The annual January gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos is usually a placid affair: a place for well-heeled participants to exchange notes on global business opportunities, or powder conditions on the local ski slopes, while cradling champagne and canapes. This January, the ultra-rich and the sparkling wine returned, but by all reports the mood was one of anxiety, defensiveness and self-reproach.
The future of economic globalisation, for which the Davos men and women see themselves as caretakers, had been shaken by a series of political earthquakes. “Globalisation” can mean many things, but what lay in particular doubt was the long-advanced project of increasing free trade in goods across borders. The previous summer, Britain had voted to leave the largest trading bloc in the world. In November, the unexpected victory of Donald Trump, who vowed to withdraw from major trade deals, appeared to jeopardise the trading relationships of the world’s richest country. Forthcoming elections in France and Germany suddenly seemed to bear the possibility of anti-globalisation parties garnering better results than ever before. The barbarians weren’t at the gates to the ski-lifts yet – but they weren’t very far.
In a panel titled Governing Globalisation, the economist Dambisa Moyo, otherwise a well-known supporter of free trade, forthrightly asked the audience to accept that “there have been significant losses” from globalisation. “It is not clear to me that we are going to be able to remedy them under the current infrastructure,” she added. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, called for a policy hitherto foreign to the World Economic Forum: “more redistribution”. After years of hedging or discounting the malign effects of free trade, it was time to face facts: globalisation caused job losses and depressed wages, and the usual Davos proposals – such as instructing affected populations to accept the new reality – weren’t going to work. Unless something changed, the political consequences were likely to get worse.
The backlash to globalisation has helped fuel the extraordinary political shifts of the past 18 months. During the close race to become the Democratic party candidate, senator Bernie Sanders relentlessly attacked Hillary Clinton on her support for free trade. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump openly proposed tilting the terms of trade in favour of American industry. “Americanism, not globalism, shall be our creed,” he bellowed at the Republican national convention last July. The vote for Brexit was strongest in the regions of the UK devastated by the flight of manufacturing. At Davos in January, British prime minister Theresa May, the leader of the party of capital and inherited wealth, improbably picked up the theme, warning that, for many, “talk of greater globalisation … means their jobs being outsourced and wages undercut.” Meanwhile, the European far right has been warning against free movement of people as well as goods. Following her qualifying victory in the first round of France’s presidential election, Marine Le Pen warned darkly that “the main thing at stake in this election is the rampant globalisation that is endangering our civilisation.”
It was only a few decades ago that globalisation was held by many, even by some critics, to be an inevitable, unstoppable force. “Rejecting globalisation,” the American journalist George Packer has written, “was like rejecting the sunrise.” Globalisation could take place in services, capital and ideas, making it a notoriously imprecise term; but what it meant most often was making it cheaper to trade across borders – something that seemed to many at the time to be an unquestionable good. In practice, this often meant that industry would move from rich countries, where labour was expensive, to poor countries, where labour was cheaper. People in the rich countries would either have to accept lower wages to compete, or lose their jobs. But no matter what, the goods they formerly produced would now be imported, and be even cheaper. And the unemployed could get new, higher-skilled jobs (if they got the requisite training). Mainstream economists and politicians upheld the consensus about the merits of globalisation, with little concern that there might be political consequences.
Back then, economists could calmly chalk up anti-globalisation sentiment to a marginal group of delusional protesters, or disgruntled stragglers still toiling uselessly in “sunset industries”. These days, as sizable constituencies have voted in country after country for anti-free-trade policies, or candidates that promise to limit them, the old self-assurance is gone. Millions have rejected, with uncertain results, the punishing logic that globalisation could not be stopped. The backlash has swelled a wave of soul-searching among economists, one that had already begun to roll ashore with the financial crisis. How did they fail to foresee the repercussions?
In the heyday of the globalisation consensus, few economists questioned its merits in public. But in 1997, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik published a slim book that created a stir. Appearing just as the US was about to enter a historic economic boom, Rodrik’s book, Has Globalization Gone Too Far?, sounded an unusual note of alarm.
Rodrik pointed to a series of dramatic recent events that challenged the idea that growing free trade would be peacefully accepted. In 1995, France had adopted a programme of fiscal austerity in order to prepare for entry into the eurozone; trade unions responded with the largest wave of strikes since 1968. In 1996, only five years after the end of the Soviet Union – with Russia’s once-protected markets having been forcibly opened, leading to a sudden decline in living standards – a communist won 40% of the vote in Russia’s presidential elections. That same year, two years after the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), one of the most ambitious multinational deals ever accomplished, a white nationalist running on an “America first” programme of economic protectionism did surprisingly well in the presidential primaries of the Republican party.
