Dr. Alan Bollard serves as the Executive Director of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which promotes regional trade, economic growth, and sustainability. As Executive Director, Dr. Bollard presides over economic programs that are mandated by APEC’s leaders and ministers. Before his work with APEC, Dr. Bollard served as Secretary to the New Zealand Treasury from 1998 to 2002 and then Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand from 2002 to 2012. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Auckland.
The Politic: Can you describe the function of APEC and how it has developed over the years?
Alan Bollard: APEC is an organization that is promoting regional economic integration around the Asia Pacific region. It has 21 member economies, over almost the entire Pacific coastline. This includes big economies like the U.S., Japan, Russia, China, and a lot of smaller ones. Altogether, APEC’s member economies make up half the world’s GDP, and it is the largest organization of its sort in the world.
APEC came about around the end of the Cold War. It was the vision of a number of ministers around the Pacific Rim who realized that, if we could open up the barriers to trade and investment between economies, there was potential for very strong international economic growth.
Can you describe what you think are the benefits of international free trade and, more generally, the benefits of globalization?
Globalization has changed, but in its earlier form, it was principally about opening up the possibilities of economic specialization, economies of scale, and economies of scope. It used the theories of comparative advantage that had been well-established in economics for the last two hundred years, saying it is most efficient if production takes place in countries that have a comparative advantage. Typically, that used to mean that from WWII onwards, a lot of sophisticated production would happen in sophisticated economies like the United States. Whereas, some of the East Asian economies would provide a place for cheaper, lower-skilled assembly.
Over time, this has changed considerably and quite quickly around the Asia-Pacific. Trade has become very integrated, there has been a big growth in value chains. Highly integrated trade and supply chains have brought a lot of benefits to consumers. When we look at who is actually producing, we do see a switch where more developed Western economies have moved quickly out of manufacturing into services. The developing countries have taken over manufacturing.
This has had a distinct effect on the Asia-Pacific region. In APEC countries, at least half a billion people have come out of poverty and into middle-income in the last quarter of a century. Once they are in middle-income, these countries can generate their own growth and grow in more sophisticated ways. For example, these countries no longer have to simply rely on North American consumption or Chinese consumption.
We are very clear that a growth of trade has led to an improvement in living standards, broadly. When you look at how those benefits have been distributed within countries, it does become more complicated. Some groups have gained, and some groups have lost. That’s really where domestic social policies should come into play because they should be identifying the losing groups and helping them re-skill.
Responses to free trade differ throughout the world. Free trade has recently come under fierce scrutiny and criticism from people of all political orientations in the Western world. People have argued that trade has helped to demolish manufacturing in the West and enrich so-called elites at the expense of everyday workers. Do you think this criticism is justified and that there are real drawbacks to trade?
Sometimes people make this criticism about trade, and other times they make this criticism about globalization. Often times, there is an amalgam of things that they are reacting to, that are different from trade. These include migration, the growth of environmental problems, growth in foreign investment, an increase in automation, and a growth in trade. Some of these things are interrelated, but quite often we’re finding that complaints about globalization are not about free trade but about automation.
As to the popular concerns about this, some of it is simply harking back to the past that never existed. There seems to be a view in some European countries and, which certainly came up in the U.S. election, that these countries had a huge, solid manufacturing background and that they have lost that. We have to remember that, in the United States, less than ten percent of jobs are in manufacturing.
Even after World War II, less than third of jobs were in manufacturing. Where do people work? In services. But you would never believe that from the media teaching. Generally speaking, these manufacturing sectors are not nearly as important as most people seem to think. The Financial Times has a term for this, called “factory fetish.” Politicians love factories, but actually, most of them long ago departed the developed world. Jobs in the services sector have taken their place.
Why do you think there is so much of a fixation on manufacturing? Why do politicians consistently have this “factory fetish?”
Some of it is history. The United States’ major contribution to early economics was mass production—Ford factories and onwards. Right through to WWII these were very important.
But really after WWII, Japan took leadership of mass production and it moved around the world.
Factories are also physical things that you can locate and look at. They are very concentrated in terms of employment. That means if you have a factory closure, that event is highly visible. From a communications point of view, it is much easier to communicate about factories. Generally, the story about factories has been about closures rather than openings. Politically, factories are much more attractive from a labor and union point of view. Beyond that, I think some of it is illusionary.
Moving away from the Western world, how would you describe the current state of trade in the Asia-Pacific region? How are attitudes towards trade and globalization within the region?
There was a very positive view of trade and investment because the benefits were very visible right up until the global financial crisis. As a very rough formula for the previous twenty years, we broadly had eight percent average annual trade growth, leading to roughly four percent average annual economic growth, leading to roughly two percent annual GDP per capita growth. This meant people were almost twice as rich as their parents’ generation, which is very strong delivery for the region.
