DannyQuah

Making large things visible to the human eye

Category Archives: global_savings_glut

How we miss the Great Shift East

Many well-known facts are, in actuality, false. One such is how the Great Wall of China is humanity’s only construction visible from outer space.  Another is how Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.”

The Great Shift East, 1980-2050

The Great Shift East, 1980-2050

Conversely, many facts actually true are obscure and misunderstood. For some of these facts, that fate is perhaps well-deserved, as a number of scientific truths cannot even be stated in everyday language. Certain other facts that nearly everyone considers obvious or well-known have boundaries that are indistinct and, as a result, unhelpfully permit both hyperbole and scepticism. One of the goals of research should be to map out those boundaries, so that both intellectual understanding and policy debate can be based on evidence rather than speculation.

The Rise of The East is one of those well-known but misunderstood facts. Sufficiently many books, newspaper articles, and TV programs have carried this meme to where hardly anyone can now plead ignorance of it. But enough ambiguity remains, so observers are free to project onto the idea both their best hopes and their worst fears. Not helpful in this regard is where characterizations of this Great Shift East — caricature, stylized, divorced from hard empirical evidence, insufficiently accurate — impersonate as fact. These simultaneously fan alarm, invite ridicule, and risk credibility.

A concrete and straightforward illustration of the Great Shift East is, therefore, both helpful and needed. “The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity” provided just that in the clearest and most direct way I could write down. I am pleased that others — on a panel of scholars and practitioners both — think I have done a good job with the idea.
GPPN Best Article Prize

Considerable previous research had, of course, already been published on the empirics of economic growth. However, that more traditional research focused on countries’ per capita incomes—because that’s what theoretical models of growth sought to explain—and eschewed location, co-movement, and national identity, in favor of anonymized subscripts in a statistical cross section. By maintaining a discipline of empirical research only when driven by theory, arguably, economics took its eye off what really mattered in the shifting global economy, leaving that big picture instead to political scientists, international relations scholars, and investment bankers.

In some of my earlier work on the cross section of country growth, I was even told to take out economies like China or Singapore, because they were obviously outliers and unrepresentative. But being outliers and unrepresentative, it struck me, was exactly why they were interesting. While “The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity” had a simple goal, it also got to bring back in all these other considerations of why the global economy needs to be understood as an entirety, not just as a bunch of economies taken in isolation. Otherwise, it was like trying to understand cloud formation by studying water molecules.

We now know that in a rush, the world went from being centred on the Transatlantic Axis, with BRICs merely a catchphrase, to where the BRICs conceit became a primary organizing principle for high-level international policy making, multi-trillion dollar portfolio investment, and geopolitical analysis. But, caught in that same rush, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, significant although it already was on its own, provided tabula rasa for revisionist interpretation: The 2008 Financial Crisis morphed to be merely Transatlantic, rather than Global. The 2008 Financial Crisis reflected the Decline of The West, simultaneous with the Rise of The East. The 2008 Financial Crisis was caused by global imbalances resulting from Asian Thrift, i.e., East Asians’ newly endowed with the financial clout but not the political maturity to be responsible in their management of international trade.

As historical reality unfolded, so too grew fear, uncertainty, doubt, and pushback.  The German Marshall Foundation’s 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey found the majority of Americans reckoning Asia more important than Europe to their national interests, with the proportion rising as high as 70% among Americans aged 18-34. But the same survey also found that 63% of Americans viewed China as an economic threat, i.e., double the number who considered China an economic opportunity.

Dinner with Foreigners

Asians themselves remain sharply divided on the Great Shift East. On the one hand, thinkers like Kishore Mahbubani have long argued that the world’s policy-making has unhelpfully lagged a reality where the East is rapidly growing in importance. On the other hand, Eastern decision-makers have continued to look West for all levels of engagement. Powerful Eastern sovereign wealth funds remain enamoured of investment in locations around the Transatlantic Axis even as Western governments look back at them with suspicion. I know smart, articulate Singaporeans who turned down Ivy League universities to go instead to Beida, but a majority of Asians still more highly value education in the West, whether for the liberal arts training or the business and social connections. At a much lower level of financial commitment, the Wall Street Journal just this month described a dating agency that charged Chinese women US$600 to meet Western men who got to sign up for free (the ad actually said “Foreigner”, but few people I spoke to thought that included Indonesian or Filipino men). What Great Shift East when all the exports are just one way?

