US Trade Deficits, Trump Trade Policies, and Capitalist Globalization

Understandably concerned about the consequences of the large and sustained US trade deficit, many workers have grown tired of waiting for so-called market forces to produce balance.  Thus, they cheer Trump administration promises to correct the imbalance through tariffs or reworked trade agreements that will supposedly end unfair foreign trade practices.

Unfortunately, this view of trade encourages workers in the United States to see themselves standing with their employers and against workers in other countries who are said to be benefiting from the trade successes of their employers.  As a consequence, it also encourages US workers to support trade policies that will do little to improve their well-being.

To understand the driving force behind and develop a helpful response to US trade imbalances one must start by recognizing the interrelated nature of US domestic and international patterns of economic activity.  Large US multinational corporations, seeking to boost profits, have slowly but steadily globalized their economic activity through either the direct establishment of overseas affiliates or their use of foreign-owned subcontractors that operate under terms set by the lead multinational.  This process of globalization has meant reduced investment in plant and equipment and slower job creation in the United States, and the creation of competitiveness pressures that work to the disadvantage of workers in both the US and other countries.  It has also led to the creation of a structural trade deficit that is financed by massive flows of money back into the US as well as consumer debt, both of which swell the profits of the financial industry.  In other words, the real problem confronting workers here is capitalist globalization.

The globalization of the US economy

The World Bank divides international trade into either intra-firm trade or arm’s length trade.  Intra-firm trade refers to international trade carried out between affiliates of the same multinational corporation.  Arm’s length trade refers to international trade carried out between “independent” firms.  Independent is in quotes here because international trade between a multinational corporation and a firm operating in another country under contract would still be classified as arm’s length, even though the production and resulting trade activity is determined by the needs of the dominant multinational corporation.

As the World Bank explains in its study of intra-firm trade:

In practice, multinationals employ intra-firm and arm’s length transactions to varying degrees. In 2015, intra-firm transactions are estimated to have accounted for about one-third of global exports. Vertically integrated multinational companies, such as Samsung Electronics, Nokia, and Intel, trade primarily intrafirm. Samsung, the world’s biggest communications equipment multinational, has 158 subsidiaries across the world, including 43 subsidiaries in Europe, 32 in China and 30 in North and South America. Other multinationals, such as Apple, Motorola, and Nike, rely mainly on outsourcing, and hence on arm’s length trade with non-affiliated suppliers.

The four figures below, taken from the World Bank study, illustrate the extent to which multinational corporations shape US trade patterns with both other advanced economies (AEs) and emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs).  The numbers shown in figures A and B are averages for the period 2002 to 2014.

Figure A shows that approximately one-third of all US exports of goods are intra-firm, meaning that they were sold by one unit of a multinational corporation operating in the US to another unit of the same multinational corporation operating outside the US.  Figure B shows that approximately one-half of all US imports of goods are intra-firm.  In both cases the share of intra-firm trade was higher with AEs than with EMDEs.  Figure E shows that the share of intra-firm exports to AEs remained remarkably constant despite the overall slump in trade that followed the 2008 Great Recession.  Figure F reveals that the share of imports that are intra-firm actually grew over the period, especially from EMDEs.


As noted above, many multinational corporations choose to subcontract production, producing arm’s length trade, rather than establish and buy goods from their own foreign affiliates.  In this case, arm’s length trade is not really independent trade.  We can gain some insight into how important this development is by examining the main sources of arm’s length US imports.  As we can see in figure B below, more than half of all US arm’s length imports come from China.

Most of these Chinese imports are actually exported by non-affiliated suppliers that operate within corporate controlled cross border production or buyer networks. For example, China is the primary US supplier of many high technology consumer goods, most notably cell phones and laptops.  Almost all are manufactured by foreign companies operating in China under according to terms set by the relevant lead multinational corporation.  The same is true for many low technology, labor intensive products such clothing, toys, and furniture, which are usually produced under contract by foreign suppliers for large retailers like Walmart.

Thus, the relatively low share of intra-firm imports from EMDEs compared with AEs owes much to the preference of many important US based multinational corporations–like Apple, Dell, and Nike–to have non-affiliated supplier firms hire workers and produce for them in China.  The same is true, although not on such a large scale, for a significant share of arm’s length US imports from Mexico.

