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I’m always struck by how often in the news media or policy writing (e.g., in journals like Foreign Affairs), genuinely game-changing points are made in passing, and for folks with any interest in the trade and globalization issues raised to such prominence by President Trump. And two such instances dealing with this subject just came in the Financial Times newspaper and the website Project-Syndicate.org.

The observation they both made with mind-boggling offhandedness – economic growth in countries dubbed “emerging markets” (EMs) is slowing to rates no faster than those of the rest of the world, and thus rendering them incapable as far as the eye can see of replacing the United States as a global growth engine.

This claim matters decisively for trade policy because these EMs have dominated America’s approach in this field for more than two decades. First identified in the early 1990s, they consist of economies in the developing world that not only boasted enormous populations. But largely because communism and a heavy state role in economic policy had been so thoroughly discredited due to the end of the Cold War, they were steadily transitioning to more free market approaches, and thus were seen to have huge growth potential. China and Mexico were the leading examples, but various definitions of the main emerging markets also included India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, South Africa, and others.

According to trade enthusiasts, this combination of characteristics was going to make the EMs so important that accessing their vast current consumer markets and even greater consuming and importing potential needed to be Washington’s top trade priority. Their significance was portrayed as all the more important given America’s status as a “maturing” economy whose growth was bound to continue slowing. (Former President Bill Clinton used exactly this term while advocating for an emerging markets push in a document that’s not on-line but that’s cited in my book on globalization, The Race to the Bottom. The document was the 1995 Report of the President of the United States on the Trade Agreements Program and it was published by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative at the start of 1996.)    

Yet however impressive and promising they seemed, the idea was a crock from the beginning – at least in terms of its importance in driving American trade policy for the foreseeable future. EM cheerleading suffered two fatal flaws. First, despite rapid growth and immense growth potential, the emerging markets were starting from such low bases – especially in terms of their populations’ consuming power – that they wouldn’t become significant markets in absolute terms for many years at best. Second, precisely because they remained so poor and under-developed, their governments invariably realized that their own best growth opportunities came from exporting to much wealthier countries like the United States – where the needed consumption power already existed.

So why the EMs euphoria? As documented exhaustively in The Race to the Bottom, the multinational corporations that dominated American trade policy-making never saw the emerging markets as final consumption markets. They viewed them as super low-cost production bases from which they could supply the U.S. market much more profitably than possible from their domestic factories. Which is exactly why, starting with the pursuit of trade expansion with Mexico at the onset of the 1990s, American trade policy almost exclusively targeted the emerging markets and other very low-income countries (like Vietnam and the countries of Central America) for negotiating new trade deals.

Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown (a possible 2020 Democratic presidential contender) described the multinationals sales pitch to leading EM China somewhat too charitably when he said in 2015, “while walking the halls of Congress, [lobbyists for the multinationals] talked about they wanted access to 1 billion Chinese customers. What they didn’t say is they also wanted access to 1 billion potential Chinese workers.”

As The Race to the Bottom also made clear, EM touting was star-crossed from the start – even embarrassingly so. As it peaked, in the mid-1990s, many of these same countries started experiencing problems that led to major financial crises even before the decade ended. That is, their markets became evaporating, not emerging, and in numerous cases they kept afloat only by cheapening their currencies, limiting their own consumption and importing still further, and making them more powerful exporters than ever.

Yet the multinationals’ power and influence remained so decisive throughout America’s political (and media) establishment that emerging markets hucksterism continued to justify trade agreements with such countries. Hence the continued repetition of wholly misleading contentions like “95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States” (which I debunked here).

So that’s why I was so interested to see the following in a Financial Times blog post – and by no less than a former senior official at the International Monetary Fund and another leading international economic institution:  

EM growth has slowed to about 4.5 per cent at present….In the long run, according to the OECD, the potential growth rate of the Briics (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa — accounting for most of EM GDP) is expected to slow further, converging to mature market trend growth of 2 per cent. In other words, the growth advantage of more than 4 percentage points that EMs enjoyed over mature markets in the 2000-2010 period has narrowed to about 2 percentage points and will probably disappear in the long run.”

And guess what? Unlike in the United States, in particular, even much of this EM growth will rely on maximizing exports and minimizing imports. So their importance as markets for American-made goods and services will be even less impressive than this impeccably mainstream analyst suggests.

Equally startling: This Project-Syndicate column by Jim O’Neill. O’Neill, for the unitiated, was perhaps the highest profile EM cheerleader, and coined a popular acronym for those economies that described those he believed most promising: BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).

The former Goldman Sachs banker has remained a believer in China, and has actually added some countries to his list of economies he believes will loom much larger in this century. But in the column, he also argued that, if China falters in what he (wrongly, in my view) considers its role as a global growth engine, and the American consumer gets tapped out, none of the other emerging economies “is in a position to match the growth of Chinese consumption today, or even over the course of the next decade.” And by extension, the likelihood of these countries replacing the United States is even more infinitesimal.

Former French leader Charles de Gaulle once famously said that “Brazil is the country of the future…and always will be.” The two examples above show that the same solidly grounded skepticism is also finally seeping into the ranks of globalization cheerleaders. How long will it take before the American political, business, academic, and media establishments finally start paying attention?