the dollar. Under ordinary circumstances, one might expect the U.S. position to continue for the foreseeable future. But these are not ordinary times. The Trump administration seems ready to shred a wide range of international agreements, such as those that established the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Association. Moreover, the tax legislation passed last year that lowered personal and corporate tax rates is pushing up the government’s budget deficit. The Congressional Budget Office’s projection for this fiscal year’s deficit has risen from $563 billion to $804 billion and is projected to reach $1 trillion by 2020. Will U.S. Treasury securities continue to be viewed as safe?

The record of transitions in international monetary regimes does not bode well for the future. The gold standard collapsed in the 1930s as governments sought to escape the world-wide contraction in global economic activity. The Bretton Woods regime began to disintegrate when the Nixon administration ended the conversion of the dollar reserves of foreign central banks into gold in 1971. None of these regime ends were planned and they led to further instability. The end of America’s hegemonic financial position has long been forecasted–and avoided. But the shockwaves of the global financial crisis are still taking place, and eventually may be even more disruptive than we ever imagined.

Can Globalization Be Reversed?

The wide-scale imposition of tariffs by the Trump administration is part of a larger effort to undo the expansion of markets around the globe and ensure that the goods consumed in the U.S. will be produced here. Will it be successful? And what would a world that represented a retreat from the globalization of the 1990s and early 2000s look like?

Martin Sandbu of the Financial Times believes that the open world economy “can withstand the assault.” He points out that the emerging market economies that have benefitted from the increase in international trade have an interest in maintaining the current regime. Moreover, it will be difficult to replace global supply chains with production facilities in each economy where a firm sells its products. Finally, limiting overseas expansion of markets will do nothing to address the problem it is supposed to correct: the stagnant wages of relatively low-skilled people. There are policies to help those whose jobs have been eliminated by technology, but these include better educational opportunities and health care, not limitations on trade.

While globalization will not be replaced by national autarchies, it is possible to imagine more narrow organizations of production and finance. The increase in the number of regional trade pacts will accelerate If the World Trade Organization is undermined by the Trump administration. Whether or not regional trade agreements are the source of trade creation or diversion is an empirical issue. Research by Caroline Freund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Emanuel Ornelas of Sao Paulo School of Economics-FGV indicates that such pacts in the past were beneficial for trade. But there is no guarantee that this outcome will continue in the future, particularly if the regional pacts replace wider agreements.

The world could divide into competing spheres of influence. China is taking advantage of the withdrawal of the U.S. from international pacts to advance its Belt and Road Initiative that will link it to resource-rich developing economies in Asia and Africa as well as markets in Europe. Advocates of British withdrawal from the European Union claim that there are better opportunities in the “Anglosphere” of English-speaking countries such as the U.S. and Australia.

But the Trump administration has exhibited animus to even regional pacts such as NAFTA, and seemingly favors bilateral pacts guided by mercantilist goals. Such an approach would be a serious problem for U.S. based multinationals that have integrated production lines across the borders with Mexico and Canada. Nor will the governments of those agree to mercantilist arrangements that are designed to ensure bilateral trade surpluses for the U.S.

A world of tariffs and quotas, moreover, would also be a step towards increased government controls on the private sector. Anne Krueger of Johns Hopkins points out that quotas, such as those on steel that South Korea has agreed to, must be administered by either the Korean or U.S. government. Similarly, exemptions from tariffs must be granted by a bureaucracy that reviews applications from private firms. These grants of authority open up opportunities for corruption. They also act as barriers to entry for new firms, and lessen incentives to innovate. All this adds to the higher costs that consumers and those who rely on imported intermediate goods will pay.

Perhaps the most self-defeating counter-globalization measure would be to lower immigration. While most of the benefits of immigration flow to the migrants themselves, there is also a “migration surplus” for the economy that hosts them. The tax payments of migrants can be used to pay rising Social Security payments at a time when the native U.S. population is aging.  Moreover, immigrants have a strong record of establishing new businesses. The Center for American Entrepreneurship reports that 43% of firms listed in the 2017 Fortune 500 were founded or co-founded by first- or second-generation migrants.

