The Next Global Hegemon Has To Be Even Larger Than The US

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by Tyler Durden
Wednesday, Apr 24, 2024 - 08:20 PM

By Michael Every of Rabobank

"Where it will end is very much up for grabs."

Yesterday’s manufacturing PMIs shouted “stagflation”, even if some heard “rate cuts”. German manufacturing was 42.2, French 44.9, and Eurozone 45.6, as services were 53.3, 50.5, and 52.9 - but Europe must now factor in logjams appearing at key ports due to unsold Chinese EVs and the knock-on effects of the Houthi’s blockage of Suez; the UK prints were 48.7 and 54.9; and the US both 50.9 - but its fine print said: “Manufacturing has now registered the steeper rate of price increases in three of the past four months, with factory cost pressures intensifying in April amid higher raw material and fuel prices, contrasting with the wage-related services-led price pressures seen throughout much of 2023.”

Yesterday’s bigger picture was as big as it gets. No, not the UK “putting its economy on a war footing” in raising defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030. It’s already at 2.32% despite UK armed forces being nowhere near ready for war. (Of more interest was that a tax cut might be dropped to fund this incremental spending: a ‘guns or butter’ decision we will see lots more of.)

Rather, the ECB’s Panetta gave a speech echoing Mario Draghi’s call for “radical change. He stated for the EU to thrive it needs a de facto national-security focused POLITCAL economy centered round: reducing dependence on foreign demand (i.e., fewer net exports – sorry, Germany/Netherlands!); enhancing energy security (green protectionism); advancing production of technology (industrial policy); rethinking participation in global value chains (tariffs/subsidies); governing migration flows (so higher labour costs); enhancing external security (huge funds for defence); and joint investments in European public goods (via Eurobonds… to be bought by ECB QE for a ‘strategic bond portfolio’?) Oddly, the people who spend their time transcribing every syllable of what the ECB says when it points to a slight shift in the timing of a 25bp rate move were quiet about a speech which promised to transform the entire EU economic and market architecture!

However, this is what we said Europe would do to try to achieve strategic autonomy. It’s also what I argued Western economies would do in 2016’s pre-Brexit, pre-Trump ‘Thin Ice’, which underlined that once you remove any leg of the free market ‘table’, the whole thing topples over. So, it’s now modern-day Hamiltonian economics – unless it’s “Build Back Better” all over again.

This is a global, fundamental issue. In 2025, we get either Bidenomics 2.0 or Trump 2.0: in either case we are going to see more huge fiscal deficits, protectionism, and industrial policy, but in the latter case, perhaps on steroids. At the same time, China is going to keep being mercantilist on its own steroids. Likewise, Japan and even Australia(!) are heading in that direction. Clearly, we need some understanding of what this all means beyond monthly PMI up- or down-ticks.

Narrowly, Trump 2.0 could mean a USD and US asset meltdown, or a further USD and US asset spike and an emerging market meltdown. It depends on how it’s implemented and how the world responds.

More broadly, the global system is close to massive structural change. As the Financial Times op-eds today, the US and EU can’t embrace national-security “infant industry” arguments, seize key value chains to narrow inequality, and break the fiscal and monetary ‘rules’, while also using the IMF and World Bank --and the economics profession-- to preach free-market best practice to EM ex-China. And China can’t expect others not to copy what it does. As the FT concludes, “The shift to a new economic paradigm has begun. Where it will end if very much up for grabs.”

And “up for grabs” is the key point. As far back as 1820, Hegel argued that bourgeois society was incapable of internally solving its problems of social inequality and instability arising from its tendency to over-accumulate wealth at one pole and deprivation at the other, and a "mature" civil society was thus driven to seek external solutions through foreign trade, colonial, or imperial practices. In 2024, Europe just made the point for him – but what was their alternative?