What was the pathology of which all of these disturbing events were symptoms? For Rodrik, it was “the process that has come to be called ‘globalisation’”. Since the 1980s, and especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union, lowering barriers to international trade had become the axiom of countries everywhere. Tariffs had to be slashed and regulations spiked. Trade unions, which kept wages high and made it harder to fire people, had to be crushed. Governments vied with each other to make their country more hospitable – more “competitive” – for businesses. That meant making labour cheaper and regulations looser, often in countries that had once tried their hand at socialism, or had spent years protecting “homegrown” industries with tariffs.
These moves were generally applauded by economists. After all, their profession had long embraced the principle of comparative advantage – simply put, the idea countries will trade with each other in order to gain what each lacks, thereby benefiting both. In theory, then, the globalisation of trade in goods and services would benefit consumers in rich countries by giving them access to inexpensive goods produced by cheaper labour in poorer countries, and this demand, in turn, would help grow the economies of those poorer countries.
But the social cost, in Rodrik’s dissenting view, was high – and consistently underestimated by economists. He noted that since the 1970s, lower-skilled European and American workers had endured a major fall in the real value of their wages, which dropped by more than 20%. Workers were suffering more spells of unemployment, more volatility in the hours they were expected to work.
While many economists attributed much of the insecurity to technological change – sophisticated new machines displacing low-skilled workers – Rodrik suggested that the process of globalisation should shoulder more of the blame. It was, in particular, the competition between workers in developing and developed countries that helped drive down wages and job security for workers in developed countries. Over and over, they would be held hostage to the possibility that their business would up and leave, in order to find cheap labour in other parts of the world; they had to accept restraints on their salaries – or else. Opinion polls registered their strong levels of anxiety and insecurity, and the political effects were becoming more visible. Rodrik foresaw that the cost of greater “economic integration” would be greater “social disintegration”. The inevitable result would be a huge political backlash.
As Rodrik would later recall, other economists tended to dismiss his arguments – or fear them. Paul Krugman, who would win the Nobel prize in 2008 for his earlier work in trade theory and economic geography, privately warned Rodrik that his work would give “ammunition to the barbarians”.
It was a tacit acknowledgment that pro-globalisation economists, journalists and politicians had come under growing pressure from a new movement on the left, who were raising concerns very similar to Rodrik’s. Over the course of the 1990s, an unwieldy international coalition had begun to contest the notion that globalisation was good. Called “anti-globalisation” by the media, and the “alter-globalisation” or “global justice” movement by its participants, it tried to draw attention to the devastating effect that free trade policies were having, especially in the developing world, where globalisation was supposed to be having its most beneficial effect. This was a time when figures such as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had given the topic a glitzy prominence by documenting his time among what he gratingly called “globalutionaries”: chatting amiably with the CEO of Monsanto one day, gawking at lingerie manufacturers in Sri Lanka the next. Activists were intent on showing a much darker picture, revealing how the record of globalisation consisted mostly of farmers pushed off their land and the rampant proliferation of sweatshops. They also implicated the highest world bodies in their critique: the G7, World Bank and IMF. In 1999, the movement reached a high point when a unique coalition of trade unions and environmentalists managed to shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
In a state of panic, economists responded with a flood of columns and books that defended the necessity of a more open global market economy, in tones ranging from grandiose to sarcastic. In January 2000, Krugman used his first piece as a New York Times columnist to denounce the “trashing” of the WTO, calling it “a sad irony that the cause that has finally awakened the long-dormant American left is that of – yes! – denying opportunity to third-world workers”.
Where Krugman was derisive, others were solemn, putting the contemporary fight against the “anti-globalisation” left in a continuum of struggles for liberty. “Liberals, social democrats and moderate conservatives are on the same side in the great battles against religious fanatics, obscurantists, extreme environmentalists, fascists, Marxists and, of course, contemporary anti-globalisers,” wrote the Financial Times columnist and former World Bank economist Martin Wolf in his book Why Globalization Works. Language like this lent the fight for globalisation the air of an epochal struggle. More common was the rhetoric of figures such as Friedman, who in his book The World is Flat mocked the “pampered American college kids” who, “wearing their branded clothing, began to get interested in sweatshops as a way of expiating their guilt”.
Arguments against the global justice movement rested on the idea that the ultimate benefits of a more open and integrated economy would outweigh the downsides. “Freer trade is associated with higher growth and … higher growth is associated with reduced poverty,” wrote the Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati in his book In Defense of Globalization. “Hence, growth reduces poverty.” No matter how troubling some of the local effects, the implication went, globalisation promised a greater good.
The fact that proponents of globalisation now felt compelled to spend much of their time defending it indicates how much visibility the global justice movement had achieved by the early 2000s. Still, over time, the movement lost ground, as a policy consensus settled in favour of globalisation. The proponents of globalisation were determined never to let another gathering be interrupted. They stopped meeting in major cities, and security everywhere was tightened. By the time of the invasion of Iraq, the world’s attention had turned from free trade to George Bush and the “war on terror,” leaving the globalisation consensus intact.