The political scientist and international relations scholar Joseph Nye speaks of nations having “soft power”, in contrast to the hard power of obvious economic or military strength. “Soft power” is the ability to convince others to want the same thing you want, without buying them off or threatening to shoot them. While economic power has indeed moved, the important tokens of soft power, and thus of geopolitical balance, remain firmly moored and continue to attract. Soon the economic center of the world will be 10 timezones east of where its political center remains. This misalignment is historically never propitious, whether geopolitical in the sense of Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of Great Powers, or within countries where it often manifests in conflict between ethnic or religious groups.

The Great Shift East, therefore, is even more than usual a work in progress. Measuring it — making a large fact visible to the human eye — is just a first item of business.

Causal global imbalances

David Pilling’s recent FT column (12 October 2011) makes the important point that fiddling with the RMB/USD exchange rate will do little to repair the economic plight in which the US currently finds itself.

It is true, of course, that surpluses in one part of the world have to be matched dollar for dollar by deficits somewhere. It doesn’t follow, however, that it is the trade surplus in China that has caused the trade deficit in the US.

A large fact relevant here is that (to paraphrase Stephen Roach) the US doesn’t have a bilateral trade problem with China; the US has a multilateral trade problem with over 100 different trading partners.


This article documents how the US trade deficit against China is matched – in trend, in magnitude, in little wiggly twists and turns – by the US trade deficit against other parts of the world.

An observer might even conclude that the problem is not that of a bilateral exchange rate against the RMB but instead of US excess consumption swarming over pretty much all the rest of the global economy.

 

If nothing else were to change, simply appreciating the RMB against the USD or raising US tariffs against China will only divert US consumption towards more expensive, less efficient producers, thus taxing the US consumer and leaving unaffected the overall size of the US trade deficit.

Where in the world is Asian Thrift and the Global Savings Glut?

Sometime in the early 1990s the US began to move its international trade account from approximate balance into burgeoning deficit.From then on the US trade deficit grew year on year so that by 2006 the US consumed nearly US$900 billion more than it produced.

Such excess amounted to 7% of US GDP—up from an average of 2% over 1990–1994.For perspective, the US trade deficit in 2006 was nearly as much as the entire annual production of goods and services in the 1.1 billion-peopled economy of India (this was an improvement, though: in 2005, the US deficit was strictly greater than India’s GDP).And a 7% ratio is the same as that Thailand had in June 1997 on the eve of the run on the Thai baht precipitating the Asian currency crisis.

Except for the possibility of trade with outer space, the US deficit has to be matched dollar-for-dollar by trade surpluses in the rest of the world.Correspondingly, therefore, the rest of the world has been saving—consuming less than it has been producing—and accumulating dollar claims against the US as a result.

In this description, however large the global imbalance, a savings glut—wherever or however it might arise on Earth—has no independent existence.It makes as much sense to say the world’s excess savings caused enthusiastic US consumers to flood into Walmart to buy $12 DVD players, as to say US consumer profligacy made hungry Chinese peasants abstain even more and instead plow their incomes into holdings of US Treasury bills.

When two variables have always-identical magnitudes, obviously neither can usefully be said to cause the other.With global savings and consumption, however, looking at a third indicator, namely world interest rates, is suggestive.The Figure shows world money market interest rates falling sharply through the 1990s, as would be suggested by a global savings glut driving the large global imbalance.

(The Figure is for short-term nominal interest rates. Charting this for real long-term rates accentuates the fall. Subtracting actual inflation to construct real short rates makes the decline less obvious although not vanish.But I’m going to dispute this reasoning next anyway, so let’s keep the Figure.)

Many other factors could, of course, have driven down short rates: US monetary policy responded to national economic downturns in 1991 and 2001.Through the 1990s inflation rates worldwide converged and fell, together with short-term interest rates set by central banks everywhere.The burst of the dot-com bubble in March 2000 saw the NASDAQ index decline 77% in the following 18 months, prompting action by the US Federal Reserve.Japan’s monetary policy during its decade-long recession drove nominal interest rates there to zero.

