The annual Fed confab is underway at Jackson Hole, with this year’s focus on the topic of globalization. To start off, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke assumed his old role as professor and delivered a history lesson – Global Economic Integration: What’s New and What’s Not?.
The press was quick to characterize the speech in the usual way:
New York Times – Bernanke Extols Perks of Globalization
WSJ.com – Bernanke Praises Globalization, Urges Broad Sharing of Gains
Washington Post – Bernanke Emphasizes Importance of Globalization
The outlier seems to the FT.com – Bernanke calls for fairer globalisation
But the speech was not just a standard paean to the benefits of free trade. It was also much more than an interesting tour of economic history, including a discussion of how opposition to greater economic integration arises out of the tensions it produces. Near the end of the speech Bernanke focused on the current situation with insightful precision:
What, then, is new about the current episode? Each observer will have his or her own perspective, but, to me, four differences between the current wave of global economic integration and past episodes seem most important. First, the scale and pace of the current episode is unprecedented. For example, in recent years, global merchandise exports have been above 20 percent of world gross domestic product, compared with about 8 percent in 1913 and less than 15 percent as recently as 1990; and international financial flows have expanded even more quickly. But these data understate the magnitude of the change that we are now experiencing. The emergence of China, India, and the former communist-bloc countries implies that the greater part of the earth’s population is now engaged, at least potentially, in the global economy. There are no historical antecedents for this development. Columbus’s voyage to the New World ultimately led to enormous economic change, of course, but the full integration of the New and the Old Worlds took centuries. In contrast, the economic opening of China, which began in earnest less than three decades ago, is proceeding rapidly and, if anything, seems to be accelerating.
Second, the traditional distinction between the core and the periphery is becoming increasingly less relevant, as the mature industrial economies and the emerging-market economies become more integrated and interdependent. Notably, the nineteenth-century pattern, in which the core exported manufactures to the periphery in exchange for commodities, no longer holds, as an increasing share of world manufacturing capacity is now found in emerging markets. An even more striking aspect of the breakdown of the core-periphery paradigm is the direction of capital flows: In the nineteenth century, the country at the center of the world’s economy, Great Britain, ran current account surpluses and exported financial capital to the periphery. Today, the world’s largest economy, that of the United States, runs a current-account deficit, financed to a substantial extent by capital exports from emerging-market nations.
Third, production processes are becoming geographically fragmented to an unprecedented degree. Rather than producing goods in a single process in a single location, firms are increasingly breaking the production process into discrete steps and performing each step in whatever location allows them to minimize costs. For example, the U.S. chip producer AMD locates most of its research and development in California; produces in Texas, Germany, and Japan; does final processing and testing in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and China; and then sells to markets around the globe. To be sure, international production chains are not entirely new: In 1911, Henry Ford opened his company’s first overseas factory in Manchester, England, to be closer to a growing source of demand. The factory produced bodies for the Model A automobile, but imported the chassis and mechanical parts from the United States for assembly in Manchester. Although examples like this one illustrate the historical continuity of the process of economic integration, today the geographical extension of production processes is far more advanced and pervasive than ever before. As an aside, some interesting economic questions are raised by the fact that in some cases international production chains are managed almost entirely within a single multinational corporation (roughly 40 percent of U.S. merchandise trade is classified as intra-firm) and in others they are built through arm’s-length transactions among unrelated firms. But the empirical evidence in both cases suggests that substantial productivity gains can often be achieved through the development of global supply chains.
The final item on my list of what is new about the current episode is that international capital markets have become substantially more mature. Although the net capital flows of a century ago, measured relative to global output, are comparable to those of the present, gross flows today are much larger. Moreover, capital flows now take many more forms than in the past: In the nineteenth century, international portfolio investments were concentrated in the finance of infrastructure projects (such as the American railroads) and in the purchase of government debt. Today, international investors hold an array of debt instruments, equities, and derivatives, including claims on a broad range of sectors. Flows of foreign direct investment are also much larger relative to output than they were fifty or a hundred years ago. As I noted earlier, the increase in capital flows owes much to capital-market liberalization and factors such as the greater standardization of accounting practices as well as to technological advances.
That is a good list of characteristics of globalization in the I-Cubed economy. For course, he left out the rise of intangible assets, although he did mention the rise of tradable services. It is the rise of intangibles and the spread of knowledge that, I believe, has undercut the core-and-periphery model. When knowledge becomes simultaneously local and global, there are many cores and few peripheries.
Last year, I worried whether Mr. Bernanke would understand the I-Cubed Economy the way that Alan Greenspan seemed to understand the “weightless economy”. I’m still not sure. But today’s speech was a positive sign.