In sum, it is likely that the globalization strategies of multinational corporations, not the decisions of truly independent foreign producers, are responsible for some 2/3 of all US imports.

Trends in trade

Global trade growth has dramatically slowed since the end of the Great Recession.  Global trade grew by an average of 7.6 percent a year over the years 2002 to 2008.  It has grown by an average of only 4.3 percent a year over the years 2010-14.  Significantly, the greatest decline has come in arm’s length trade.  This should not be surprising, since intra-firm trade is essential to the operation of the world’s leading multinational corporations.  US trade exhibits a similar trend.

In the words of the World Bank:

The U.S. trade data highlight that arm’s length trade accounted disproportionately for the overall post-crisis trade slowdown. This reflected a higher pre-crisis average and a weaker post-crisis rebound in arm’s length trade growth compared with intrafirm trade. . . . By 2014, intra-firm trade growth had returned close to its pre-crisis average (4.3 percent of exports and 5.0 percent for imports). In contrast, arm’s length trade growth remained significantly below its high pre-crisis average: its growth slowed to a post-crisis annual average of 4.7 percent compared to 11.3 percent during 2002-08.

Figures A and B below highlight these trends in US trade.

As trade becomes ever more dominated by intra firm exchanges, it will become ever more difficult for governments to manage their international trade accounts using traditional trade tools, and that includes the US government.  For example, according to the World Bank:

Trade conducted through global value chains generally shows less sensitivity to real exchange rates. That’s because competitiveness gains from real depreciations are partly offset by rising input costs. To the extent that intra-firm trade is more strongly associated with global value chains than arm’s length trade, intra-firm U.S. exports may have benefited less from the pre-crisis U.S. dollar depreciation and been dampened to a lesser degree by the post-crisis appreciation than arm’s-length exports. In addition, firms integrated vertically may have a wider range of tools available to them to hedge against exchange rate movements.

The take-away

The US trade deficit is the result of a conscious globalization strategy by large multinational corporations.  And this strategy has greatly paid off for them.  They have been able to use their mobility to secure lower wages (by putting workers from different countries into competition for employment) and reduced regulations and lower taxes (by putting governments into competition for investment).  The result is a structural deficit in US trade that is no accident and not likely to be significantly reduced by policies that do not directly challenge multinational corporate production and investment decisions.

It is hard to imagine that the Trump administration, no matter its public pronouncements, will pursue its tariff policy or NAFTA renegotiation efforts in ways that will threaten corporate power and profits.  Whether its misdirection efforts on trade can continue to encourage workers in the United States to see other workers rather than corporate globalization as the main cause of its problems remains to be seen.

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Signs Of Economic Trouble Ahead

The current expansion has gone on for 102 months.  Only the expansions from March 1991 to March 2001 (120 months) and from February 1961 to December 1969 (106 months) are longer.  Unfortunately, growth during this expansion has been slow and the gains have largely gone to a very few.  And there are signs of economic trouble ahead.

The figure below shows that the rate of growth of GDP per capita during this expansion has been significantly below those of past expansions.

Weak business investment, as illustrated below, is one reason for the disappointing economic performance. 

Corporations have certainly made money during this expansion.  It is just that they have been more interested in using it to pay dividends and buyback their stock to push up share prices rather than spend it on new plant and equipment.  As Nomi Prins explains, and as illustrated in the next figure, “companies have been on a spree of buying their own stock, establishing a return to 2007-level stock buybacks.”

Not surprisingly, then, growth, as the next chart shows, has recently been driven by private consumption.

However, as we see below, for the last two years that consumption has not been supported by earnings.

Moreover, despite the length of the current expansion, median nominal wage growth not only remains low, it has begun to turn down. Thus, we are unlikely to see any significant boost in median earnings.

There is another reason to doubt that consumption can continue to grow at its current rate.  As the Wall Street Journal Daily Shot Brief notes:

While economists expect consumption to remain strong this year (helped in part by the new tax bill), it’s hard to see the US consumer staying this enthusiastic for too long. That’s because the savings rate as a percentage of disposable income is at a decade low.

At some point over the next year or two, perhaps triggered by interest rate hikes or a fall in investment due to a decline in the rate of profit, the expansion will end.  Majority living and working conditions, already under pressure, will then further deteriorate.  We face big challenges ahead.

Recession On The Horizon

According to Bloomberg News, analysts at a number of major financial institutions see “mounting evidence” that a recession is not too far away.

