The spread of COVID-19 has brought much commentary about the impending end of globalization. While the virus has indisputably disrupted the world economy, I think that many of the claims about its impact on international trade are overblown. Globalization is far from dead. Rather, it is changing in ways that were already apparent well before COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan last December.
When people talk about globalization, they often have something specific in mind — the long value chains that have reshaped the manufacturing sector since the late 1980s. These chains emerged after the development of container shipping, falling communications costs, and more powerful computers made it practical to divide a complex production process among widely dispersed locations, performing each task wherever it is most cost-effective to do so.
Value chains underlay the torrid growth of international trade in the final years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. During those years, trade grew two or even three times as fast as the world economy, mainly because of increased shipments of what economists call “intermediate goods,” items made in one place that are being sent elsewhere for further processing. I refer to this period as the Third Globalization, because it was distinctly different from other periods — the decades before World War One, the years between 1948 and the mid-1980s — when international trade and investment grew rapidly, but international value chains were uncommon.
Many companies decided where to locate various parts of their value chains based on production and transportation costs. But over time, complicated long-distance value chains often proved to be less profitable than they had imagined. As freight transportation became slower and less reliable, and as earthquakes and labor disputes resulted in goods not arriving on time, executives and their shareholders became more attuned to the vulnerabilities. Minimizing production costs ceased to be the sole priority.
Companies have taken a variety of measures to reduce risks in their value chains. They are keeping larger inventories in their warehouses, producing critical components at multiple locations rather than in a single large plant, and dividing exports among several ship lines and sending them through different ports. All of these measures help limit losses when value chains malfunction. But all of them make international sourcing more expensive.
For most of the past decade, international trade has grown more slowly than the world economy, reversing the trend of the previous sixty years. Greater care when it comes to arranging value chains is one reason why. COVID-19 offers further reason to be careful. But it is not likely to cause manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers to give up on globalization. The alternative, relying on a purely domestic value chain that can be interrupted by a flood or a fire, might create risks rather than contain them.