In 2020, I warned we needed a new ideological “-ism” to guide our *political* economy out of the mess it was in: Hamiltonianism is it, as predicted. However, we each want it only for ourselves, not for others. There appears no likelihood of a Global New Deal to distribute value chains and green technology so everybody gets a fair share. Yet without it, we are back to a world of all vs. all, as warned in ’Thin Ice’ – and now openly with violence. That was why we dreamed the post-WW2, post-Cold War neoliberal one-world dream: it wasn’t just so the rich could feast on the poor; it also held up a simple, illusory ideology the world could buy into to end all conflicts.

Such arguments sound silly to PMI-monomaniacs, but they matter deeply for policy. For example, in the UK there was a public St. George’s Day debate over whether it was free-market capitalism or its empire that led to the UK becoming global hegemon. Free marketeers say it was all markets, so more markets please; Hamasniks on campuses say it was all the latter, so more “decolonisation”, please. The implications are enormous.

The awkward historical fact is that it was capitalism and empire that enriched the UK. Free markets and the rule of law were essential; but so was empire – in particular India. As Arrighi (2007), notes: “India's huge demographic resources buttressed British world power both commercially and militarily. Commercially, Indian workers were forcibly transformed from major competitors of European textile industries into major producers of cheap food and raw materials for Europe. Militarily…Indian manpower was organized in a European-style colonial army, funded entirely by the Indian taxpayer, and used throughout the nineteenth century in the endless series of wars through which Britain opened up Asia and Africa to Western trade and investment. As for the financial aspect, the devaluation of the Indian currency, the imposition of the infamous Home Charges through which India was made to pay for the privilege of being pillaged and exploited by Britain, and the Bank of England's control over India's foreign-exchange reserves, jointly turned India into the "pivot" of Britain's world-financial and commercial supremacy.”

In short, free markets and forcing others not to be free has worked very well: denying that won’t help. Addressing what a global structure looks like that keeps the former but doesn’t do the latter, and which doesn’t produce inequality and destabilisation, is the issue. Or, given that may be a utopia, we at least need to predict what the all vs. all world looks like. (Which is what we did in predicting Europe would embrace the “radical” policy changes now floated even at the ECB.)

On all vs. all, the global capitalist hegemon has shifted over time to a successively larger polity/geography (Italian city states > Dutch United Provinces > England/the UK > the US) through economic or real war, with the complexity of the expanding global system requiring ever greater resources to sit at its centre. However, the US alone can no longer carry the world on its shoulders. The Triffin Paradox looms over the global role of the dollar --and any would-be successor; and the US will not be the net importer for everyone, the net provider of financial assets to all savers, nor the world policeman for all who require it. Indeed, the latter three stand in fundamental contradiction to each other.

This implies the next global hegemon has to be even larger than the US (or we fragment):

  • Maybe the US will fail at a Hamiltonian relaunch and China is the next hegemon: but that implies geopolitical chaos ahead given the US won’t go home quietly.
  • Maybe the US will succeed at Hamiltonianism, and the world/markets will shift accordingly.
  • Maybe the scale needed for US hegemony involves it ‘bolting’ on Japan, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and perhaps the UK and a ‘new look’ EU. But that implies a bifurcated world, with lots of bumps before we set up any buffers.
  • Maybe the US will prefer what Kautsky called Ultra-Imperialism: making a global deal with China and Russia to carve out spheres of influence, and setting oligopolistic rules that benefit all three. Where does ‘old look’ Europe sit if so? Very uncomfortably, in all likelihood.

These are discussions we need, but we aren’t seeing them due to a key point Arrighi makes. The late stage of a global system has a ‘false dawn’ as the economy shifts from producing things, which make ever less profit due to competition, to producing financial assets, which make money while destabilising society and the global system itself. The Dutch Golden Age was just before it was pushed off the world stage by European mercantilism and the British; the late 19th century and early 20th century British belle époque was just before WW1; the boom in US financial services was as its industrial base has rotted away – and as wars start to break out again all over.

Those illusory good times, for some, take the market’s eyes off the prize: it’s no wonder few want to read Hamilton rather than a headline about rate cuts, and few seriously engage with what strategic decoupling and reindustrialisation might look like even when we are already seeing it via tariffs, the CHIPS Act, and the IRA. Not even when Trump may do far more, and the ECB says the EU should do it too!