In a way, their assessment is not surprising.  The current expansion, which started in June 2009, is now 99 months long, making it the third longest expansion in US history. Only the expansions from March 1991 to March 2001 (120 months) and February 1961 to December 1969 (106 months) are longer.  It is likely that this expansion will pass the 1960s expansion in length but fall short of the record.

Warning signs

The financial analysts cited by Bloomberg News did not base their warnings simply on longevity.  Rather it was the behavior of corporate profits, more specifically their downward trend, that concerned them.  Historically, expansions have come to an end because declining profits cause corporations to slash investment spending, which leads to a decline in employment and eventually consumption, and finally recession.

As the Bloomberg article explains, “The gross value-added of non-financial companies after inflation — a measure of the value of goods after adjusting for the costs of production — is now negative on a year-on-year basis.”  As an analyst for Oxford Economics Ltd. concludes, “The cycle of real corporate profits has turned enough to be a potential source of concern in the next four quarters.”

Real gross corporate value added is a proxy for profits.  Its recent decline, as shown in the figure above, means that corporate profitability is falling over time.  As long as it remained positive (the red line was above zero), corporate profits were continuing to grow, just not as fast as they did in the previous year. However, it has now become negative, which means that total profits are actually falling.  And, as we can see, whenever this happened in the past, a recession soon followed.

The primary reason recessions follow a decline in profits is that investment decisions are very sensitive to changes in profit. A decline in profit tends to produce a much larger decline in investment, leading to recession.  The investment connection to recession is is well illustrated in the following figure, taken from a blog post by the economist Michael Roberts. It shows the change in personal consumption and investment one year before the start of a recession.  As we can see, it is the decline in investment that leads the downturn, and the decline takes place more often than not while consumption is still growing.

The Bloomberg article highlights other studies that come to the same conclusion about the direction of profits and the growing likelihood of recession.  For example, as illustrated below, “The U.S. is in the mature stage of the cycle — 80 percent of completion since the last trough — based on margin patterns going back to the 1950s, according to Societe Generale SA.”

As we can see, the decline in profit margins in the current expansion mirrors the decline during other expansions as they neared their end.  It certainly appears that time is running out for this expansion.

Further evidence comes from the recent reduction in corporate buybacks. As the economist William Lazonick explains:

Buybacks have come to define the “investment” strategies of many of America’s biggest businesses. Figure 1 [below] shows net equity issues of U.S. corporations from 1946 to 2014. Net equity issues are new corporate stock issues minus outstanding stock retired through stock repurchases and M&A activity. Since the mid-1980s, in aggregate, corporations have funded the stock market rather than vice versa (as is conventionally assumed).  Over the decade 2005-2014 net equity issues of nonfinancial corporations averaged minus $399 billion per year.

In other words, corporations have been major players in the stock market, buying and retiring stock in order to drive up stock prices.  The process has, by design, enriched the top end of the income distribution.  It also helped to boost consumption spending, and by extension the expansion.  However, this corporate promotion of stock prices appears to have come to an end.  As a Fortune Magazine article reports:

The great stock buyback boom may be on the wane, undermined by falling company earnings.

U.S. company stock buybacks are down 21% in the first seven months of 2016 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to TrimTabs Investment Research, a fall driven in part by five consecutive quarters of year-over-year earnings declines among S&P 500 stocks.

Buybacks, which cancel shares and thus increase per-share earnings, have played a crucial role in supporting the stock market since the financial crisis, flattering earnings even for companies with static or falling revenues.

They, along with dividends, return cash to shareholders, a process often facilitated by borrowed money.

A decline in market values can thus be expected, adding further downward pressure on economic activity.

Social consequences

The business cycle is an inherent feature of capitalist economies and the US economy has experienced many ups and downs. But expansions and recessions do not balance out, leaving the economy on a stable long-term economic trajectory. Unfortunately, while recent cycles have greatly enriched those at the top, working people have generally experienced deteriorating living and working conditions.  The trend in job creation is one example.

The employment to population ratio is a commonly used measure of employment.  It is calculated by dividing the number of people employed by the total working-age population.  The figure below, from a report by the Chicago Political Economy Group, shows the relative employment or job creation strength of each post-World War II expansion.

