Globalization in transition: The future of trade and value chains

Here is a brief excerpt from a major study completed by the McKinsey Global Institute, written by  Susan Lund, James Manyika, Jonathan Woetzel, Jacques Bughin, Mekala Krishnan, Jeongmin Seong, and Mac Muir, featured inthe McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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Global value chains are being reshaped by rising demand and new industry capabilities in the developing world as well as a wave of new technologies.

Even with trade tensions and tariffs dominating the headlines, important structural changes in the nature of globalization have gone largely unnoticed. In Globalization in transition: The future of trade and value chains (PDF–3.7MB), the McKinsey Global Institute analyzes the dynamics of global value chains and finds structural shifts that have been hiding in plain sight.

Although output and trade continue to increase in absolute terms, trade intensity (that is, the share of output that is traded) is declining within almost every goods-producing value chain. Flows of services and data now play a much bigger role in tying the global economy together. Not only is trade in services growing faster than trade in goods, but services are creating value far beyond what national accounts measure. Using alternative measures, we find that services already constitute more value in global trade than goods. In addition, all global value chains are becoming more knowledge-intensive. Low-skill labor is becoming less important as factor of production. Contrary to popular perception, only about 18 percent of global goods trade is now driven by labor-cost arbitrage.

Three factors explain these changes: growing demand in China and the rest of the developing world, which enables these countries to consume more of what they produce; the growth of more comprehensive domestic supply chains in those countries, which has reduced their reliance on imports of intermediate goods; and the impact of new technologies.

Globalization is in the midst of a transformation. Yet the public debate about trade is often about recapturing the past rather than looking toward the future. The mix of countries, companies, and workers that stand to gain in the next era is changing. Understanding how the landscape is shifting will help policy makers and business leaders prepare for globalization’s next chapter and the opportunities and challenges it will present.

  1. Global value chains are undergoing five structural shifts
  2. One of the forces reshaping global value chains is a change in the geography of global demand
  3. The rise of domestic supply chains in China and other emerging economies has also decreased global trade intensity
  4. New technologies are changing costs across global value chains
  5. Given the shifts in value chains, companies need to reevaluate their strategies for operating globally

[Here is the first of the five major trends.]

Global value chains are undergoing five structural shifts

The 1990s and 2000s saw the expansion of complex value chains spanning the globe. But production networks are not immutable; they continue to evolve. We observe five major shifts in global value chains over the past decade.1

1. Goods-producing value chains have grown less trade-intensive

Trade rose rapidly within nearly all global value chains from 1995 to 2007. More recently, trade intensity (that is, the ratio of gross exports to gross output) in almost all goods-producing value chains has fallen. Trade is still growing in absolute terms, but the share of output moving across the world’s borders has fallen from 28.1 percent in 2007 to 22.5 percent in 2017. Trade volume growth has also slowed. Between 1990 and 2007, global trade volumes grew 2.1 times faster than real GDP on average, but they have grown only 1.1 times faster than GDP since 2011.2

The decline in trade intensity is especially pronounced in the most complex and highly traded value chains (Exhibit 1). However, this trend does not signal that globalization is over. Rather, it reflects the development of China and other emerging economies, which are now consuming more of what they produce.

Exhibit 1

2. Services play a growing and undervalued role in global value chains

In 2017, gross trade in services totaled $5.1 trillion, a figure dwarfed by the $17.3 trillion global goods trade. But trade in services has grown more than 60 percent faster than goods trade over the past decade (Exhibit 2). Some subsectors, including telecom and IT services, business services, and intellectual property charges, are growing two to three times faster.

Trade in services is increasing faster than trade in goods, with some types of services growing two to three times faster.

Yet the full role of services is obscured in traditional trade statistics. First, services create roughly one-third of the value that goes into traded manufactured goods. R&D, engineering, sales and marketing, finance, and human resources all enable goods to go to market. In addition, we find that imported services are substituting for domestic services in nearly all value chains. In the future, the distinction between goods and services will continue to blur as manufacturers increasingly introduce new types of leasing, subscription, and other “as a service” business models.

Second, the intangible assets that multinational companies send to their affiliates around the world—including software, branding, design, operational processes, and other intellectual property developed at headquarters—represent tremendous value, but they often go unpriced and untracked unless captured as intellectual property charges.3 Years of R&D go into developing pharmaceuticals and smartphones, for example, while design and branding enable companies such as Nike and Adidas to charge a premium for their products.

