• Global value chains: yesterday, today and tomorrow


    Made in Spain, Made in the USA and even Made in China labels make less and less sense in today’s world. Since firms decided to fragment their production processes and move them to other countries, the label Made in the World probably better represents the nature of most of the manufactured goods we consume. In this article we review the past, present and future of global value chains at a time when pandemic-induced restrictions on travel and supply disruptions have brought them back into the spotlight.



    Pre Titulo
    Área geográfica
    The creation of global value chains

    he 1990s saw the beginning of a far-reaching optimisation of production processes beyond the borders of a single country. Companies decided to fragment these processes and carry them out in as many countries (in order to make the most of each country’s advantages of specialisation), giving rise to what are known as global value chains (GVCs). Several factors helped to encourage the creation of GVCs but first and foremost were the advances made in information and communication technologies (ICTs), which enabled the different production stages to be coordinated perfectly. A second factor was the reduction in trade costs, helped by the important free trade agreements reached during that decade,11 as well as by improvements in transportation, especially by air.

    In fact, GVCs have boosted international trade flows to values that were unthinkable a few decades ago: exports of goods and services as a percentage of GDP rose from around 18% in the early 1990s to levels close to 30% just before the pandemic, while the relative weight of GVCs in total trade flows went from around 40% to just over 50% in the same period (see the chart below).12 

    • 11. 1994 saw the conclusion of the largest round of multilateral trade negotiations (the Uruguay Round), in which 123 countries took part. Also in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was concluded. Both agreements led to a substantial reduction in tariffs worldwide: from levels of around 16% in the early 1990s to 5% today (according to World Bank data, simple averages).
    • 12. The development of GVCs was particularly dynamic between 1990 and the early 2000s, just before the outbreak of the global financial crisis. Since then, the relative importance of these chains in trade seems to have stagnated.

    The importance of global value chains in trade flows

    Last actualization: 04 May 2022 - 09:16
    The pandemic: present impact and future approaches to GVCs

    The COVID crisis has raised many doubts regarding the high degree of globalisation achieved, as well as the adequacy of GVCs. At first, in countries such as Spain, we became aware of the high external dependence (beyond the EU’s borders) of goods which, at that time, were essential.

    In a second phase, with the strong recovery in demand focusing particularly on durable goods and the disruptions in some factories due to the effects of COVID,13 we have been faced with a global supply shortage problem we had not experienced since GVCs were created. And, in this world of global manufacturing, disruption in one stage of the production chain leads to major disruptions throughout the entire process. The longer the GVC, the greater the impact (the bullwhip effect).

    Such disruptions will undoubtedly change people’s minds about GVCs. Although it is still too early to know what changes the future holds, we can suggest some strategic rethinks company directors are likely to pursue in order to increase the robustness of the production chain.

    First, the chains will probably be shorter to avoid the amplifying effect of disruptions. Secondly, they will be more redundant in key components. In other words, there will be alternatives to the production of these components. Thirdly, they will be equipped with new digital technologies that will enable them to detect chain failures early on. And, in terms of logistics, investment in inventories is likely to increase: from just in time to just in case, as stated in a recent article by the Financial Times14 (see the chart below).

    • 13. See the article «Bottlenecks: from the causes to how long they will last» in the Monthly Report of December 2021.
    • 14. See the Financial Times (December 2021). «Supply chains: companies shift from ’just in time’ to ’just in case’».

    Global value chains are likely to be shorter in order to avoid the amplifying effect of disruptions.


    However, it should be noted that these possible strategic changes, if they occur at all, may be more gradual and less far-reaching than we might have assumed after the shock of the pandemic. One of the reasons is that such changes would entail an increase in costs, with the evident impact on prices consumers would have to pay. In a globalised world, this could mean a significant loss of competitiveness compared with other countries and/or companies. Furthermore, as Harvard professor Pol Antràs has noted, the configuration of GVCs forces companies to incur large sunk costs, which leads to them being extremely rigid regarding strategic production changes.15 

    In other words, the COVID shock will indeed bring about a change in our approach to the configuration of new GVCs and may certainly lead to some rethinking of the existing chains. But, in the latter case, this rethinking might be less radical and rapid than some are predicting.