As we can see, the November 2001 expansion ended without restoring the pre-recession employment to population ratio. The ratio was 2.48 percent below where it had been prior to the recession’s start.  That means the expansion was not strong enough or structured properly to ensure adequate job creation.  And, despite its length, the current expansion’s employment to population ratio remains nearly 5 percent below that lower starting point.  Moreover, this employment measure doesn’t take into account that a growing share of the jobs created during this expansion are low-paying and precarious.

 

In sum, there are strong reasons to expect a recession within the next year or so.  And it will likely hit an increasingly vulnerable working class hard.  Given trends, where the good times seem to pass most people by and the bad times punish those who gained the least the most, the need for a radical transformation of our economy seems clear.

Secular Stagnation

Government policy makers, no matter the party in power, like to project a rosy future. However, claims of economic renewal, absent fundamental changes in the structure and workings of the US economy, should not be taken seriously.  The fundamental changes I would advocate are those that would: dramatically boost worker power; secure a progressive and growing funding base for a needed expansion of public housing and infrastructure and public spending on health care, education, and transportation; and end the production and use of fossil fuels and significantly reduce greenhouse emissions.

Fundamental changes are needed because the United States is suffering from an extended period of slow and declining growth, what is known as secular stagnation.

The following figure, taken from a Financial Times blog post, shows the duration and average rate of growth of every economic expansion in the postwar period.  The current expansion, which started in the second quarter of 2009, is the third longest, although soon to become the second.  Among other things, that means that a new recession is likely not far off (especially with the Federal Reserve Board apparently committed to boosting interest rates).

As we can see, the current expansion has recorded the slowest rate of growth of any expansion.  Moreover, as Cardiff Garcia, the author of the blog post, points out: “Also worrying is the observation from the chart that every subsequent expansion since 1970 has grown at a slower pace than its predecessor, regardless of what caused the downturn from which it was recovering.”

Michalis Nikiforos and Gennaro Zezza begin their Levy Economics Institute report on current economic trends as follows:

From a macroeconomic point of view, 2016 was an ordinary year in the post–Great Recession period. As in prior years, the conventional forecasts predicted that this would be the year the economy would finally escape from the “new normal” of secular stagnation. But just as in every previous year, the forecasts were confounded by the actual result: lower-than-expected growth—just 1.6 percent.

The following figures illustrate the overall weakness of the current expansion.  Each figure shows, for every postwar expansion, a major macro indicator and its growth over time since the end of its preceding recession.  The three most recent expansions, including the current one, are color highlighted.

Figure 1A makes clear that growth has been slower in this expansion than in any previous expansion. Figure 1B shows that “real consumption has grown only about 18 percent compared to the trough of 2009—similar to the expansion of GDP—and also stands out as the slowest recovery of consumption growth in the postwar period.”

Perhaps most striking is the actual decrease in real government expenditure shown in figure 1D.  Real government expenditure is some 6 percent lower than it was eight years ago.  In no other expansion did real government expenditure fall.  Without doubt austerity is one of the main reasons for our current slow expansion.

Significantly, as we see in figure 7 below, the stock market has continued to boom in spite of the weak performance of the economy.  This figure shows that the total value of the stock market has risen sharply, regardless of whether compared to the growth in personal income or profits (measured by net operating surplus).   This rise has generally kept those at the top of the income pyramid happy despite the country’s weak overall economic performance.

No doubt, on-going wage stagnation, which has depressed consumption, and privatization, which has grown in concert with austerity, has helped to fuel this new stock market bubble.  One reason top income earners have been so favorable to the broad contours of Trump administration policy is that it is designed to strengthen both trends.

Recession will come.  In an era of secular stagnation that means the downturn will hit an already weak economy and struggling working class.  And the upturn that follows will likely be weaker than the current one.  Market forces will not save us.  Real improvements demand transformative policy changes.

The US Economy Doesn’t Create Jobs Like It Used To

Business pursuit of private profit drives our economy.  Sadly, firm profit-maximizing activity increasingly appears to view job creation as a distraction.

The official US unemployment rate fell to 4.5 percent in March 2017; that is the lowest unemployment rate since May 2007.  Many economists, and even more importantly members of the Federal Reserve Board, believe that this low rate indicates that the US economy is now operating at full employment.  As a result, they now advocate policies designed to slow economic activity so as to minimize the dangers of inflation.

