WTO virtuous circle a bitter irony for Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2006, 12:00am

Over recent years, events at Davos seem to have settled into a pattern. Inside its heated halls, a few thousand chief executives, policy wonks and other professional gladhanders congratulated each other over globalisation's virtuous economic circle: that the development of markets in the world's poorer economies would bring big gains for rich countries, too.

Meanwhile, outside, a similar number of aggrieved activists shivered in the snow and shouted angrily about the destructive impact of globalisation on local jobs and communities around the world.

This year, however, the pattern shifted. For one thing, there were fewer protesters outside. Some, at least, had headed for the warmer climate of Caracas to vent their complaints amid the more congenial atmosphere at the competing World Social Forum.

Perhaps, more significantly though this year, there were doubts voiced inside the halls about the ability of globalisation to deliver the greater wealth for most that its main proponents have long promised.

Despite spectacular localised gains, notably in China, the world's economy is failing to generate enough jobs. According to the International Labour Organisation, in numerical terms, unemployment is at its highest ever, with 192 million unemployed worldwide, about 6 per cent of the global workforce.

Most of the increase in unemployment has been concentrated in Latin America and Central Europe, but labour market weakness is also scaring pundits from the world's wealthiest countries.

'One of the 'wins' in the win-win of globalisation has failed to materialise,' complained Morgan Stanley chief economist Stephen Roach in a note to clients from Davos. According to Mr Roach, American workers' pay is not rising in line with their productivity as the increase of manufacturing in China and service industries in India keep the lid on wages. At Davos this year, 'the impact of the global labour arbitrage hit home as never before', he wrote.

To businesses in Hong Kong, these fears might seem distant. Here, the unemployment rate has declined steadily from its mid-2003 peak at 8.5 per cent of the workforce to just 5.3 per cent in the last quarter of last year, its lowest in more than four years. Economists at Lehman Brothers expect the rate to fall below 5 per cent in the course of this year, pushing wages higher.

Yet the threat is real and growing. Juan Somavia, director general of the labour organisation, warned at Davos that the failure of rich and poor countries to create decent numbers of rewarding jobs could have damaging consequences.

Mr Somavia said the pending global jobs crisis could weaken the momentum of reasonable economic reforms, strengthen protectionism and boost the credibility of populist politicians advocating authoritarian or xenophobic policies.

For Hong Kong, with its heavily free trade-dependent economy, any spread of these tendencies in the rest of the world could spell big trouble. Increasing protectionist sentiment, especially in the United States and Europe, would threaten to slow global trade. That would hurt Hong Kong's supply chain businesses twice over, reducing imports of intermediate goods destined for processing on the mainland, as well as hitting China's exports to the rest of the world.

In turn, the slowdown would affect a swathe of related industries, including financial, legal and media services. As policymakers attempted to safeguard jobs elsewhere, unemployment here would rise.

All of which would be a bitter irony, as Hong Kong's economy, which lost almost all its manufacturing industries to southern China in the 1980s and early 1990s, is living proof that globalisation's virtuous circle can indeed generate wealth for most of the population.