Globalization in Retreat

EDITOR'S NOTE: Key to limiting the retreat of globalization is for world leaders to promote measures to reduce their countries' recession, says Roger C. Altman, U.S. deputy treasury secretary from 1993 to 1994 and current chair and CEO of Evercore Partners. For his full essay, please visit the Foreign Affairs magazine's Web site. A few excerpts:

It is now clear that the global economic crisis will be deep and prolonged and that it will have far-reaching geopolitical consequences. The long movement toward market liberalization has stopped, and a new period of state intervention, reregulation, and creeping protectionism has begun.

Indeed, globalization itself is reversing. The long-standing wisdom that everyone wins in a single world market has been undermined. Global trade, capital flows, and immigration are declining. It also has not gone unnoticed that nations with insulated financial systems, such as China and India, have suffered the least economic damage.

Furthermore, there will be less global leadership and less coordination between nations. The G-7 (the group of highly industrialized states) and the G-20 (the group of finance ministers and central-bank governors from the world's largest economies) have been unable to respond effectively to this crisis, other than by expanding the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The United States is also less capable of making these institutions work and, over the medium term, will be less dominant.

This coincides with the movement away from a unipolar world, which the downturn has accelerated. The United States will now be focused inward and constrained by unemployment and fiscal pressures. Much of the world also blames U.S. financial excesses for the global recession. This has put the U.S. model of free-market capitalism out of favor. The deserved global goodwill toward President Barack Obama mitigates some of this, but not all of it.

In addition, the crisis has exposed weaknesses within the European Union. Economic divergence is rising, as the three strongest EU nations - France, Germany, and the United Kingdom - have disagreed on a response to the crisis and refused pleas for emergency assistance from eastern Europe. The absence of a true single currency has proved inhibiting. And the European Central Bank has emerged as more cautious and less powerful than many expected.

Such lack of strength and unity in the West is untimely, because the crash will increase geopolitical instability. Certain flashpoint countries that rose with the oil and commodity boom, such as Iran and Russia, will now come under great economic pressure. Other, already unstable nations, such as Pakistan, could disintegrate. And poverty will rise sharply in a number of African countries. All this implies a less coherent world.

The expected prolonged severity of the global recession is central to understanding these likely geopolitical impacts. The world's three largest economies, the United States, the EU, and Japan, will not be able to generate a normal cyclical recovery. The pervasive financial damage will prevent it. As a result, nations dependent on those markets for growth, such as those in eastern Europe, will also face a long recovery. And many of the developing economies, which depend on foreign capital, have been hardest hit.

Anatomy of a crisis

Start with the United States, whose GDP is still nearly double that of any other country. Whereas most recessions follow a sequence of rising inflationary pressures, monetary tightening to counter them, and a slowdown in response to higher interest rates, this one is a balance-sheet-driven recession. It is rooted in the financial damage to households and banks from the housing and credit-market collapse.

U.S. households lost 20 percent of their net worth in just 18 months, dropping from a peak of $64.4 trillion in mid-2007 to $51.5 billion at the end of 2008. Approximately two-thirds of this reduction involved lower financial asset values, and one-third was tied to home values. This is a big drop when juxtaposed against a median family income of $50,000 (which has been shrinking in real terms since 2000) and unprecedented household debt (which reached 130 percent of income in 2008).

A painful recovery

The recovery in Europe will be even weaker. Although the United States is expected to register marginal growth in 2010 - Goldman Sachs is forecasting 1.2 percent - the Eurozone may contract again, by an estimated 0.3 percent. This reflects Europe's more exposed banking systems, historical factors, and the region's weaker policies.

Europe entered the recession later than the United States did and, logically, will emerge later. The housing and credit markets imploded in the United States, and then this implosion moved east. For example, Europe was still growing in early 2008, whereas the United States was not. Europe's banking system is proportionately larger than the United States', and its banks were more exposed to weakening emerging markets in eastern Europe and Latin America. And to date, European banks have recognized a smaller share of total likely write-downs than U.S. banks have.

The developing world has been hit hardest. Inflows of investment and financing have plunged, exports are very weak, and commodity prices are way down. The countries of central and eastern Europe are particular victims, as they ran large balance-of-payments deficits and depended on external borrowing to finance them. Several of them, including Hungary and Poland, have resorted to emergency loans from the IMF. Meanwhile, Africa has seen capital inflows nearly come to a halt.

The overall picture is a grim one: a deep, truly global, and destabilizing downturn, with world GDP falling for the first time in the postwar period. Given rising populations, such an outright contraction is stunning. As of this writing, it may have bottomed out, but the next three years will be painfully slow. The geopolitical consequences are now coming into view, and they will be profound.

After globalization

First, the era of laissez-faire economics has ended. For 30 years, the Anglo-Saxon model of free-market capitalism spread across the globe. The role of the state was diminishing, and deregulation, privatization, and the openness of borders to capital and trade were rising. Much of central and eastern Europe adopted this model, as did swaths of East Asia and diverse nations from Ireland to Mexico.