Unfortunately, the unemployment rate is a poor indicator of the current state of the labor market.  For one thing, it fails to include as unemployed those who have given up looking for work.

An examination of recent trends in the employment/population ratio (EPOP) makes clear that our economy, even during periods of economic growth, is marked by ever weaker job creation.  It also appears that this is not a problem correctable by faster rates of growth.  Rather, we need to change the organization of our economy and reshape its patterns of income and wealth distribution.

The Employment/Population Ratio and the shortage of jobs

The employment/population ratio (EPOP) equals the share of the non-institutional population over 16 that works for money.  The non-institutional population includes everyone who is not in prison, a mental hospital, or a nursing home.

The figure below, from a LBO News blog post by Doug Henwood, shows the movement of the EPOP for all workers and separately for male and female workers.

As we can see, the participation rate of male workers fell steadily from the early 1950s through the early 1980s recession years.  It then slowed its decent over the next two decades until the 2008 Great Recession, which caused it to tumble.  Its post-recession rise has been weak.  The male EPOP was 66 percent in March 2017.

The female EPOP rose steadily from 30.9 percent in 1948 to a peak of 58 percent in 2000.  Thereafter, it drifted downward before falling significantly during the Great Recession.  Its post-recession rise has also been weak.  It was 54.7 percent in March 2017.

The overall EPOP, the “all” line, began at 56.6 percent in 1948, hit a peak of 64.7 percent in April 2000, and was 60.1 percent in March 2017.

The recent decline in the EPOP for all workers over 16 translates into hard times for millions of people. As Henwood explains:

If the same share of the population were employed today as was in December 2007, just as the Great Recession was taking hold, 4.3 million more people would have jobs.  If it were the same share as the all-time high in April 2000, 7.3 million more people would be working for pay.  Either one is a big number, even in a country where 153 million people are employed.

In other words, it is likely that there are many people who want and need work but cannot find it.  And it is important to remember that the EPOP only measures the share of the non-institutional population with paid employment.  It tells us nothing about the quality of the existing jobs.

Flagging job creation  

It is easier to appreciate the growing inability of our economy to provide jobs by examining the movement of the EPOP over the business cycle.  Figure 1, from a note by Ron Baiman, a member of the Chicago Political Economy group, shows the number of quarters it takes for an economic expansion to return the EPOP to its pre-recession level.

As we can see, the expansion that started in November 2001, and which lasted for 73 months, ended with an EPOP that was 2.48 percent below where it had been before the start of the March 2001 recession.   This was the first post-war expansion that failed to restore the EPOP to its pre-recession level.  But, it is very likely not the last.  In particular, it appears that our current expansion will be the second expansion.

Our current expansion started June 2009 and as of October 2016 it was 88 months long.  Yet, it remains 4.78 percent below its pre-recession level, which as noted above, was already lower than the EPOP at the start of the March 2001 recession. Given that the EPOP is currently growing very slowly, it is doubtful that it will close that gap before the next recession begins.

Explanations

Many economists argue that the downward trend in the EPOP over the last business cycles is largely due to the aging of the population.  The EPOP of older workers is always lower than that of younger workers, so as their weight in the population grows, the overall EPOP falls.  However, as Baiman explains, and shows in Figure 2, this cannot fully explain what is happening:

Figure 2 below repeats the analysis of Figure 1, but does so within population cohorts of ages 16-24, 25- 54, and 55 and over, whose shares are held constant at October 2016 levels to remove the effects of changing demographics over the post-war period. For example, this eliminates the impact of an increased over 55 population share that is likely to reduce the overall employment/population ratio.

Thus, even with this correction, the current expansion seems very unlikely to recover its “demographically controlled pre-recession employment/population ratio.”

In fact, it is younger, not older workers that are suffering most from a declining EPOP.  As Henwood points out: “Those aged 35-44 and 45-54 have yet to return to their 2000 and 2007 peaks—but those aged 55-64 have, and those over 65 have surpassed them (though obviously a much smaller share of the 65+ population is working than the rest.”

In short, we can rule out an aging population as the primary cause of the growing inability of economic growth to ensure adequate job creation.

