Whatever reputation the French have had for being master logicians has just been shredded by International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine LaGarde. Her take on emerging markets’ emerging role in the world economy is completely incoherent, and its fatal flaws have big implications for President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and U.S. trade policy as a whole.
For decades, Washington has told Americans that the U.S. economy urgently needs new trade deals mainly because without them, the nation and its workers would be shut out of all the huge, rapidly expanding third world economies that would surely be the globe’s most powerful growth engine for the indefinite future. Moreover, both Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses have followed through, as new U.S. trade deals since Mexico’s addition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have focused tightly on developing countries.
Mr. Obama and other TPP supporters have used the same justification for the Pacific Rim trade agreement, repeating over and over again the mantra that “more than 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders….” Obviously, they haven’t been thinking mainly of developed markets like Europe and Japan.
On the level of both individuals and national economies, these claims have always been bogus. As I’ve shown, according to major international organizations like the World Bank and the International Labor Organization, the vast majority of third world populations still earn far too little to buy goods made in wealthier countries like the United States on anything close to a regular basis. Moreover, as my book The Race to the Bottom documented exhaustively, most major developing countries – ranging from Mexico to China and its low-income Asian neighbors – have achieved most of their growth by selling to America and the high-income world. Even the commodity producers that have profited by supplying China have remained dependent on U.S. and other developed markets indirectly, since they have been such important final customers for China’s output.
In a Tuesday speech in Paris, LaGarde echoed recent observations that developing countries are in the process of turning into global growth laggards from global growth leaders. As made clear above, their claim to that former status was dubious at best, but LaGarde’s outlook was also noteworthy for its profound pessimism. She not only warned that emerging economies that borrowed heavily in dollars were vulnerable to monetary tightening moves from the Federal Reserve. She also declared that “emerging and developing countries are now confronted with a new reality. Growth rates are down, and cyclical and structural forces have undermined the traditional growth paradigm.”
Indeed, LaGarde pointed to IMF research projecting that “the emerging world will converge to advanced economy income levels at less than two-thirds the pace we had predicted just a decade ago. This is cause for concern.” (What she failed to mention is that this convergence could also result in part from incomes in the developed world sinking closer to third world standards, as the Stolper-Samuelson theory of international trade’s impact first stipulated.) For good measure, LaGarde reminded her audience that “Clearly, emerging markets are benefiting from the fact that many central banks in many advanced economies still have a very easy policy stance.” In other words, historically easy credit in the wealthier countries had kept third world exports and growth much greater than they would have been otherwise.
Yet even though she made the case that emerging market economies’ prospects were deteriorating and had relied critically on the developed countries even after the financial crisis, LaGarde also mysteriously contended that the emerging world “contributed more than 80 percent of global growth since” the global economy seemed on the verge of collapse and that, consequently, “The economic health of the emerging world is of first-order importance for the advanced economies.”
And in the strangest statement of all, she proceeded to insist that the wealthy countries now need to deal with this situation by propping up emerging market performance with “a stronger global financial safety net” for these economies that expands their access to the swap lines of the richer countries’ central banks.
A respectable case can be made that emerging markets have always been the keys to future global growth. Equally respectable cases can be made for the propositions that they have been the main global growth drivers since the financial crisis; that they have never been the keys to global growth; that they will remain central to the wealthier countries’ well-being; that they are headed to a much gloomier “new normal;” and that they need new aid from the developed countries to avoid major future woes. But no case can be made for all these contentions at the same time – unless reason and logic are abandoned entirely.
Moreover, since the claim behind which LaGarde is putting her money is the one that’s downgrading the third world’s economic importance substantially, and the one conforming with past and future realities, it should be clear that the term “emerging markets” is likeliest to be an oxymoron going forward. As a result, although the United States and other wealthier countries could legitimately decide to lend them a hand for moral and humanitarian reasons, the argument from self-interest is looking ever more far-fetched. And tying America’s fortunes even more tightly to global economic losers via new trade deals like the TPP? That looks downright masochistic.