Finally, trade statistics do not track soaring cross-border flows of free digital services, including email, real-time mapping, video conferencing, and social media. Wikipedia, for instance, encompasses 40 million free articles in roughly 300 languages. Every day, users worldwide watch more than a billion hours of YouTube’s video content for free, and billions of people use Facebook and WeChat every month. These services undoubtedly create value for users, even without a monetary price.

We estimate that these three channels collectively produce up to $8.3 trillion in value annually—a figure that would increase overall trade flows by $4.0 trillion (or 20 percent) and reallocate another $4.3 trillion currently counted as part of the flow of goods to services. If viewed this way, trade in services is already more valuable than trade in goods. This perspective would substantially shift the trade balance for some countries, most notably the United States. This exercise is not meant to argue for redefining national trade statistics. It simply underscores the underappreciated role of services, which will be increasingly important for how companies and countries participate in global value chains and trade in the future.

3. Trade based on labor-cost arbitrage is declining in some value chains

As global value chains expanded in the 1990s and early 2000s, many decisions about where to locate production were based on labor costs, particularly in industries producing labor-intensive goods and services. Yet counter to popular perceptions, today only 18 percent of goods trade is based on labor-cost arbitrage (defined as exports from countries whose GDP per capita is one-fifth or less than that of the importing country).4 In other words, over 80 percent of today’s global goods trade is not from a low-wage country to a high-wage country. Considerations other than low wages factor into company decisions about where to base production, such as access to skilled labor or natural resources, proximity to consumers, and the quality of infrastructure.

Moreover, the share of trade based on labor-cost arbitrage has been declining in some value chains, especially labor-intensive goods manufacturing (where it dropped from 55 percent in 2005 to 43 percent in 2017). This mainly reflects rising wages in developing countries. In the future, however, automation and AI may amplify this trend, transforming labor-intensive manufacturing into capital-intensive manufacturing. This shift will have important implications for how low-income countries participate in global value chains.

4. Global value chains are growing more knowledge-intensive

In all value chains, capitalized spending on R&D and intangible assets such as brands, software, and intellectual property (IP) is growing as a share of revenue. Overall, it rose from 5.4 percent of revenue in 2000 to 13.1 percent in 2016. This trend is most apparent in global innovations value chains. Companies in machinery and equipment spend 36 percent of revenue on R&D and intangibles, while those in pharmaceuticals and medical devices average 80 percent (Exhibit 3). The growing emphasis on knowledge and intangibles favors countries with highly skilled labor forces, strong innovation and R&D capabilities, and robust intellectual property protections.5

All global value chains are becoming more knowledge-intensive.

In many value chains, value creation is shifting to upstream activities, such as R&D and design, and to downstream activities, such as distribution, marketing, and after-sales services. The share of value generated by the actual production of goods is declining (in part because offshoring has lowered the price of many goods). This trend is pronounced in pharmaceuticals and consumer electronics, which have seen the rise of “virtual manufacturing” companies that focus on developing goods and outsource actual production to contract manufacturers.

5. Value chains are becoming more regional and less global

Until recently, long-haul trade crisscrossing oceans was becoming more prevalent as transportation and communication costs fell and as global value chains expanded into China and other developing countries. The share of trade in goods between countries within the same region (as opposed to trade between more far-flung buyers and sellers) declined from 51 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2012.

That trend has begun to reverse in recent years. The intraregional share of global goods trade has increased by 2.7 percentage points since 2013, partially reflecting the rise of emerging-market consumption. This development is most noticeable for Asia and the EU-28 countries. Regionalization is most apparent in global innovations value chains, given their need to closely integrate many suppliers for just-in-time sequencing. This trend could accelerate in other value chains as well, as automation reduces the importance of labor costs and increases the importance of speed to market in company decisions about where to produce goods.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Susan Lund is a partner of the McKinsey Global Institute, where James Manyika is chairman and director, Jonathan Woetzel and Jacques Bughin are directors, and Mekala Krishnan and Jeongmin Seong are senior fellows. Mac Muir is a consultant based in McKinsey’s Atlanta office.


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