A look at the behavior of our dominant firms produces a far more likely explanation.  As Henwood notes:

despite copious profits, firms are shoveling vast pots of cash to their executives and shareholders rather than investing in capital equipment and hiring workers. From 1952 to 1982, nonfinancial corporations distributed 17 percent of their internal cash flow (profits plus depreciation allowances) to shareholders; that rose to about 30 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, and to 48 percent since 2000. (In 2016, the average was an incredible 64 percent.)

This behavior certainly pays off handsomely for top managers and already wealthy stock holders.  But it is not so great for the rest of us, especially for those workers–and their families–who find paid employment increasingly difficult to obtain, even during an economic expansion.

Even The Good Times of Economic Expansion Aren’t So Good For Most In US

Recessions are bad for most people: production, employment, income all fall.   But economic expansions are supposed to more than compensate for the down times.  However, as we see below, that is no longer the case.

Increasingly, the lion’s share of all the new income generated during economic expansions now goes to a very few.  In other words, a sizeable majority of the US population now loses regardless of the state of the economy.  It is time to shift the focus of our discussions from how best to control the business cycle to how to build a movement strong enough to transform the workings of contemporary capitalism.

Pavline R. Tcherneva has calculated the distribution of new income between the top 10 percent and bottom 90 percent of households and the top 1 percent and bottom 99 percent of households in every post-war US economic expansion.  The following figures come from her Levy Economics Institute of Bard College policy paper titled Inequality Update: Who Gains When Income Grows?

Figure 2 shows a steady rise in the share of income growth claimed by the top 10 percent of households (red bar).  However, as we can see, a striking change takes place with the 1982-90 economic expansion.  Starting with that expansion, the top 10 percent have come to dominate the income gains, leaving little for the bottom 90 percent of households (blue bar).  And as Tchervena comments: “Notably, the entire 2001–7 recovery produced almost no income growth for the bottom 90 percent of households.”  So much for the pre-Great Recession debt-driven golden years.

Figure 4 illustrates the distribution of income gains between the top 1 percent of households and the bottom 99 percent of households.  As we can see, the top 1 percent of households now capture a greater share of newly created income than the bottom 99 percent of US households.  It is no exaggeration to say that our economy now largely works only for the benefit of those few families.

Tcherneva sums up her work well:

the growth pattern that emerged in the ’80s and delivered increasing income inequality is alive and well. The rising tide no longer lifts most boats. Instead, the majority of gains go to a very small segment of the population. As I have discussed elsewhere, this growth pattern is neither accidental nor unavoidable. It is largely a by-product of policy design, specifically, the shift in macroeconomic methods used to stabilize an unstable economy and stimulate economic growth.

Asia’s Economic Future

There is strong reason to expect a further weakening of global economic activity over the next several years, putting greater pressure on majority living and working conditions.

In brief, Asia’s economic dynamism is ebbing.  Given the region’s centrality in the international economy, this trend is both an indicator of current global economic problems and a predictor of a worsening global situation.

Asia’s central role in the global economy

Asia’s central role in the world economy is easily documented.  For example, as the Asian Development Bank points out, “Global headwinds notwithstanding, developing Asia will continue to contribute 60% of world growth.”

Asia’s key position is anchored by China.  China is the single largest contributor to world GDP growth, likely accounting for almost 40 percent of global growth in 2016.  Stephen Roach, former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and the firm’s chief economist, estimates that China’s contribution to global growth was 50 percent larger than the combined contributions of all the advanced capitalist economies.

The rise of Asia, and in particular China, owes much to the actions of transnational corporations and their strategy of creating Asian-centered cross-border production networks or global value chains (GVC).  In the words of the Asian Development Bank, these networks or chains involve “dividing the production of goods and services into linked stages of production scattered across international borders.  While such exchange of inputs is as old as trade itself, rapid growth in the extent and complexity of GVCs since the late 1980s is unprecedented.”

The strategy was initiated by Japanese transnational corporations who began shifting segments of their respective production processes to developing Asian countries in the late 1980s; US and European firms soon followed.  The process kicked into high gear in the mid to late 1990s once China opened up to foreign investment and decided to pursue an export-led growth strategy.

Asia, as a consequence, became transformed into a highly efficient, integrated, regional export machine, with China serving as the region’s final assembly platform.  Developing Asian economies became increasingly organized around the production of manufactures for export; their share of total world manufacturing exports rose from 18.4 percent to 32.5 percent over the period 1992-3 to 2011-12.   And, following the logic of cross border production, a growing share of these exports were parts and components, which were often traded multiple times within the region before arriving in China for final assembly.   Parts and components accounted for more than half of all developing Asian intra-regional manufacturing trade in 2006-7.