    • 15. See Antràs, P. (2020). «De-Globalisation? Global Value Chains in the Post-COVID-19 Age». National Bureau of Economic Research, no. w28115.
    The future of GVCs: plus and minus factors

    In addition to the impact of the pandemic, other factors (mostly new technologies) have the capacity to reshape GVCs and we present a brief review (see the diagram below).16


    Automation and 3D printing

    Although automation is a process that has been going on for centuries, today’s robots, equipped with artificial intelligence and at a cost that has decreased substantially over the past few decades, represent a full-fledged revolution. The improved productivity of these new robots may result in some of the manufacturing processes which had been moved to emerging countries in order to take advantage of low labour costs now returning to advanced countries. In other words, we would be shifting from an offshoring to a reshoring trend, which would entail a certain reversal in the globalisation of supply chains.

    On the other hand, 3D printing is a technology that could result in GVCs becoming shorter and, along with this, to the reshoring of part of the manufacturing activity. In fact, with this technology, it is not necessary to send physical products; all that’s required are the computer files to manufacture them! However, there is still no clear evidence in this respect. In fact, a paper published by the World Bank shows a strong increase in trade flows following the adoption of 3D technology in hearing aid production, something we would not expect with a shortening of GVCs.17 Although this is a very specific case, it does reveal some interesting effects that need to be considered. In particular, the hearing aid sector adopted 3D printing for almost all its parts when this became technologically feasible (about 10 years ago) and, since then, trade flows linked to the sector have increased by 60%. The main reason for this growth is that 3D printing has led to a huge reduction in the production cost of hearing aids and an improvement in terms of quality, resulting in a sharp increase in demand for the product. And with greater demand, international trade in hearing aids has intensified.

    • 16. Based partly on Canals, C. (2020). «Revolución tecnológica y comercio internacional 4.0». Geopolítica y Comercio en tiempos de cambio. Published by CIDOB.
    • 17. See Freund, C. L, Mulabdic, A. and Ruta, M. (2020). «Is 3D Printing a Threat to Global Trade? The Trade Effects You Didn’t Hear About». World Development Report.

    The electric car

    Another case that also warrants particular attention is that of electric cars, which have the potential to alter some of the most relevant GVCs (those of the automotive sector), as well as to considerably reduce international trade. The reason is that classic combustion-engine cars require a large variety of parts and gears that are often manufactured in different countries to maximize the competitive advantages of each location. In fact, the automotive sector is responsible for a substantial part of the world’s trade flows of intermediate goods. However, the electric car, with its much simpler mechanics (far fewer parts that are also less subject to wear and tear) could lead to a reduction in these classic intermediate flows and, consequently, to a radical change in the structure of automotive GVCs.

    The production of batteries, a key component for the new electric vehicles, will also determine the future of numerous trade flows, which in this case will focus on raw materials such as lithium, nickel and cobalt.


    Digital technologies and the emergence of new services

    The continuous evolution of ICT, hand in hand with 5G and blockchain technology, will continue to push down logistics costs and, with it, boost the trade flows of goods and services and participation in GVCs. For instance, 5G will support the development of the Internet of Things, which will enable faster and more secure tracking of shipments in the case of goods, and better connections in the exchange of services. Likewise, blockchain has the potential to greatly facilitate international payments.

    On the other hand, these digital technologies will also encourage the emergence of new products, especially services, whose organisation could be decentralised and located in different countries, creating new GVCs in the image and likeness of the chains already established for the production of manufactured goods.


    History reminds us that technological development and international trade are not independent of geopolitical developments.