Above all, there was a widespread perception that globalisation was working as it was supposed to. The local adverse effects that activists pointed to – sweatshop labour, starving farmers – were increasingly obscured by the staggering GDP numbers and fantastical images of gleaming skylines coming out of China. With some lonely exceptions – such as Rodrik and the former World Bank chief and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz – the pursuit of freer trade became a consensus position for economists, commentators and the vast majority of mainstream politicians, to the point where the benefits of free trade seemed to command blind adherence. In a 2006 TV interview, Thomas Friedman was asked whether there was any free trade deal he would not support. He replied that there wasn’t, admitting, “I wrote a column supporting the Cafta, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.”
In the wake of the financial crisis, the cracks began to show in the consensus on globalisation, to the point that, today, there may no longer be a consensus. Economists who were once ardent proponents of globalisation have become some of its most prominent critics. Erstwhile supporters now concede, at least in part, that it has produced inequality, unemployment and downward pressure on wages. Nuances and criticisms that economists only used to raise in private seminars are finally coming out in the open.
A few months before the financial crisis hit, Krugman was already confessing to a “guilty conscience”. In the 1990s, he had been very influential in arguing that global trade with poor countries had only a small effect on workers’ wages in rich countries. By 2008, he was having doubts: the data seemed to suggest that the effect was much larger than he had suspected.
In the years that followed, the crash, the crisis of the eurozone and the worldwide drop in the price of oil and other commodities combined to put a huge dent in global trade. Since 2012, the IMF reported in its World Economic Outlook for October 2016, trade was growing at 3% a year – less than half the average of the previous three decades. That month, Martin Wolf argued in a column that globalisation had “lost dynamism”, due to a slackening of the world economy, the “exhaustion” of new markets to exploit and a rise in protectionist policies around the world. In an interview earlier this year, Wolf suggested to me that, though he remained convinced globalisation had not been the decisive factor in rising inequality, he had nonetheless not fully foreseen when he was writing Why Globalization Works how “radical the implications” of worsening inequality “might be for the US, and therefore the world”. Among these implications appears to be a rising distrust of the establishment that is blamed for the inequality. “We have a very big political problem in many of our countries,” he said. “The elites – the policymaking business and financial elites – are increasingly disliked. You need to make policy which brings people to think again that their societies are run in a decent and civilised way.”
That distrust of the establishment has had highly visible political consequences: Farage, Trump, and Le Pen on the right; but also in new parties on the left, such as Spain’s Podemos, and curious populist hybrids, such as Italy’s Five Star Movement. As in 1997, but to an even greater degree, the volatile political scene reflects public anxiety over “the process that has come to be called ‘globalisation’”. If the critics of globalisation could be dismissed before because of their lack of economics training, or ignored because they were in distant countries, or kept out of sight by a wall of police, their sudden political ascendancy in the rich countries of the west cannot be so easily discounted today.
Over the past year, the opinion pages of prestigious newspapers have been filled with belated, rueful comments from the high priests of globalisation – the men who appeared to have defeated the anti-globalisers two decades earlier. Perhaps the most surprising such transformation has been that of Larry Summers. Possessed of a panoply of elite titles – former chief economist of the World Bank, former Treasury secretary, president emeritus of Harvard, former economic adviser to President Barack Obama – Summers was renowned in the 1990s and 2000s for being a blustery proponent of globalisation. For Summers, it seemed, market logic was so inexorable that its dictates prevailed over every social concern. In an infamous World Bank memo from 1991, he held that the cheapest way to dispose of toxic waste in rich countries was to dump it in poor countries, since it was financially cheaper for them to manage it. “The laws of economics, it’s often forgotten, are like the laws of engineering,” he said in a speech that year at a World Bank-IMF meeting in Bangkok. “There’s only one set of laws and they work everywhere. One of the things I’ve learned in my short time at the World Bank is that whenever anybody says, ‘But economics works differently here,’ they’re about to say something dumb.”
Over the last two years, a different, in some ways unrecognizable Larry Summers has been appearing in newspaper editorial pages. More circumspect in tone, this humbler Summers has been arguing that economic opportunities in the developing world are slowing, and that the already rich economies are finding it hard to get out of the crisis. Barring some kind of breakthrough, Summers says, an era of slow growth is here to stay.
In Summers’s recent writings, this sombre conclusion has often been paired with a surprising political goal: advocating for a “responsible nationalism”. Now he argues that politicians must recognise that “the basic responsibility of government is to maximise the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good”.