Not all movements towards globalization were beneficial for those countries that opened up their borders. In the area of finance, financial flows led to the Asian crisis of 1997-98 and the global financial crisis of 2008-09, while their impact on growth is slim at best. The IMF has renounced its previous advocacy of capital account deregulation and now views capital controls as part of a government’s toolkit of macroprudential measures to stabilize the financial sector.

Moreover, Dani Rodrik of the Kennedy School has pointed out that the hyperglobalization drive of the 1980s and 1990s pushed trade agreements beyond their “traditional focus on import restrictions and impinged on domestic policies…” Rodrik argues that some of the recent trade pacts are designed to increase the revenues of multinational firms, and their redistributive effects will overwhelm any increases in efficiency.

But attempting to impose a system of nationalistic managed trade that limits the movements of people is inherently difficult, and will lead to widespread government intervention. Workers and firms who benefit from such measures will be outnumbered by those who lose export opportunities and those who must pay higher domestic prices. Over time, firms will cut back on investments if they feel the need to secure government approval. All this will lower productivity in economies where productivity growth is already depressed. There is a need for a better-designed globalization, but what we are seeing is a movement to a world of national barriers that will only fuel xenophobia and hamper long-term growth.

A Guide to the (Financial) Universe: Part III

Parts I and II of this Guide appear here and here.

4.      Stability and Growth

Is the global financial system safer a decade after the last crisis? The response to the crisis by central banks, regulatory agencies and international financial institutions has increased the resiliency of the system and lowered the chances of a repetition. Banks have deleveraged and possess larger capital bases. The replacement of debt by equity financing should provide a more stable source of finance.

Indicators of financial volatility, such as the St. Louis Fed Financial Stress Index, currently show no signs of sudden shifts in market conditions. The credit-to-GDP gap, developed by the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) as an early warning indicator of systemic banking crises, exhibits little evidence of excessive credit booms. One exception is China, although its gap has come down.

But increases in U.S. interest rates combined with an appreciating dollar could change these conditions. Since the financial crisis, financial flows have appeared to be driven in part by a global financial cycle that is governed by U.S. interest rates as well as asset market volatility. This has led Hélène Rey of the London Business School to claim that the Mundell-Fleming trilemma has been replaced by a dilemma, where the only choice policymakers face is whether or not they should use capital controls to preserve monetary control. Eugenio Cerutti of the IMF, Stijn Claessens of the BIS and Andrew Rose of UC-Berkeley, on the other hand ,have offered evidence that the empirical importance of any such cycle is limited. Moreover, Michael W. Klein of Tufts University and Jay C. Shambaugh of George Washington University in one study and Joshua Aizenman of the University of Southern California, Menzie Chinn of the University of Wisconsin and Hiro Ito of Portland State University in another have found that flexible exchange rates can affect the sensitivity of an economy to foreign policy changes and afford some degree of policy autonomy.

A rise in U.S. rates, however, will increase the cost of borrowing in dollars. The volume of credit flows denominated in dollars reflects the continuing predominance of the dollar in international financial markets. Dollar-denominated credit to emerging market economies, for example, rose by 10% in 2017, driven primarily by a rise in the issuance of debt securities. Higher interest rates, a depreciating currency and a deteriorating international trade environment can quickly downgrade the creditworthiness of emerging market borrowers.

Other potential sources of stress remain. One of these is the lack of adequate “safe assets,” which serve as collateral for lending. U.S. Treasury bonds are utilized for this purpose, but in the run-up to the global crisis mortgage-based securities (MBS) with the highest ratings also served that function. Their disappearance leaves a need for other privately-provided safe assets, or alternatives issued by the international public agencies. Moreover, doubts about U.S. fiscal solvency could lead to doubts about the creditworthiness of the U.S. government securities.

Claudio Borio of the BIS perceives another flaw in the international monetary system: “excess financial elasticity” that contributes to financial imbalances. The procyclicality of finance is heightened during boom periods by capital inflows, and the spread of easy monetary conditions in core countries to the rest of the world is facilitated through monetary regimes. The impact of the regimes includes the decision of policymakers to resist currency appreciation which affects their interest rates, and the role of dominant currencies such as the dollar. Borio calls for greater international cooperation to mitigate the volatility of the financial cycle.