    Finally, it should not be forgotten that geopolitics has always played an essential role in international trade. In this respect, the USA’s intention to «decouple» from China, especially in the field of technology, could bring about a very significant change in world trade and in how GVCs are managed, especially in the technology sector. Even more so because the US is not alone in wanting to put more distance between itself and other economies. For instance, Europe also seems willing to reduce its external dependence in some technology segments, such as semiconductors, with the European Chips Act.

    In summary, although we do not expect any radical or abrupt change in the form taken by GVCs since they tend to be relatively stable over time, we might see a change in trend in the next few years due to the various 4.0 technologies. In addition to these ongoing trends, factors such as the Coronavirus crisis will further exacerbate certain technological dynamics. However, history reminds us that technological development and international trade are not independent of geopolitical developments. And in this respect, trade-technology tensions between the US and China will play a decisive role.

    Destacado Economia y Mercados
    Destacado Analisis Sectorial
    Destacado Área Geográfica

Capitalism: crisis? What crisis?

Is capitalism in crisis? Is the «economic system based on the private ownership of means of production and the free market», as it is defined by the Royal Spanish Academy, failing?

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At the very least, we can point out some dysfunctions it is showing: according to a leading study by the Edelman Foundation, 56% of those interviewed stated that «capitalism does more harm than good» and 74% considered that it was unjust.1 Also, in that same study, in 22 out of the 28 countries examined, more than 50% of respondents believed that capitalism was harmful (60% in Spain). The questioning of capitalism is therefore geographically widespread, but perhaps of particular relevance is the disaffection arising in the US, without doubt the country we associate most closely with the market economy.

  • 1. See Edelman (2020). «Edelman Trust Barometer 2020». Global Report (January).
Crisis at capitalism’s doorstep

During the current US presidential race, the media have emphasised that a portion of the electorate supported «socialist» positions. This atypical situation surely explains why one of the Democratic Party candidates, Bernie Sanders, was able to remain for many months as a possible nominee despite proposals which, in the North American context, could be considered closer to the extremes than to the centre. The fact that in the eyes of a European voter we need to translate «socialist» as social democrat in order to better understand what Sanders proposed does not exempt us from reflecting on the substance of the matter: is the US, the epicentre of the market economy, questioning capitalism?

The data suggest that, at a minimum, the economic model is being re-evaluated in North America. Opinion studies conducted by the Pew Research Center support the view that, year after year, a significant percentage of Americans tend to be dissatisfied with capitalism.2 Indeed, in 2019, 33% of respondents claimed to have a negative view of this economic and social system. Of course, disaffection with the market economy is not uniform, as it varies according to ideology (there is greater dissatisfaction among Democrats), income level (there is less support among those on lower incomes), and age (younger people tend to have a more critical view).

  • 2. See Pew Research Center (2011) «Political Survey Dataset»; (2012) «Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project»; (2019) «Generation Z looks a lot like Millenials on Key Social and Political Issues», and (2019) «In Their Own Words: Behind Americans’ Views of ‘Socialism’ and ‘Capitalism’».
Rejection of capitalism in the world
A broader perspective: from the crisis of capitalism to the crises of capitalism

The question now is to what extent this is a recent phenomenon. This is not an easy question to answer, since most studies focus on the last two decades. One of the few exceptions is the data collected by Blasi and Kruse,3 which provide an insight into the degree of opposition to capitalism in the US since 1938. According to this exercise, the current levels of disaffection with capitalism, contrary to our tendency to view the present as an exceptional time, are not extraordinary, since its support declines in every major crisis. This was the case in the Great Depression of the 1930s, in which 38% of respondents claimed to have positions with anti-capitalist elements; in 1975, in the midst of the «oil crisis», when this percentage was 34%, and in 2010, following the Great Recession, when 40% of those interviewed stated that they had a negative view of capitalism. In boom periods, by contrast, the portion of critics of the system stood at around 20%.