One curious thingabout the pro-globalisation consensus of the 1990s and 2000s, and its collapse in recent years, is how closely the cycle resembles a previous era. Pursuing free trade has always produced displacement and inequality – and political chaos, populism and retrenchment to go with it. Every time the social consequences of free trade are overlooked, political backlash follows. But free trade is only one of many forms that economic integration can take. History seems to suggest, however, that it might be the most destabilising one.
Nearly all economists and scholars of globalisation like to point to the fact that the economy was rather globalised by the early 20th century. As European countries colonised Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, they turned their colonies into suppliers of raw materials for European manufacturers, as well as markets for European goods. Meanwhile, the economies of the colonisers were also becoming free-trade zones for each other. “The opening years of the 20th century were the closest thing the world had ever seen to a free world market for goods, capital and labour,” writes the Harvard professor of government Jeffry Frieden in his standard account, Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the 20th Century. “It would be a hundred years before the world returned to that level of globalisation.”
In addition to military force, what underpinned this convenient arrangement for imperial nations was the gold standard. Under this system, each national currency had an established gold value: the British pound sterling was backed by 113 grains of pure gold; the US dollar by 23.22 grains, and so on. This entailed that exchange rates were also fixed: a British pound was always equal to 4.87 dollars. The stability of exchange rates meant that the cost of doing business across borders was predictable. Just like the eurozone today, you could count on the value of the currency staying the same, so long as the storehouse of gold remained more or less the same.
When there were gold shortages – as there were in the 1870s – the system stopped working. To protect the sanctity of the standard under conditions of stress, central bankers across the Europe and the US tightened access to credit and deflated prices. This left financiers in a decent position, but crushed farmers and the rural poor, for whom falling prices meant starvation. Then as now, economists and mainstream politicians largely overlooked the darker side of the economic picture.
Hyper Globalization: Powering a global marketplace
Globalization arguably began 2,000 years ago with the 6,000km Silk Road that connected Eurasia. However, no one can argue that a truly dramatic “flattening” of the world happened when the Internet was created. And today it’s not just data that’s freely flowing between countries — it’s capital, products, services, and people. For example, how and where we design, sell and manufacture products will become both hyper-global and hyper-local thanks to us now living in a globally connected world with a diverse set of local requirements.
Amplifying this globalization is the internet, which has enabled the growth of a vast digital marketplace from companies we’ve never heard of, from cities we’ve never been to, and working on digital platforms that are changing the competitive landscape. Anyone with an idea can become a global business overnight.
It’s easier now than ever before for start-ups to scale globally and for emerging market companies to challenge established multinationals. According to McKinsey Global Institute, by 2025, nearly half the Fortune 500 will be headquartered in today’s emerging markets.
Market disruption has become the new norm. Gone are the days when 75-year-old companies were commonplace. The average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 dropped from 35 years in 1980 to 18 years in 2012. By 2027, 75 percent of current S&P 500 companies will be removed from the index.
Disruption is now happening everywhere to everyone, even to those companies who were themselves doing the disrupting just a few short years ago. Companies around the globe must constantly reinvent themselves to stay competitive.
For those companies that succeed they will also have to be ready to handle new forms of payment, as for how consumers buy and pay for products and services, is also being digitized. Gradually money has gone through a digital transformation with credit cards and debit cards being the physical manifestation of the transition. Recently a new transition is taking place; to eliminate the analog aspect of a card and completely digitize the entire card system.
Enabling this transition will not be an easy task, considering that even today 85% of global consumer transactions annually are done with paper bills and coins — especially in developing countries. But changes are already underway making it easier for people across the globe to transfer data instead of cash. That agent of this change — is the smartphone.
Online and mobile payments will lead to mostly cashless societies in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden within 5 years. A trend that is supported by Millennials around the world, 52% of whom use a smartphone as a mobile payment device.
The emergence of new technologies such as digital wallets, near-field communications (NFC), crypto-currencies — including Bitcoin — mobile peer-to-peer payments, and the use of biometrics for authentication will tip the balance farther and farther in favor of digital currency.
However, with the speed of global technology adoption also comes an increase in the supply and demand for cyber-attacks. Information is power and cyber-attacks are hard to attribute as witnessed by the recent Democratic National Convention email hack during the U.S. election. There will be an increased emphasis on technology companies to innovate and achieve much higher degrees of trust and resilience. HP’s Security Lab has several initiatives underway to tackle the growing landscape of cybersecurity threats and how HP is designing for cyber-resilience in a Blended Reality future.
Companies will need to help customers navigate constant disruption, smart and securely in an increasingly globalized world. While at the same time, embarking on supplier and government partnerships that enable them to move manufacturing closer their customers. Enabling them to provide on-demand products customized based on geography and personal preference.
A widely-connected world will reward companies willing to embrace change and disruption.
The possibilities are endless.