Economists rarely write about “empires,” unless they are referring to historical examples such as the Roman empire. But Thomas Hauner of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Branko Milanovic of the Graduate Center of City University of New York and Suresh Naidu of Columbia University have presented a study of empires using criteria drawn from an economics classic, John Hobson’s Imperialism (1902). The same criteria can be used to examine whether any empires exist today.
Hobson was not a Marxist, but his work greatly influenced later Marxist writers who wrote about imperialism, including Vladimir Lenin, Rudolf Hilferding and Rosa Luxemburg. Hobson believed that there was chronic underconsumption in advanced capitalist countries due to unequal distributions of income. This lowered the return on domestic investment, and as a result the owners of financial capital turned to foreign markets where returns would be higher. These investors relied on their governments to guarantee the safety of their foreign holdings from seizure.
Hauner, Milanvic and Naidu demonstrate that there was a high degree of inequality within the advanced capitalist countries in the late 19th century. The foreign assets held by wealthy investors in Britain and France expanded greatly during this period, and these assets generated rates of return higher than those available from domestic investments. They also present evidence of a linkage between the accumulation of foreign assets and militarization that led to World War I. These results are consistent with Hobson’s work.
Hobson’s empires established positive net international investment positions (NIIP) and received income from these foreign investments. The payments appear in the current account of the balance of payments as “net primary income.” This component of the current account records the difference between payments received by domestic residents for providing productive resources, such as their labor, financial resources or land, to foreigners minus the payments made to foreigners for their productive resources made available to the domestic economy. For most countries, receipts and payments on financial assets are the largest component of their net primary income.
Great Britain was a financial center and the preeminent creditor nation during the zenith of its empire, and a net recipient of foreign income. It earned net income worth 5.4% of GDP in the period 1974-1890, and 6.8% from 1891 to 1913 (Matthews, Feinstein and Odling-Smee 1982). The surpluses were large enough to offset a trade deficit and allow the country to continue to invest abroad and expand their foreign holdings.
What are the largest creditor nations today? Are they also Hobsonian empires? Japan is the leading creditor nation, with a net international investment position of $2.8 trillion in 2015, which represented 67% of its GDP. It earned $165.88 billion in net primary income, worth 3.8% of its GDP. Germany is also a creditor nation, with a NIIP of about $1.5 trillion (45% of GDP) in 2015 and net income of $74.6 billion (2.2% of its GDP).
But Japan and Germany nations do not fulfill the other criteria to be called empires. They do not have the disparities in wealth that the U.S. and many developing countries possess. Their Gini coefficients are almost identical: 32.1 for Japan and 31.4 for Germany. These are similar in magnitude to those of other European countries, higher than those of the Scandinavian nations but below those of Portugal and Spain.
Moreover, the two nations are not militaristic powers. Japan’s constitution forbids the use of force, although the country does have Self-Defense Forces. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to amend the country’s constitution in order to clarify the rules governing the disposition of these troops. Germany is part of NATO, but the foreign deployment of German forces is strictly supervised by Parliament.
The situation of other large countries is more anomalous. China is a leading creditor nation, with a NIIP in 2015 only slightly lower than Germany’s and equal to 194% of its GDP. But that country registered a deficit of net primary income of $41.8 billion. On the other hand, the country with the largest inflow of income in absolute terms was the U.S., a debtor nation with a NIIP of -$7.8 trillion in 2015, worth about 45% of GDP. Its net income inflow of $204.5 billion represented 1.1% of its GDP.
The explanation for these seemingly inconsistent results lies with the composition of the external assets and liabilities. The U.S. is “long equity, short debt,” with assets largely composed of foreign direct investments (FDI) and portfolio equity, and liabilities primarily in the form of debt (bonds, such as U.S. Treasury securities, or bank loans). In 2015, for example, 60% of its assets were held in the form of FDI or portfolio equity, which earn an equity premium because of their riskier nature. China, on the other hand, is “long debt and short equity,” where the debt includes the central bank’s foreign reserves held in the form of U.S. Treasury bonds. Debt assets and foreign reserves constituted 79% of China’s foreign assets in 2015, and the returns on these have been quite low in recent years. FDI and portfolio equity liabilities, on the other hand, accounted for 74% of the external liabilities.
The unusual nature of these income flows have attracted great attention. Yu Yongding of China’s Academy of Social Sciences, for example, has written about his country’s “irrational IIP structure.” He attributes this to an undervalued exchange rate that has allowed the country to have surpluses in both the current and capital accounts that were balanced by increases in foreign reserves, as well as government policies that favored FDI from abroad.
The positive return that the U.S. receives has been called an “exorbitant privilege” that is due to the status of the dollar as a reserve currency. In 1966 Emile Despres of Stanford University, Charles P. Kindleberger of MIT and Walter S. Salant of the Brookings Institution wrote that the configuration of the U.S. balance of payments was due to its status as the “world’s banker”, issuing short-term liabilities in exchange for long-term assets. More recently, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas of UC-Berkeley and Hélène Rey of the London Business School updated this description of the U.S. to the “world venture capitalist.”
The global financial crisis might have ended this status of the U.S., but the influence of the U.S. economy and its monetary policies has not diminished. Changes in U.S. interest rates have widespread effects on capital flows and credit creation. Several recent studies, including one by Òscar Jordàof UC-Davis, Moritz Schularick of the University of Bonn and Alan Taylor of UC-Davis, have referred to the existence of a global financial cycle that is very responsive to U.S. monetary policy. Similarly, Matteo Iacoviello and Gaston Navarro of the Federal Reserve Board have written about the spillover effects of U.S. interest rates on foreign economeis.
It may be time for a new definition of imperialism. If the U.S. possesses an empire, it is based on its ownership of foreign capital that it accumulates in return for the issuance of “safe assets.” It takes advantage of this position to invest in more lucrative equity. In addition, it hosts the largest and most liquid financial markets and networks. Moreover, the U.S. government has shown its willingness to use financial sanctions as a policy tool.
With respect to the other attributes of 19thcentury empires, we no longer send Marines to Central America to safeguard our foreign holdings. But our military spending greatly exceeds that of other nations. Wealth is heavily concentrated; the richest U.S. families—those in the top 1% of the distribution of wealth—own 40% of the wealth in this country. Those assets undoubtedly include direct and indirect ownership in foreign enterprises, which contribute to the returns they receive.
What could end this arrangement? The renminbi and the euro are rival currencies, but it is doubtful that they will attain the global status of the dollar. Under ordinary circumstances, one might expect the U.S. position to continue for the foreseeable future. But these are not ordinary times. The Trump administration seems ready to shred a wide range of international agreements, such as those that established the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Association. Moreover, the tax legislation passed last year that lowered personal and corporate tax rates is pushing up the government’s budget deficit. The Congressional Budget Office’s projection for this fiscal year’s deficit has risen from $563 billion to $804 billion and is projected to reach $1 trillion by 2020. Will U.S. Treasury securities continue to be viewed as safe?
The record of transitions in international monetary regimes does not bode well for the future. The gold standard collapsed in the 1930s as governments sought to escape the world-wide contraction in global economic activity. The Bretton Woods regime began to disintegrate when the Nixon administration ended the conversion of the dollar reserves of foreign central banks into gold in 1971. None of these regime ends were planned and they led to further instability. The end of America’s hegemonic financial position has long been forecasted–and avoided. But the shockwaves of the global financial crisis are still taking place, and eventually may be even more disruptive than we ever imagined.