The great financial bubble of the Clinton-Bush years has ended in tears–in home foreclosures, bank failures and what promises to be the most severe global economic recession since the Great Depression. As President-elect Obama puts together his economic recovery program, he needs to understand that the economic crisis is the result not just of unscrupulous mortgage lenders and unregulated investment bankers on Wall Street but of the globalization of finance and trade that key members of his economic team set in motion when they were in the Clinton administration. The uncomfortable truth is that the current system of global commerce and transnational finance is inherently prone to crisis and is incompatible with Obama’s goal of rebuilding the American middle class. Any sustainable recovery on the domestic front, therefore, will depend on his success in getting other countries to agree to fundamental changes in that global system.
Globalization is not necessarily bad if properly regulated among similar economies. But the globalization of the Clinton-Bush era not only lacked safeguards for labor but rested on two mutually reinforcing, flawed models of growth: debt-financed consumption in the United States and other Anglo-Saxon economies and oversaving and underconsumption in the production-oriented export economies of Asia. Not surprisingly, the global integration of these radically different economies produced an unhealthy pattern of growth characterized by asset bubbles and large global trade imbalances, with the United States running large deficits and China and Japan running large surpluses.
The root cause of this unbalanced world economy was the enormous pool of excess savings generated by China, Japan and, more recently, the petrodollar states of the Persian Gulf. This global savings glut, as Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke called it, helped fuel a succession of asset bubbles in the United States, culminating in the expansion of easy credit and the rapid run-up of housing prices following the collapse of the tech-stock bubble. The housing and credit bubble in turn helped inflate consumption by enabling households to take on more debt; household debt as a percentage of disposable income rose from 90 percent in the late 1990s to 133 percent in 2007.
This pattern of economic growth had other worrying features. Corporate profits soared as companies in the developed world took advantage of China’s low wages, lax environmental standards and undervalued currency to locate production there. But wages and family income in the United States stagnated under this and other low-wage competition (as well as from the declining power of organized labor). As a result, income and wealth inequality increased in the United States and China. The US tradable-goods sector also took a hit as Japan, China and other Asian economies manipulated their currencies to maintain competitive advantage. Over the past seven years the United States lost nearly 4 million manufacturing jobs. During this same period, large chunks of industrial capacity were transferred from more energy-efficient developed countries to energy-inefficient developing countries like China, which compensated for its energy inefficiency with lower wages. This relocation of production helped spur increased demand for oil and gas, setting off an energy price spiral, which was exacerbated by bubblelike speculation in these commodities. Higher oil prices resulted in the transfer of huge amounts of wealth from middle- and working-class people in the United States and other oil-importing countries to oil producers in the Gulf and elsewhere.
This pattern of economic growth was not sustainable because it caused a huge shortfall in global demand, which had to be filled by America’s debt-financed consumption–the US current-account (all the goods and services imported balanced against those exported) deficit increased from 1.7 percent of GDP in 1997 to 6.5 percent a decade later. Economic growth came to a crashing halt when US households reached the point where they could no longer take on more debt. The bursting of the housing and credit bubble set off a deleveraging process that has spread across the world economy. In fact, few countries have been immune to falling asset prices and frozen credit markets, or to rapidly falling demand for their goods and services.