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How Covid-19 will end the post-war era of globalisation

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the shift towards protectionism and self-sufficiency, says Edward Chancellor.

• Hear more from Edward on the MoneyWeek Podcast here

Past cycles of globalisation have been vulnerable to sudden shocks. World War I brought the Victorian free-trade era to a shuddering halt. The 1929 crash led to beggar-thy-neighbour tariffs. The financial crisis in 2008 damaged faith in globalisation. The Covid-19 pandemic could well prove a harder blow. 

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Protectionist pressures tend to increase when growth weakens. In 2015 restrictions affected a greater share of world trade than in the 1930s, according to Global Trade Alert, and world trade volumes started to decline. Since the advent of President Donald Trump in 2017, thousands of new trade distortions have been introduced. 

The US-China tariff war accounts for less than a quarter of recent anti-trade measures, estimates Simon Evenett, professor of International Trade and Economic Development at Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen. Still, Trump’s preference for conducting policy on Twitter took a toll. Last October, the International Monetary Fund warned that jitters over trade policy were dampening global growth prospects. It was at this critical juncture that Covid-19 emerged.

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The pandemic has exposed the fragility of cross-border supply chains. Producers have used cheap dollar funding for trade credit to lengthen their supply chains, often incorporating several countries. These chains are cost-efficient but vulnerable. When Beijing tried to halt the spread of the epidemic in January, many Chinese factories were shut. 

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Apple had problems sourcing parts for its iPhones. It soon became clear that many Western firms lacked an adequate understanding of their supply chains. Global trade links suddenly appeared as complex, interconnected and vulnerable to shocks as the financial world when the subprime crisis emerged.

Sicken-thy-neighbour 

Covid-19’s threat to world trade took a more insidious turn last month. In January, Beijing stopped the export of certain medical supplies, such as face masks, including those produced by foreign manufacturers. As the virus spread across Europe, export restrictions proliferated. Since 1 January more than 50 governments have imposed exports curbs on medical supplies. Germany stopped the export of 240,000 masks to Switzerland. France prevented Valmy from fulfilling its contract with Britain’s health service to supply millions of masks. 

India, a major producer of generic medicines, imposed a range of export restrictions on medical supplies and drugs, including fever-reducer paracetamol. The European Union, which produces half the world’s ventilators, restricted their export. Beggar-thy-neighbour trade policies have become sicken-thy-neighbour, says St. Gallen’s Evenett. 

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A version of this article was first published on Breakingviews. Edward Chancellor is a financial historian, journalist and investment strategist.

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