Second, production costs between countries are converging, in part due to all of the globalization that has already happened. Demonstrating this, U.S. wages have managed only limited growth in recent decades at the same time that Chinese wages have surged. The result is greater competitive parity: the savings from producing something in China and selling it to the U.S. have shrunk. A more homogenous world simply doesn’t need to trade as much.
Third, prior trade tailwinds have faded. All of the grand trade achievements of the past several decades – NAFTA, the EU, the opening of ex-Soviet bloc countries and China – have now been mostly absorbed into the global economy. Few major countries remain outside the global economic system, waiting to jolt the world forward with their entry. In turn, there is no reason for trade growth to continue substantially outpacing economic growth. To be sure, there are still a smattering of new free trade agreements being struck, but they are fewer in number, and by definition smaller in achievement given that tariff rates had already been whittled down by prior efforts (Exhibit 3).
Fourth, and finally, there are new trade headwinds now blowing from the spate of populist governments recently installed around the world.
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The magnanimous ideal of giving up antiquated industries in service to building a global economy which could lift millions of people out of poverty is something the whole world got behind.