Skip to main content

The Fracturing of the Global Economy – An Introduction

Our new report, 'The fracturing of the global economy' is our attempt to grapple with the question of how the succession of shocks of recent years – the US-China trade war, the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine – will reshape the global economic and financial systems and provide a framework for thinking through this enormously complex issue.

The context is familiar: in the 1990s and 2000s, both policymakers and corporate leaders in major economies had a common purpose of increasing economic and financial integration. But the consensus that this would benefit all started to fray in the wake of the global financial crisis, and manifested itself in the UK’s vote for Brexit and President Trump’s trade wars. Now, concerns about supply chain vulnerabilities, energy security and, above all, growing animosity between China and the West are fanning the flames of economic nationalism. These concerns have been amplified by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Fracturing – not deglobalising

Our report explores what comes next. One important conclusion is that these strains will not simply result in a rollback of globalisation. Some global links will be severed but others will strengthen. Rather than deglobalising, we think the world economy will coalesce into two blocs centred on the US and on China – a process we’re calling “fracturing”. Whereas the period of globalisation of the 1990s and 2000s was driven by governments and companies working in unison, fracturing is being driven by governments alone. 

These developments may mark a significant shift in the global economic landscape, but they might not have a significant impact on the macroeconomic prospects of major advanced economies, all of which are allied with the US. Efforts by governments to secure supply chains for key products and commodities will affect only a small slice of global trade. At the margin, productivity growth will be lower and inflation higher, but any changes will be small and outweighed by other factors. The movement of some high-skilled workers between blocs will slow, but this is a minor part of global migration flows. The US dollar will remain the dominant global currency and the US financial system will continue to provide the financial plumbing for the world economy. 

However, the politically-driven nature of fracturing will have a significant impact on the operating environment for US and European firms in those sectors that are most exposed to restrictions on trade, such as technology and pharmaceuticals. And all firms and investors will be operating in a different environment in which geopolitical considerations play a greater role in decisions over the allocation of resources.

In contrast, the impact on productivity growth in China and some of its allies will be substantial. The wider reach of the US-led bloc, and the broader networks within in, will help it to adapt to the challenges posed by fracturing. In contrast, the China-led bloc is dominated by China itself, making adaption harder and therefore increasing the potential economic hit. This is embedded in our view that China’s growth rate will slow to 2% by the end of this decade. 

Towards a different global economy
One consequence is that even if not much appears to change for advanced economies, the shape of the world in 2050 could be very different from what many currently suppose. The share of global output accounted for by the China-led bloc has increased sharply over the past three decades, from 10% in 1990 to 25% today. But this surge will peter out over the next few years, in large part due to the productivity-sapping effects of fracturing. The China-led bloc’s weight in the global economy will not increase substantially further. (See Chart 1.)

  Chart 1: Shares of Global GDP (%, Market Exchange Rates)

Sources: Capital Economics

As long as a crisis is avoided and fracturing leads only to a partial roll-back of prior decades of integration, economies and financial markets will adapt gradually to the new environment. But there are less benign possibilities worth considering too.

One is that the US- and China-centred blocs don’t hold, and that the global economy splinters into smaller regional or national-level groups. This could entail a rise in supply chain nationalism and a broader pushback against the sharing of technology. The loss of economies of scale would result in a larger hit to productivity growth in advanced economies. And a more disruptive shake-up of supply chains could create more volatility in both output and inflation. With that said, a comprehensive splintering of the blocs is unlikely – we think, for example, that ties between the EU and the US will remain fairly strong, even if they become occasionally strained.

A bigger risk is that tensions between the two blocs escalate to confrontation, resulting in a broad severing of economic and financial ties. This would be hugely destabilising: the world’s major economies are now so closely intertwined that even in areas where governments are keen to become more self-reliant – such as semiconductors, batteries, core minerals, and energy – decoupling supply chains will be a lengthy process. An abrupt severing of economic and financial ties would cripple global industry, causing shortages and rampant price rises.

Read the complete report and register for online events at this dedicated page.