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The maverick presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders just got a major boost from an unexpected source: General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

Throughout this political year, the presumptive Republican nominee and the Democratic challenger have drawn scorn from the nation’s intertwined political class and business establishment for promising voters that their administrations will bring back to America significant numbers of manufacturing jobs that have been lost to foreign competition. But in a speech last Friday, Immelt (unwittingly, to be sure) made clear both that their ambitions are eminently realistic, and that his own giant company plans to adjust its production and employment policies in response to just these “protectionist,” “populist” pressures – which he noted are appearing all over the world.

Immelt’s apparent tone and much of his phrasing indicates that he intended his remarks – to the graduating class at New York University’s business school – as a ringing defense of GE’s contributions to both the U.S. and world economies so far; as a grim warning that shortsighted, misguided fears about the costs of trade liberalization and global integration were about to endanger the much greater good done by these developments; and as a defiant declaration that his company was positioned to thrive come what may from the world’s cowardly politicians.

Let’s leave aside for now his claims about the net effects of GE’s operations and about today’s version of globalization – although once more he provided a specific number for GE’s annual exports without revealing how much the company imports into the U.S. market. What was actually most remarkable about Immelt’s speech was how strikingly it contrasted with the picture of U.S. multinational companies that’s emerged and prevailed especially since the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) more than 20 years ago ushered in the current era of American trade policy.

As Americans and their leaders have constantly heard throughout this period, corporations – especially gigantic ones like GE – had become completely liberated from specific locations and their political authorities. Thanks to dramatic breakthroughs in transportation and communications, these firms could establish any kind of operation anywhere in the world that created a favorable business climate. And if any retrograde national governments tried to interfere, executives could flip them the bird, pick up stakes, and condemn their unfortunate citizens populations to isolation and impoverishment.

The resulting policy conclusion that the multinationals and their mouthpieces in politics and the media obviously have tried to reinforce is that the form of globalization that was emerging is inevitable – a product of progress itself – and that nothing would be more foolish and futile than for the public sector to get in the private sector’s way.

My book on globalization exposed these claims as nonsensical. My research – conducted back in the late-1990s – showed that even the leaders of smallish countries, notably in prospering East Asia, routinely established conditions on in-bound foreign investment from the multinationals as a matter of course. And when faced with requirements to share technology with local partners or use certain levels of domestic content or export specific percentages of their output, the companies routinely complied. And as has just been reported today, these practices are still standard operating procedure the world over.  

The only important economic power that has failed to use its leverage has been the United States, which is why its approach to globalization was forcing its citizens into a “race to the bottom.”

So it’s crucial to understand that what Immelt was telegraphing to his Friday audience was not only that the American political system seemed likely to present the multinationals with comparable requirements, but that GE, for one, had no choice to comply. In his words:

[T]he globalization I grew up with – based on trade and global integration – is changing.

As a business leader, it is difficult to decide when to defend the old way (what you were taught) or when to change based on what you see.

With globalization, it is time for a bold pivot….In the face of a protectionist global environment, companies must navigate the world on their own.

We must level the playing field, without government engagement. This requires dramatic transformation. Going forward:

We will localize. In the future, sustainable growth will require a local capability inside a global footprint. GE has 420 factories around the world giving us tremendous flexibility. We used to have one site to make locomotives; now we have multiple global sites that give us market access. A localization strategy can’t be shut down by protectionist politics. …

We will produce for the U.S. in the U.S., but our exports may decline. At the same time, we will localize production in big end-use markets like Saudi Arabia. And countries with effective export banks, like Canada, will be more attractive for investment. ”

And if GE perceives no choice but to reply “How high?” when governments say “Jump!” it’s likely that similar firms will respond similarly to more demanding American trade policies.

With his suggestion of fewer GE exports, Immelt clearly hopes to convey the idea that although GE may weather this policy storm just fine, Americans as a whole won’t – and that therefore the populist candidates’ promises about returning jobs and achieving other economic gains will backfire big time if they’re kept.

But iron global economic realities have always meant that the main beneficiary of less globalized, more localized production patterns will be the United States. For how many other economies have the scale to support the manufacture of hi value industrial products – like those in which GE specializes – without needing major access to export markets? Obviously, the answer is “Not many.”  The number of economies with the scale to support such production without exporting to the United States is even smaller.

That’s why Immelt’s vow to “localize production in big end-use markets like Saudi Arabia” is so manifestly un-serious. Saudi Arabia isn’t nearly big enough for GE to profit by producing, say, jet engines or turbines for power plants in the kingdom solely for the kingdom. Canada, which his speech also mentioned as an attractive future location for investment, doesn’t qualify, either – despite its “effective” export financing bank. After all, as Immelt has explained, in a world of increasingly localized production, export possibilities by definition shrink substantially.

As for India and China, also touted as ever more important centers of future GE output, the still super-low incomes of their populations will prevent companies like GE from enjoying the kinds of pricing power and margins that remain essential for justifying servicing only those national markets with domestic factories.  To be sure, individual companies might figure out the necessary formula. But even after several decades of record-setting growth, China still needs to export desperately – which explains why such success won’t be possible for most firms.

So whenever you hear or read some self-appointed expert insist that job reshoring promises are simply cynical political pandering exercises, keep in mind that not only do Trump and Sanders disagree. So does one of America’s biggest industrialists.

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