A Little-Noticed Fact About Trade: It’s No Longer Rising
The constant flow of goods from Asia to the United States was briefly interrupted last month after Hanjin, the South Korean shipping line, filed for bankruptcy, stranding several dozen of its cargo ships on the high seas.
It was a moment that made literal the stagnation of globalization.
The growth of trade among nations is among the most consequential and controversial economic developments of recent decades. Yet despite the noisy debates, which have reached new heights during this presidential campaign, it is a little-noticed fact that trade is no longer rising. The volume of global trade was flat in the first quarter of 2016, then fell by 0.8 percent in the second quarter, according to statisticians in the Netherlands, which happens to keep the best data.
The United States is no exception to the broader trend. The total value of American imports and exports fell by more than $200 billion last year. Through the first nine months of 2016, trade fell by an additional $470 billion.
It is the first time since World War II that trade with other nations has declined during a period of economic growth.
Sluggish global economic growth is both a cause and a result of the slowdown. In better times, prosperity increased trade and trade increased prosperity. Now the wheel is turning in the opposite direction. Reduced consumption and investment are dragging on trade, which is slowing growth.
The World Trade Organization’s most recent round of global trade talks ended in failure last year. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, an attempt to forge a regional agreement among Pacific Rim nations, also is foundering. It is opposed by both major-party American presidential candidates. Meanwhile, new barriers are rising. Britain is leaving the European Union. The World Trade Organization said in July that its members had put in place more than 2,100 new restrictions on trade since 2008.
“Curbing free trade would be stalling an engine that has brought unprecedented welfare gains around the world over many decades,” Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, wrote in a recent call for nations to renew their commitment to trade.
Against the tide, the European Union and Canada signed a new trade deal on Sunday.
It may be hard, however, to muster public enthusiasm in the United States and other developed nations. The benefits of globalization have accrued disproportionately to the wealthy, while the costs have fallen on displaced workers, and governments have failed to ease their pain.
The Walmart revolution is over. During the 1990s, global trade grew more than twice as fast as the global economy. Europe united. China became a factory town. Tariffs came down. Transportation costs plummeted. It was the Walmart Era.
But those changes have played out. Europe is fraying around the edges; low tariffs and transportation costs cannot get much lower. And China’s role in the global economy is changing. The country is making more of what it consumes, and consuming more of what it makes. In addition, China’s maturing industrial sector increasingly makes its own parts. The International Monetary Fund reported last year that the share of imported components in products “Made in China” has fallen to 35 percent from 60 percent in the 1990s.
The result: The I.M.F. study calculated that a 1 percent increase in global growth increased trade volumes by 2.5 percent in the 1990s, while in recent years, the same growth has increased trade by just 0.7 percent.
Hanjin, like other big shipping companies, bet that global trade would continue to expand rapidly. In 2009, the world’s cargo lines had enough room to carry 12.1 million of the standardized shipping containers that have played a crucial, if quiet, role in the rise of global trade. By last year, they had room for 19.9 million — much of it unneeded.
India is not China redux. Most trade flows among developed nations. The McKinsey Global Institute calculates that 15 countries account for roughly 63 percent of the global traffic in goods and services, and for an even larger share of financial investment.
The weakness of the global economy is exacerbating the trend. Infrastructure investment by multinational corporations declined for the third straight year in 2015, according to the United Nations. It predicts a further decline this year. But even if growth rebounds, automation reduces the incentives to invest in the low-labor-cost developing world, and it reduces the benefits of such investments for the residents of developing countries.
The political reaction is global, too. The economist Branko Milanovic published a chart in 2012 that is sometimes called the elephant chart, because there is a certain resemblance. It shows real incomes rose significantly for most of the world’s population between 1988 and 2008, but not for most residents of the United States and other developed countries.
The chart is often presented as a depiction of the consequences of globalization. The reality is more complicated, but perception is undeniable. Voters in developed nations increasingly view themselves as the victims of trade with the developing world — and a backlash is brewing.
Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign is an obvious manifestation, as is Hillary Clinton’s backing off from her support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. A study published in April found that voters in congressional districts hit hardest by job losses are more likely to reject moderate candidates, turning instead to candidates who take more extreme positions.
Economic stagnation is turning European voters against trade, too.
Professor Rodrik said that proponents of free trade were guilty of overstating the benefits and understating the costs. “Because they failed to provide those distinctions and caveats, now trade gets tarred with all kinds of ills even when it’s not deserved,” he said. “If the demagogues and nativists making nonsensical claims about trade are getting a hearing, it is trade’s cheerleaders that deserve some of the blame.”