11 June 2012

The Rise and Fall of Globalisation: A Multi-Century Perspective

Beijing-based economist Michael Pettis takes a look at current global economic problems and ties them to the current cycle of globalisation. Rather than being a phenomenon unique to modern times -- Pettis suggests -- globalisation has taken place several times over the past few centuries in a cyclic manner. He thinks that we might learn something useful by looking at earlier revolutions of globalisation.
What today we call economic globalization — a combination of rapid technological progress, large-scale capital flows, and burgeoning international trade — has happened many times before in the last 200 years. During each of these periods (including our own), engineers and entrepreneurs became folk heroes and made vast fortunes while transforming the world around them. They exploited scientific advances, applied a succession of innovations to older discoveries, and spread the commercial application of these technologies throughout the developed world. Communications and transportation were usually among the most affected areas, with each technological surge causing the globe to “shrink” further.

...in spite of the enthusiasm for science that accompanied each wave of globalization, as a historical rule it was primarily commerce and finance that drove globalization, not science or technology, and certainly not politics or culture. It is no accident that each of the major periods of technological progress coincided with an era of financial market expansion and vast growth in international commerce. Specifically, a sudden expansion of financial liquidity in the world’s leading banking centers — whether an increase in British gold reserves in the 1820s or the massive transformation in the 1980s of illiquid mortgage loans into very liquid mortgage securities, or some other structural change in the financial markets — has been the catalyst behind every period of globalization.

If liquidity expansions historically have pushed global integration forward, subsequent liquidity contractions have brought globalization to an unexpected halt. Easy money had allowed investors to earn fortunes for their willingness to take risks, and the wealth generated by rising asset values and new investments made the liberal ideology behind the rapid market expansion seem unassailable. When conditions changed, however, the outflow of money from the financial centers was reversed. Investors rushed to pull their money out of risky ventures and into safer assets. Banks tightened up their lending requirements and refused to make new loans. Asset values collapsed...

The process through which monetary expansions lead to economic globalization has remained consistent over the last two centuries. Typically, every few decades, a large shift in income, money supply, saving patterns, or the structure of financial markets results in a major liquidity expansion in the rich-country financial centers. The initial expansion can take a variety of forms. In England, for example, the development of joint-stock banking (limited liability corporations that issued currency) in the 1820s and 1830s — and later during the 1860s and 1870s — produced a rapid expansion of money, deposits, and bank credit, which quickly spilled over into speculative investing and international lending. Other monetary expansions were sparked by large increases in U.S. gold reserves in the early 1920s, or by major capital recyclings, such as the massive French indemnity payment after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the petrodollar recycling of the 1970s, or the recycling of Japan’s huge trade surplus in the 1980s and 1990s. Monetary expansions also can result from the conversion of assets into more liquid instruments, such as with the explosion in U.S. speculative real-estate lending in the 1830s or the creation of the mortgage securities market in the 1980s.

The expansion initially causes local stock markets to boom and real interest rates to drop. Investors, hungry for high yields, pour money into new, nontraditional investments, including ventures aimed at exploiting emerging technologies. Financing becomes available for risky new projects such as railways, telegraph cables, textile looms, fiber optics, or personal computers, and the strong business climate that usually accompanies the liquidity expansion quickly makes these investments profitable. In turn, these new technologies enhance productivity and slash transportation costs, thus speeding up economic growth and boosting business profits. The cycle is self-reinforcing: Success breeds success, and soon the impact of rapidly expanding transportation and communication technology begins to cause a noticeable impact on social behavior, which adapts to these new technologies.

But it is not just new technology ventures that attract risk capital. Financing also begins flowing to the “peripheral” economies around the world, which, because of their small size, are quick to respond. These countries then begin to experience currency strength and real economic growth, which only reinforce the initial investment decision. As more money flows in, local markets begin to grow. As a consequence of the sudden growth in both asset values and gross domestic product, political leaders in developing countries often move to reform government policies in these countries — whether reform consists of expelling a backward Spanish monarch in the 1820s, expanding railroad transportation across the Andes in the 1860s, transforming the professionalism of the Mexican bureaucracy in the 1890s, deregulating markets in the 1920s, or privatizing bloated state-owned firms in the 1990s. By providing the government with the resources needed to overcome the resistance of local elites, capital inflows enable economic-policy reforms.

Globalization itself always will wax and wane with global liquidity. For those committed to further international integration within a liberal economic framework, the successes of the recent past should not breed complacency since the conditions will change and the mandate for liberal expansion will wither. For those who seek to reverse the socioeconomic changes that globalization has wrought, the future may bring far more progress than they hoped. If global liquidity contracts and if markets around the world pull back, our imaginations will once again turn to the increasingly visible costs of globalization and away from the potential for all peoples to prosper. The reaction against globalization will suddenly seem unstoppable. _China Financial Markets

Due to the relatively short human lifespan -- less than a century -- humans typically possess a very short timescale perspective on contemporary events. A longer term, more historical perspective would be very helpful in judging the importance of many modern trends.

Extra bonus feature: Another Beijing-based economist, Patrick Chovanec, presents an interesting list of links to economic events originating in -- or influencing -- China. China is a very important player in the current cycle of globalisation, so that it is not unlikely that pivotal events within this current cycle might occur in and around the middle kingdom.


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