  • 3. See J. Blasi and D. Kruse (2018). «Today’s youth reject capitalism, but what do they want to replace it?». The Conversation.
Capitalism: dysfunctions and shocks are not the same thing

In short, it seems unquestionable that we are in a phase of growing disaffection with capitalism and that this disaffection is geographically widespread (even reaching the epicentre of the system, the US). It is also apparent, however, that the current phase is not so different from other peaks of disaffection in previous eras. That said, the criticisms of capitalism have taken somewhat different forms in each period in history. What forms are they taking today?

When we review the multiple debates and articles on this topic, a series of common factors begin to emerge: lower economic growth than in the past; stagnation, if not decline, in productivity; increased inequality in income and opportunity; a predominance of short-termism; an inability to internalise negative externalities (such as the environmental impact) and, finally, a certain degree of financial instability that refuses to budge.

This hotchpotch of the evils of capitalism, when presented in this way, offers few clues as to the underlying trends. If we read a little deeper into it, however, we can see that this list combines factors of a very different nature. Specifically, it includes two types of elements.

The first type consists of what we could call structural dysfunctions of capitalism. The market economy is a system which, by its very nature, has a number of characteristics that have undesirable effects. In the case of capitalism, these are the so-called market failures – exchanges for which the price mechanism fails to provide accurate information on their social benefits and costs and which require public intervention to correct them insofar as possible. This category includes the regulation of negative externalities, such as pollution. Another factor that falls within this category of structural dysfunctions would be the tendency for short-termism to predominate. The fact that there are dysfunctions inherent in capitalism is not something new – in fact, many of the institutions we have established actually strive to minimise these effects. For instance, giving the central banks independence is an attempt to respond to the short-sightedness of monetary policy makers. Similarly, the creation of a market for CO₂ emissions is intended to help internalise the social costs generated by the pollution that companies produce.

The second block of «evils» is different. When it is said that capitalism no longer works (which essentially translates as «we are not growing like we used to» and/or «it only benefits a few»), what is really happening is something quite different. In fact, the reality is that we are currently going through a historic phase of accelerated change, dominated by elements such as the technological leap, the intensification of globalisation, demographic ageing and the environmental transition. At this historic turning point, capitalism is certainly acting as an intermediary in the face of this series of shocks and trends, but it cannot be considered the ultimate cause. This does not mean that such mediation is automatic or neutral, as not all forms of capitalism are equal (and here we come to the key point of our diagnosis of the «crisis» of capitalism).

This means, for instance, that one of the main sticking points in the debate – when certain economies seem unable to reconcile economic growth and redistribution (or to combat inequality) – is not such an obvious trade off in reality, since other countries seem to have managed to find a reasonable balance.

Capitalism: an adaptive system

Our thesis is that these differences between different forms of capitalism matter - and a lot. Although the defence of this thesis will be the subject of the following three articles, we would like to give our readers a little spoiler. The basic premise is that, while there are certain core characteristics that are shared by all capitalist economies, in practice there are a number of differences between countries (or, strictly speaking, between groups of countries) which end up forming a series of clearly differentiated varieties of capitalism, and these varieties work better or worse depending on the characteristics of the environment or the moment in history in question. For instance, and of particular importance in the present climate, the system’s ability to combat pandemics is not going to be the same in one variety of capitalism as it is in another.

In fact, the existence of different varieties of capitalism between different countries points towards a fundamental feature of this economic system: its capacity to adapt and evolve. In the face of criticisms from those who understand the capitalist system as something monolithic and immutable, a historical review allows us to dismiss this static view since, as we will make clear in our final article, today’s capitalism and that of 1945 present many differences. Therefore, and to convince you, dear reader, we ask you to accompany us in the following articles of the Dossier. Let us delve into this enriched view of capitalism (capitalisms, in reality) in order to better understand the causes and consequences of this complex interrelationship between global trends, economic systems and prosperity.