Second, globalization is in retreat, both in concept and in practice. Much of the world now sees it as harmful. Those nations, especially developing ones, that embraced increased capital flows and open trade have been particularly injured. Those that insulated themselves, such as India, have been less scarred. The global spread of goods, capital, and jobs is reversing. Global exports are falling sharply. The World Bank reports that exports from China, Japan, Mexico, Russia, and the United States fell by 25 percent or more in the year leading up to February 2009. Capital flows are plunging, too. Emerging markets are projected to receive only $165 billion in net positive capital inflows this year, down from $461 billion in 2008. Furthermore, financial and trade protectionism are spreading. Both the World Bank and the World Trade Organization recently reported a movement toward higher tariffs, higher nontariff barriers, and an increase in antidumping actions, designed to protect domestic jobs. Brazil, India, Russia, and numerous other states were cited. Moreover, various states' fiscal stimulus plans include subsidies for exporters and "buy domestic" provisions. And discriminatory actions against foreign workers are spreading. Immigrant workers, who are particular victims of this crisis, are returning home in waves. Japan and Spain are offering them cash to leave, and Malaysia is forcing them out.

Third, the world may be entering a new global phase marked by less leadership, less coordination, and less coherence. The world was already moving away from its post - Berlin Wall, unipolar condition, but this crisis has accelerated that process. The United States has turned inward, preoccupied with severe unemployment and fiscal pressures. Its economic model also is now out of favor. President Obama has made a triumphant overseas tour and is hugely popular everywhere. But his attention and political capital must be reserved for domestic issues, such as stabilizing the banking industry, handling the budget, and reforming health care.

Fourth, this crisis likely will increase geopolitical instability. Dennis Blair, the U.S. director of national intelligence, has asserted that the downturn already has produced low-level instability in a quarter of the world. The IMF has warned that millions will be pushed into unemployment, poverty, rising social unrest, or even war.

Key commodity-centered nations, such as Iran and Russia, rose with the oil and resource boom and flexed their geopolitical muscles accordingly. But now, they are coming under severe economic pressure. This year, unemployment in Russia is projected to reach 12 percent, and five million of its people will likely fall into poverty. Nearly half of its monetary reserves, although they are still ample, have been spent to stabilize the ruble and prop up state enterprises. Iran's oil and gas revenues will fall to $33 billion this year, from a 2007 level of $82 billion. At current world oil prices, Iran is actually running a current account deficit. Inflation is at 20 percent in the country, and Iran is unlikely to grow in 2009 or 2010. How these economic pressures will affect its upcoming election and the nuclear issue is unclear.

Countries in Africa have been hardest hit of all, and instability will likely rise there. Fragile states, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, have seen their social problems exacerbated by the crisis. Foreign reserves in the region have dwindled. The Congolese government will soon be unable to import essentials, such as food and fuel. The Central African Republic is already unable to pay the salaries of its civil servants. In 2007, African countries raised $6.5 billion selling bonds on the international markets. This year, the figure will be zero. Private capital inflows could fall by nearly 90 percent, and the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank, has projected that official aid will decline by $20 billion, as donors retrench. The commodity price crash, combined with the related slowdown in growth, the cutoff of private capital inflows, and diminished official assistance, has pushed the continent's collective current account surplus of four percent to a deficit of six percent in just two years. A World Bank study estimated that 53 million people living in emerging markets will fall back into absolute poverty this year. More frightening, according to the same study, up to 400,000 more children will die each year through 2015 on account of this economic crisis.

The Chinese model

Only China has prevailed. China's growth did diminish but now may be picking up again. Recently, electricity consumption, freight shipments, and car sales in China have all increased. Its financial system is insulated and relatively unleveraged - and has thus been largely unharmed. This has allowed China to direct a recent surge in lending for stimulus purposes. Beijing's unique capitalist-communist model appears to be helping China through this crisis effectively. And measured by its estimated $2.3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, no nation is wealthier.

It is increasingly clear that the U.S.-Chinese relationship will emerge as the most important bilateral one in the world. The two nations have similar geopolitical interests. Neither wants Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, North Korea to be destabilized, or Pakistan to become a failed state. There is no reason, therefore, why their relationship cannot be a cooperative and globally stabilizing one.

This economic crisis is a seismic global event. Free-market capitalism, globalization, and deregulation have been rising across the globe for 30 years; that era has now ended, and a new one is at hand. Global economic and financial integration are reversing. The role of the state, together with financial and trade protectionism, is ascending.

Pro-growth leaders who seek to limit this phase must lead by example. One key is to promote aggressive stimulus measures to shorten their own countries' recessions and restart world growth. Beijing, London, and Washington are all moving impressively in this direction. Second, financial deregulation went too far, and so moderate reform is now needed to prevent a recurrence of the abuses and regulatory failures that resulted. Washington will shortly launch such a legislative effort, and Europe is moving even faster. A third key is President Obama and the enormous global goodwill he enjoys. He has a uniquely influential podium, which he could use to espouse the benefits of globalization and market liberalization. It is too soon to know whether he will use it that way. Let us hope that he does.

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