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Rogoff: Beware of Wounded Lions

Rogoff: Beware of Wounded Lions

Courtesy of Mark Thoma, Economist’s View

Kenneth Rogoff says the rest of the world should not ignore the recent threats of protectionist measures coming from the US:

Beware of Wounded Lions, by Kenneth Rogoff, Commentary, Project Syndicate:  G-20 leaders who scoff at the United States’ proposal for numerical trade-balance limits should know that they are playing with fire. … 

According to a recent … report…, fully 25% of the rise in unemployment since 2007, totaling 30 million people worldwide, has occurred in the US. If this situation persists, as I have long warned it might, it will lay the foundations for huge global trade frictions. The voter anger expressed in the US mid-term elections could prove to be only the tip of the iceberg…, the ground for populist economics is becoming more fertile by the day. …

True, today’s trade imbalances are partly a manifestation of broader long-term economic trends, such as Germany’s aging population, China’s weak social safety net, and legitimate concerns in the Middle East over eventual loss of oil revenues. And, to be sure, it would very difficult for countries to cap their trade surpluses in practice: there are simply too many macroeconomic and measurement uncertainties.

Moreover, it is hard to see how anyone – even the IMF, as the US proposal envisions – could enforce caps on trade surpluses. The Fund has little leverage over the big countries that are at the heart of the problem.

Still,… world leaders … must recognize the pain that the US is suffering in the name of free trade. Somehow, they must find ways to help the US expand its exports. Fortunately, emerging markets have a great deal of scope for action.

India, Brazil, and China, for example, continue to exploit World Trade Organization rules that allow long phase-in periods for fully opening up their domestic markets to developed-country imports… A determined effort by emerging-market countries that have external surpluses to expand imports from the US (and Europe) would do far more to address the global trade imbalances … than changes to their exchange rates or fiscal policies. …

American hegemony over the global economy is perhaps in its final decades. China, India, Brazil, and other emerging markets are in ascendancy. Will the transition will go smoothly and lead to a global economy that is both fairer and more prosperous?

However much we may hope so, the current rut in which the US finds itself could prove to be a problem for the rest of the world. Unemployment in the US is high, while fiscal and monetary policies have been stretched to their limits. Exports are the best way out, but the US needs help. Otherwise, simmering trade frictions could suddenly throw globalization sharply into reverse. It wouldn’t be the first time.


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