China, befitting its regional role, became the first or second largest export market for almost every developing Asian country, with the majority of those exports the parts and components needed for the assembly of advanced electronics.  Between 1995 and 2014, the electronics share of manufacturing exports to China from Korea grew from 8.5 percent to 32.2 percent.  Over the same period, the electronics share from Taiwan exploded from 9.1 percent to 63.7 percent, for Singapore the share grew from 17.5 percent to 36.8 percent, and for the Philippines it rose from 3.4 percent to 78.3 percent.  China’s exports to the region, and especially outside the region, were mostly final goods, with the most technologically advanced assembled/produced under the direction of foreign transnational corporations.  In line with this development, China became the premier location for foreign investment by transnational corporations from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, as well as leading non-Asian corporations.

This history allows us to appreciate the forces that powered Asia’s growth.  Growing demand for manufactures by consumers and retailers in the US and the Eurozone became increasingly satisfied by exports from Asia.  The production of these exports triggered the production of and trade in parts and components by developing East Asian countries and their final assembly in China, as well as massive investment in new factories and supportive infrastructure, especially in China.  East Asian export production also required significant imports of primary commodities, which were largely purchased from countries in Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa, who experienced their own growth spurt as a result.

As we now well know, this growth was heavily dependent on the borrowing capacity of working people in the advanced capitalist world, especially in the US, whose incomes had been falling in large part because of the shift of production to Asia.  The collapse of the debt-driven US housing bubble in 2008 triggered a major financial crisis and global recession, which also greatly depressed international trade.   A weak international recovery has followed; international trade and growth remain far below pre-crisis levels, raising questions about Asia’s future economic prospects.  To appreciate why I am pessimistic about Asia’s economic future requires us to delve more deeply into the ways in which Asian economies have been restructured by transnational capital’s accumulation dynamics.

The Dynamics of Asia’s Economic Transformation

The three charts below, which come from an article authored by the Monetary Authority of Singapore in collaboration with Associate Professor Davin Chor of the National University of Singapore, provide a useful visualization of the Asian economic transformation described above, in particular, changes in the trading relationships of the countries, with each other and with the rest of the world.  The authors use what they call a measure of “upstreamness” to highlight “where a country fits in the operation of cross border production networks, more particularly whether it specialized in producing raw input, intermediate inputs or finished goods.”  The more a country specializes in producing raw inputs, the greater is the value of its upstreamness index; the more it specializes in producing final goods, the smaller is its upstreamness index.

More precisely: the upstreamness index for an industry takes on values equal to or larger than 1.  A value of 1 means that the industry’s output “is just one stage removed from final demand.” A greater value means that the industry’s output enters the relevant production process as an input that is a number of stages removed from final demand.  Here are some examples of upstreamness values for select US industries:

index-values

For the charts below, the upstreamness measure for each country is calculated by weighting the upsteamness of its export industries by the share of each industry in the country’s total exports for the year in question.

As the authors explain:

Charts 2 to 4 depict the changing networks of trade flows between the Asian economies, and in relation to the US, UK, Eurozone (EZ), Australia, as well as the rest of the world (ROW). In these charts, the arrows indicate the direction of the net trade balance between each pair of economies, while the width of each arrow is proportional to the magnitude of this balance.

The arrows are color-coded to reflect the upstreamness of the export flows that move in the same direction as the net trade balance between each pair of nodes. For simplicity, export upstreamness values lying between 1 and 2 are labelled as “downstream” (green), those between 2 and 2.5 as “midstream” (yellow), and those above 2.5 as “upstream” (red).