It seems useful to obtain additional evidence on whether the global imbalance was indeed driven by a global savings glut or, in some interpretations, Asian thrift.

The Figure shows that, indeed, Developing Asia in general and China in particular, were running large and growing bilateral trade surpluses against the US.

The next Figure, however, shows that running trade surpluses against the US was pretty much the pattern nearly everywhere in the rest of the world.Both the EU and the bloc of oil-exporting countries, had rising bilateral trade surpluses against the US too, although of course the notion of “EU Thrift” has hardly ever been bandied about in international relations.Summed, the EU and oil-exporters trade surplus against the US moved almost exactly in step with that of China’s.









Dwindling investment opportunities and an aging population in Europe might, indeed, over the longer run, smoothly and gently, end up pushing greater savings in the direction of the US.But why would those same persistent movements cause higher-frequency gyrations in the EU’s trade surplus against the US that match almost exactly that of China’s in particular and Asia’s more generally?It seems to me the most direct and straightforward explanation is that the causal impulse to these trade surplus dynamics is instead the US economy, and everyone else is simply passively responding.

Indeed the ratios to the overall US trade deficit of individual country bilateral trade surpluses—run by each of China, Developing Asia, the EU, and the oil exporters—have time-series profiles that, after the mid-1990s, were essentially flat.Sure, China’s and Asia’s trade surpluses against the US were large and growing.But they were growing only because they remained roughly constant in proportion to bilateral trade surpluses elsewhere and, more to the point, to the US overall trade deficit.

So, yes, of course, there was a global savings glut.It necessarily mirrored exactly US profligacy, both private and public.Looking at these last few Figures, however, one might be tempted to think that excesses in the US economy drove trade surpluses everywhere else in the world, rather than that causality ran from Asian thrift to US trade deficit.

The reality, however, is almost surely that some combination of factors—central bank policy, Asian thrift, US consumer profligacy, US government actions, cheap East Asian goods resulting from a low-wage yet productive workforce (which must be a good thing surely)—was responsible for the large global imbalance of the early 2000s.To put the blame monocausally on Asian Thrift seems both irresponsible and inconsistent with the facts.And it is important to get to the root of this: the resulting global imbalance and its associated massive flows of financial assets likely led to the extreme financial engineering that now everyone claims no one responsible ever really understood in the first place.

In producing the Figures above I found useful the data and discussions in Ben Bernanke (2007) “Global Imbalances:Recent Developments and Prospects”; Thierry Bracke and Michael Fidora (2008) “Global liquidity glut or global savings glut”; Menzie Chinn and Jeffrey Frankel (2003) “The Euro Area and World Interest Rates”;Niall Ferguson (2008) “Wall Street Lays Another Egg”; Paul Krugman (2005) “The Chinese Connection”; Kenneth Rogoff (2003) “Globalization and Global Disinflation”; and Brad Setser (2005) “Bernanke’s global savings glut.

Daniel Gross (2005) Savings Glut” traces the history of the idea that a global savings glut is to blame for many current US economic ills. The subtitle (The self-serving explanation for America’s bad habits) reveals the conclusion that Gross reaches.Fareed Zakaria (2008) “There is a silver lining” describes the profligacy of the US consumer and government since the 1980s, and how the current global economic crisis might turn that around. He remarks that the US “cannot noisily denounce Chinese and Arab foreign investments in America one day and then hope that they will keep buying $4 billion worth of T-bills another day.”

The data I used are from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (WDI) Online, April 2008; and International Monetary Fund (IMF), Direction of Trade Statistics (DOTS) and International Financial Statistics (IFS), November 2008, ESDS International, (MIMAS) University of Manchester.Developing Asia, in IMF terminology, comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Kiribati, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Vietnam. In the Figures, China refers to China Mainland.

(This post also appears 21 November 2008 on RGE‘s EconoMonitor on Global Macro and Asia.  See also December 2008 discussion on the FT Economists’ Forum on global imbalances.)

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