Dirk Schoenmaker of the Duisenberg School of Finance and VU University Amsterdam has drawn attention to a fundamental tension within the international system. He suggests that there is a financial trilemma, with only two of these three characteristics of a financial system as feasible: International financial integration, national financial policies and financial stability. A nation that wants to enjoy the benefits of cross-border capital flows needs to coordinate its regulatory activities with those of other countries. Otherwise, banks and other institutions will take advantage of discrepancies across borders in the rules governing their activities to find the least onerous regulations and greatest room for expansion.

These concerns about stability could be accepted if financial development had a positive impact on economic growth. But Boris Cournède, Oliver Denk and Peter Hoeller of the OECD,  in a review of the literature on the relationship of the financial sector and economic growth, report that above a threshold of financial development the linkage with growth is negative (see also here). Their results indicate that this reversal occurs when the financial expansion is based on credit rather than equity markets. Similarly, Stephen G. Cecchetti and Enisse Kharroubi of the BIS (see also here) report that financial development can lower productivity growth.

In addition, it has long been acknowledged that there is little evidence linking international financial flows to growth (see, for example, the summary of this work by Maurice Obstfeld of the IMF (and formerly of UC-Berkeley)).  More recently, Joshua Aizenman of the University of Southern California, Yothin Jinjarik of the University of Wellington and Donghyun Park of the Asian Development Bank have shown that the relationship of capital flows and growth depends on the form of capital. FDI flows possess a robust relationship with growth, while the linkage with other equity is smaller and less stable. The impact of FDI may depend on the development of the domestic financial sector. Debt flows in normal times do not reinforce growth, but can contribute to the probability of a financial crisis.

The impact of international financial flows on income inequality is also a subject of concern. Davide Furceri and Prakash Loungani of the IMF found that capital account liberalization reforms increase inequality and reduce the labor share of income. Furceri, Loungani and Jonathan Ostry also report that policies to promote financial globalization have led on average to limited output gains while contributing to significant increases in inequality. Distributional effects are more pronounced in those countries with low financial depth and inclusion, and where liberalization is followed by a crisis. A similar result was reported by Silke Bumann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and Robert Lensink of the University of Groningen.

The change in the international financial system that may be the least understood is the evolution of FDI, which has grown in recent decades while the use of bank credit has fallen. FDI flows are increasingly routed thought countries such as Luxembourg and Ireland for the purpose of tax minimization. Moreover, the profits generated by foreign subsidiaries can be reinvested and form the basis of further FDI. Quyen T. K. Nguyen of the University of Reading asserts that such financing may be particularly important for operations in emerging market economies where domestic finance is limited. FDI flows also include intra-firm financing, a form of debt, and therefore FDI may be more risky than commonly understood.

5.     Conclusions

As a result of the substantial capital flows of the 1990s and early 2000s, the scope of financial markets and institutions now transcends national borders, and this expansion is likely to continue. While financial openness as measured by external assets and liabilities has not risen since the global crisis, this measurement is misleading. Emerging market economies with growing GDPs but less financial openness are becoming a larger component of the global aggregate. But financial openness and GDP per capita are correlated, and the populations of those countries will engage in more financial activity as their incomes increase.

A stable international financial system that promotes inclusive growth is a global public good. Global public goods face the same challenge as domestic public goods, i.e., a failure of markets to provide them. In the case of a global public good, the failure is compounded by the lack of an incentive for any one government to supply it.

The central banks of the advanced economies did coordinate their activities during the crisis, and since then international financial regulation has responded to the growth of global systematically important banks. But the growth of multinational firms that manage global supply chains and international financial institutions that move funds across borders poses a continuing challenge to stability. In addition, while the United Kingdom and the U.S. served as a financial hegemons in the past, today we have nations with small economies but extremely large financial sectors that reroute financial flows across border, and their activities are often opaque.

The global financial crisis demonstrates how little was understood of the fragility of the financial system that had built up around mortgage-backed securities. Regulators need to understand and monitor the assets and liabilities that have replaced them if they are not to be caught by surprise by the outcome of the next round of financial engineering. If “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” it is also a necessary condition for a stable financial universe.