TIME Economy

Globalization in Reverse

What the world’s trade slowdown means for growth in the U.S.—and abroad

Recent conflicts everywhere from Ukraine to the Middle East and the South China Sea remind us (as Robert D. Kaplan wrote in TIME’s March 31 cover story) that geography still matters, even in a globalized age. Politically, the world is certainly not flat. New economic figures show how increasingly rocky our world is becoming economically too. Globalization is often defined as the free movement of goods, people and money across borders. Lately, all of those have come under threat–and not just because of sanctions limiting travel and the flow of money among Russia, the U.S. and Europe. Over the past two years, global trade growth has been lower than global GDP growth. It’s the first time that has happened since World War II, and it marks a turning point in the global economy, with sweeping implications for countries, companies and consumers.

There are many reasons global trade is growing more slowly than it has in the past. Europe is still struggling to end its debt crisis, and emerging markets are expanding more slowly than they were. But one of the biggest factors is that the American economy is going through a profound shift: the U.S. is no longer the global consumer of last resort. As HSBC’s chief economist, Stephen King, pointed out in a recent research note, during postwar recoveries past, “the U.S. economy acted as a giant sponge,” absorbing excess goods and services produced by the rest of the world. Booms would bust; markets would crash and recover. And whenever they did, you could be sure that Americans would start spending again, and eventually our trade deficit–the level by which imports exceed exports–would grow. That’s now changing. After nearly five years of recovery, the U.S. trade deficit isn’t growing but shrinking. In fact, it was down by about 12% from 2012 to 2013.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for us. Part of the reason the deficit is shrinking is that our shale-oil and gas boom means we are buying less foreign fossil fuel, and our manufacturing sector is growing. But part of it is that wages haven’t come up since the crisis, and consumer spending is still sluggish. In order for the U.S. and the world economy to keep growing, somebody has to shell out for the electronics, cars and other goods we used to buy more of.

Unfortunately, no one is doing that. Europeans, still stuck in a debt crisis, probably won’t spend again for another five years. Emerging-economy countries, in various levels of turmoil, are growing at roughly half the rate they did precrisis. The Chinese, who picked up a lot of the global-spending slack after the financial reckoning of 2008, are now in the midst of a financial crisis of their own. Japan did its bit last year, but Abenomics–the government’s plan to encourage spending, named for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe–is running out of steam. Everywhere, says Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser to insurance giant Allianz, “there is a mismatch between the will and the wallet to spend.”

With global economic integration seemingly in reverse, at least for the moment, many economists and trade experts are beginning to talk about a new era of deglobalization, during which countries turn inward. Some of the implications are worrisome. Complaints to the World Trade Organization about protectionism, intellectual-property theft and new trade barriers are rising. Trade talks themselves are no longer global but regional and local, threatening to create a destructive so-called spaghetti bowl of competing economic alliances.

Yet deglobalization isn’t necessarily all bad. As U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said at an economic summit in Washington recently, it also “means companies are looking at their extended value chains, supply chains, and deciding whether they want to move some production back to their home country.” That’s already happened in the U.S. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that 21% of all manufacturing firms in the U.S. with $1 billion or more in sales are actively reshoring, and 54% say they are considering it.

Whether or not those jobs will help boost wages is something the Federal Reserve will be watching carefully. One of the hallmarks of the past 30 years of globalization was an easy-money environment. As Fed Chair Janet Yellen indicated at her latest press conference, we are coming to the end of that era. In this new economic age, not all boats will rise equally or smoothly. Markets, which had more or less converged for the past 30 years, will start diverging along national and sectoral lines. Our economic landscape, like our political one, will become more volatile and less predictable. Get ready for a bumpy ride.

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