As we can see in Chart 2, in 1995, a time when cross boarder production networks were still limited, Japan dominated the Asian region.  It was a significant downstream (green) exporter to the US, the Eurozone, the UK, and China.  And it was a significant supplier of key midstream machinery to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.  It generally purchased its upstream inputs from the ROW.   As we can also see, China was well on its way to becoming a major exporter of final goods to the US, the world’s dominant consumer of both downstream and midstream goods.

chart-2

chart-3

By 2005, as illustrated in Chart 3, Japan’s role in the region had dramatically diminished.  China was now the region’s hub, and as such, the dominant exporter of finished goods to the US, the Eurozone, Hong Kong, and the ROW.  The economies of Korea and Taiwan had also been transformed, increasingly oriented to supplying upstream parts and components to China-based exporters.

chart-4

Chart 4, which captures conditions in 2014, shows a deepening of the trade patterns of the previous period.  China’s export dominance is greater yet, as illustrated by the increase in the width of its green trade arrows pointing to the US, ROW, EZ, and Hong Kong.  The Korean and Taiwanese economies are even more dependent on sales of parts and components to China.  Because of their relatively small trade activity, it is difficult to appreciate the transformations experienced by other Asian countries.  Many ASEAN countries, as noted above, had become suppliers of key electronic components to China.  Vietnam, due in large part to the expansion of South Korean production networks, has become an important assembly and export location for some consumer electronics such as smart phones.

What is also not visible from these charts is the effect that transnational corporate-driven regionalization dynamics have had on the structures and stability of individual countries, and of course on the working and living conditions of Asian workers.  One consequence of the rise of China as the region’s key final assembly and production platform is that leading firms from other Asian countries significantly reduced their domestic investment activity as they located operations in China. This deliberate deindustrialization was a natural outcome of the establishment of cross border production networks which involve, as stated above, the dividing of production activities into segments and the location of one or more of these segments in other countries.

The chart below highlights the dramatic decline in Japanese investment as Japanese firms shifted segments of production overseas.   This ongoing decline in investment is one of the most important reasons for the country’s ongoing economic stagnation.

japan

The following chart shows a similar sustained decline in investment, although beginning at a later date than for Japan, for the grouping “Rest of emerging Asia,” which includes Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.   China, on the other hand, has experienced a dramatic and sustained rise in its investment ratio. Chinese state activity, rather than foreign direct investment, accounts for the great majority of this investment, although in many cases it was undertaken to attract and support foreign production.

asian-investment

As leading Asian transnational corporations expanded their production networks, their actions tended to restructure their respective home economies in ways that left these economies more unbalanced and crisis prone.  For example, almost all Asian economies became increasingly export dependent at the same time that their exports narrowed to a limited range of parts and components.   And with transnational corporations increasingly able to shift production from one national location to another, China’s pull became ever stronger.  One consequence was that governments throughout Asia were forced to match China’s relatively low labor costs and corporate friendly business environment.  In many cases, they did so by transforming their own labor markets though the introduction of new laws and actions designed to weaken labor rights.  This, in turn, tended to suppress regional purchasing power, thereby reinforcing the region’s export dependence.  Not surprisingly then, the decline in exports that has followed the post 2008 Great Recession poses a serious challenge to Asia’s growth strategy.

According to the Asian Development Bank:

Developing Asia’s exports grew rapidly in real terms at an annual rate of 11.2 percent in 2000–2010 (Figure 1.2.1). Excepting a brief rebound in 2010, the region’s export volume growth has slowed since the crisis, recording annual growth of 4.7 percent in 2011–2015. A major concern is that developing Asia’s exports actually declined by 0.8 percent in 2015, which was a particularly bad year for world trade. Regional trends follow the lead of export growth in the PRC, which contributes about 40 percent of developing Asia’s export value.  PRC export growth slowed from an annual average of 18.3 percent in 2001–2010 to 6.4 percent in 2011–2015, falling into a 2.1 percent decline in 2015. The slowdown in developing Asia excluding the PRC was less pronounced as growth halved from 8.0 percent in 2001–2010 to 4.1 percent in 2011–2015, still growing marginally in 2015 at 0.8 percent. . . .

The slowdown has meant that developing Asia’s export growth in 2011–2015 was, at 4.1%, similar to the 4.3% averaged by other developing economies and not much higher than the 3.6% of the advanced economies—two groups that developing Asia has historically outperformed in export growth.

trade-trends

And as the region’s export growth rate declined, so did overall rates of GDP growth, as we see in the table below.

rates-of-growth

Still, these growth rates remain impressive, especially in light of the steep decline in regional exports.  Perhaps not surprisingly, developing Asia’s buoyancy owes much to China’s ability to maintain its relatively high rates of economic growth.  However, as I will discuss in a following post, contradictions and pressures are mounting in China that will intensify its economic slowdown and significantly depress growth in the rest of Asia, with negative consequences for the rest of the world.