Summers: The Global Consensus on Trade is Unravelling

Larry Summers says international economic policy is receiving too little attention in the presidential election. The success of the next administration and the fate of the US economy may depend upon the next administration’s abilities abilities in this area:

The global consensus on trade is unravelling, by Lawrence Summers, Commentary, Financial Times: …US international economic policy is receiving less attention in this presidential election year than usual. … That is unfortunate. The next administration faces the prospect of having to make the most consequential international economic policy choices in a generation at a time when the confidence … in free markets is being increasingly questioned.

The current distribution of regional economic power is unlike anything that was predicted even a decade ago. The rise of the developing world … is … a … surprise… [W]ith almost all the industrial world in or near recession, much of the momentum in the global economy is coming from countries with authoritarian governments that are pursuing economic strategies directed towards wealth accumulation and building up geopolitical strength rather than improving living standards for their populations. China, where household consumption has now fallen below 40 per cent of its gross domestic product – which must be some kind of peacetime record – is the most extreme example. Similar tendencies, however, can be seen in other parts of Asia, Russia and other oil exporting countries. …

For all the disagreements over the past decades, there has been a shared premise behind international economic policy discussions – the goal of increased economic integration, the spread of market institutions and more rapid growth for all nations. While companies may compete, the premise has been that nations co-operate to build a stronger economy in the interests of all.

It is no longer clear that this premise remains valid. Nations are increasingly preoccupied with their relative economic standing, not the living standards of citizens. Issues of strategic leverage and vulnerability now play a bigger role in economic policy discussions.

At the same time, it is unclear which underlying driver of global growth will replace the one in place for the past decade – the US as importer of last resort. Global growth has depended on US growth, which has depended on the US consumer; and the US consumer has depended on rising asset values first of stocks and more recently of real estate. With falling house prices and a challenged financial system, US consumer spending is falling. The US is no longer in a position to be a net source of demand for the rest of the world. … Already, Europe and Japan are in or are very close to being in recession.

The current global policy debate is a cacophony. It is all very well to advocate increased US saving and a cut in the US current account deficit but the process for bringing it about will mean less US demand for foreign products. That will put pressure on jobs and output growth in other countries if no countervailing measures are put in place. Conversely, the return of a stronger dollar without other policy changes will raise US demand for exports but at the price of cutting demand for domestically produced goods and compounding the recession.

These problems … may not be at the top of anyone’s agenda right now. But the success of the next administration could depend on its ability to engage with a wider range of global economic stakeholders, on a broader agenda, at a time when disagreements are increasing not just about means but also about ultimate ends.


Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to "Summers: The Global Consensus on Trade is Unravelling"

  1. devils advocate   September 6, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Authoritarian Countries want controljust as the US/ECU Central Bankersthe likely result:partnershipleading to strict control over all world marketsincluding financial and commodity and tradedimunition of US/ECU’s standard of living for most of their populationsgradual bettering of the standard of living in the Authoritarian nations