Now, in that period since the global financial crisis, trade slowed down very considerably. This didn’t happen all at once, because China was going through a commodities boom. But then we saw a slowing in trade, a slowing in growth, and a slowing in productivity growth.
Would you say that the positive attitudes towards trade are reflective of the general population in Asia-Pacific? Or do we hear these positive reviews mostly from higher-up and elite members of these nations?
It depends very much where you’re talking about. I’m in Singapore—Singapore is a trading hub and everyone knows that trade is very important. In a large economy like the United States, many people can feel insulated from these regional trade trends. In the Asia-Pacific region, generally there is a feeling that we can see the benefits of what trade has brought. But we do understand that things are changing, and that we have to communicate better to the wider population.
Also, there is a reasonable argument that, in the past, we’ve been convinced that trade and globalization are benefiting countries but we haven’t worried too much about the distribution of benefits within a country. But, there is the argument that with higher levels of globalization, we do need social policies that will stand alongside that. That includes labor market policies, health policies, social protection policies, and above all, skill and reskilling opportunities. What we think most directly impacts jobs is much more automation.
How important has automation been in displacing manufacturing jobs? How will automation continue to shape the future of work?
We can’t be absolutely definitive about these questions because we haven’t been that good about forecasting technological change and its impacts on the economy. Most economic studies find that when you look directly for determinants of job loss, you find that two-thirds might be due to automation. So clearly, automation is having a big impact. It has had a large impact on manufacturing jobs. But the way that automation is going now, it’s actually impacting services much more and that’s where we should be looking to in the future. In the past, automation used to be applied to things that involved heavy lifting and mechanical repetition. But now, it’s being applied to things that involve intelligence and learning and different systems.
What is the future of trade and globalization, given the advent of the Trump administration and protectionist sentiment throughout the Western world?
Quite apart from the growth of protectionist thinking, it did look like we might have seen the growth in regional supply chains in the Asia-Pacific slowing down. Now, I’m not saying that the regional supply chains were slowing down, but that the growth of regional supply chains was slowing down. It looked like they had exploited a lot of the advantages of the economies of specialization. In addition, there has been one other very big economic development in the ten years since the global financial crisis, and that’s the energy revolution.
The other big development will be the development of services trade. Services trade is not that developed in the Asia-Pacific region, but it is starting to be. That happens not only from moving goods across the region in ships, but also from moving data across the region on the Internet. It depends much more on things like telecommunications, roaming data charges, digital movements, cybersecurity, and those sorts of things. Already, data movements have increased fifty times over the past decade, according to McKinsey.
It was reported that there was an APEC trade ministers’ meeting in late May, the first since the election of Trump. If you are able, can you describe the discussions during this meeting? How do other members of APEC feel about the Trump presidency?
Yes, we were doing a couple of things there. We were all pretty interested to hear from the new United States trade minister Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. He had only just been appointed a few days previous to that meeting. We wanted to hear a lot more detail about the new U.S. administration, what it proposes on the trade and globalization side. But we need to hear a lot more detail about what that means, what their concerns are. We did hear some of that from the U.S. Trade Representative. He talked about trade deficits, possible bilateral developments, and a number of multilateral areas.
We’re looking for what we think is best practice around the region. APEC is quite a good organization, both for the U.S. and other member economies, because it is voluntary. It is not like a WTO, or a TPP, or a RCEP, which are legally binding. We are not. We are just a test kitchen. We try things out, we incubate new ideas. So, we’re a place where it’s quite easy to try things out, and if you don’t like them, then you don’t have to be part of them.
Certainly, the U.S. wants to see services trade continue and grow. They’re very focused on digital economy and that kind of commerce. But also, to be realistic, they made it clear that they will be focusing on NAFTA renegotiation. And we’ll watch how that goes.
I know the annual APEC Leader’s Summit will be held in November, and Vice President Pence has indicated that Trump will be attending. What are your expectations for that meeting, and what do you expect Trump to say?
It will be quite a big and important event. We expect to get all the leaders of twenty-one economies and that includes the very big economies. Many of them will have met in other fora by then, and particularly at the G20 Leaders Meeting in Hamburg, Germany. What they do in APEC meetings is that they review all the work I nominated and give directions for the year ahead. What we do is follow the directions of 21 economy leaders. I imagine they’ll be looking at how we communicate the benefits and costs of globalization in all of this. It’s helpful that it’s a few months away, because I think we’ll have more clarity in quite a few of the details.
What advice would you give to college students who want to learn more about international trade and the global economy?
Well, students are very lucky today. They’ve got massive opportunities compared to what used to be the case. They’re operating in an international world. Just within APEC, we have something like one million student movements, cross-border movements going on. I think there are great opportunities available, and my advice is to take advantage of them. There are great opportunities for being and remaining mobile in the world. There are many chances to help preserve many of the hard-won benefits of internationalization because, until the 1980s, it simply wasn’t like that. You simply couldn’t study and work across borders in the way that you can today.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.