Trading Places

Trading Places

Mini Teaser: America has long been the world's number one economy. It won't be soon.

by Author(s): Peter F. Drucker

The new world economy is fundamentally different from that of the fifty years following World War II. The United States may well remain the political and military leader for decades to come. It is likely also to remain the world's richest and most productive national economy for a long time (though the European Union as a whole is both larger and more productive). But the U.S. economy is no longer the single dominant economy.

The emerging world economy is a pluralist one, with a substantial number of economic "blocs." Eventually there may be six or seven blocs, of which the U.S.-dominated NAFTA is likely to be only one, coexisting and competing with the European Union (EU), MERCOSUR in Latin America, ASEAN in the Far East, and nation-states that are blocs by themselves, China and India. These blocs are neither "free trade" nor "protectionist", but both at the same time.

Even more novel is that what is emerging is not one but four world economies: a world economy of information; of money; of multinationals (one no longer dominated by American enterprises); and a mercantilist world economy of goods, services and trade. These world economies overlap and interact with one another. But each is distinct with different members, a different scope, different values and different institutions. Let us examine each in turn.

The World Economy of Information

Information as a concept and a distinct category is an invention of the 18th century--of the newspaper in England and the encyclopedia in France. Within a century, information became global with the development of the modern postal system in the 1830s, followed almost immediately by the electric telegraph and the first computer language, the Morse Code. But unlike the newspaper and the encyclopedia, neither the postal service nor the telegraph made information public. On the contrary, they made it "privileged communication." "Public information" by contrast--newspapers, radio, television--ran one way only, from the publisher to the recipient. The editor rather than the reader decided what was "fit to print."

The Internet, in sharp contrast, makes information both universal and multi-directional rather than keeping it private or one-way. Everyone with a telephone and a personal computer has direct access to every other human being with a phone and a PC. It gives everyone practically limitless access to information. And it gives everyone the ability to create information at minimal cost, that is, to create his own website and become a "publisher."

In the long run, the most important implication is probably the impact of information on mentality and awareness. It creates new affinities and new communities. The woman student in Shanghai who taps into the Internet remains Chinese, but she sees herself at the same time as a member of a worldwide, non-national "information society."

Businesses and professional groups such as lawyers and doctors have, of course, had access all along to worldwide information in their own field. But the Internet gives such access to the ultimate customer. In the United States at least (but apparently also in Japan and Europe), the ultimate customer now gets his information about plane schedules and airfares from the Internet rather than from a traditional travel agent. And while a good many book buyers in the United States still pick up and pay for the book of their choice at a bookstore in their neighborhood, an increasing number of them decide what books to buy by reading about them online first. An automobile still has to be serviced by a local dealer. But increasingly, buyers first study both their choice for the new car and their options for trading in their old car online before visiting a dealer.

What is already discernible is that, like all new distribution channels, this new information economy will change not only how customers buy, but what they buy. It will change customers' values and expectations, and with them how to promote goods and services, how to market and sell them, and how to service them online. In other words, Internet customers are becoming a new and distinct market. In the early years of the 21st century, power is shifting to the ultimate consumer.

There is no distance in this world economy. Everything is "local." The potential customers searching for a product do not know--and do not care--where the products come from. This does not eliminate or even curtail protectionism. But it changes it. Tariffs can still determine where a product or service has to be bought. But they are increasingly unable to protect the domestic producers' price.

One example: To get the industrial Midwest with its 140,000 steel workers to vote Republican in congressional elections, President Bush slapped a prohibitive tariff on imports of steel from Europe and Japan in 2001. He got what he wanted: a (bare) Republican majority in the Congress. But while the large steel users (such as automobile makers, railroads and building contractors) were forced by the tariff to buy domestic, they immediately set about cutting their use of steel so as not to spend more on it than they would have had to spend had they been able to buy the imports. Bush's tariff action thus only accelerated the long-term decline of the traditional midwestern steel producers and the jobs they generate. Tariffs, in other words, can still force users to buy domestic, but they are no longer capable of protecting the domestic producers' prices. Those are set through information and on the world-market level.

This development underlies the steady shift in protectionism: from tariffs--the traditional way--to protection through rules, regulations and especially export subsidies. World trade has grown spectacularly in the last fifty years. The largest growth has been in subsidized farm exports from the developed world: western and central Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. Farm subsidies are now the only net income of French farmers, as their crops produce nothing but net losses and are grown only as the entitlement for the subsidies. These subsidies are in fact a major--perhaps the major--cement of the Franco-German alliance, and with it, of the European Union.

The international organization designed to set world economic policy is the World Trade Organization (WTO). But its meetings and agreements deal less and less with trade and tariffs, and instead with rules, regulations and subsidies. The discipline of international economics still, in large measure, concerns itself with international trade--that is, with the flow of money, goods and services. But the essence of the new world economy is that it is, above all, an economy of information and truly a global economy.

The Global Oligopoly of Money

The next major economic crisis will most probably be a crisis of the U.S. dollar in the world economy. It will put to a severe test the oligopoly of the central banks of the developed countries that now rules over the world financial economy.

Sixty years ago, in the Bretton Woods meetings of 1944, which tried to refashion a world economy that had been devastated by depression and war, John Maynard Keynes, the 20th century's greatest economist, proposed a supra-national central bank. It was vetoed by the United States. The two institutions that Bretton Woods established instead, the Bank for International Development (World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are, despite their impressive names, auxiliary rather than central--the former mainly financing development projects, the latter providing financial first aid to governments in distress.

The Bretton Woods system was never the stable, "non-political" system Keynes wanted. It could not and did not prevent currencies from being overvalued or undervalued. Still, although it limped from one crisis to the next, the Bretton Woods system worked for most of the half-century after World War II. And there was only one reason why it worked (however poorly): the commitment to it of the United States and the strength of the U.S. dollar as the world's key currency.

The dollar is still the world's key currency. But the Bretton Woods system is being killed by the U.S. government deficit, which is fast becoming the sinkhole of the world financial economy. The persistent U.S. deficit creates a persistent deficit in the U.S. balance of payments, which make both the U.S. economy and the government increasingly dependent on massive injections of short-term and panic-prone money from abroad. The U.S. savings rate is barely high enough to finance the minimum capital needs of industry. It could, in all likelihood, be raised considerably by raising interest rates. But that is not only politically almost impossible; it would also require that a larger share of incomes go into savings rather than into consumption, with an inevitable collapse of an economy based on consumer spending and low interest rates, as for instance, the U.S. housing market.

The government deficit is therefore being financed almost in its entirety by foreign investments in the United States, mostly in government securities like short-term treasury notes and medium-term bonds. The Japanese are converting most, if not all, of their trade surplus with the United States into dollar-denominated U.S. government securities and have thus become the largest U.S. creditor.

Essay Types: Essay