• 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

Inequality and populism: myths and truths

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January 17th, 2017

In recent times, much ink has spilled over the relationship between economic inequality and the rise in populism in advanced countries. In many cases this relationship has been taken as read, as if it were an undeniable fact that economic inequality is the main reason for the emergence of populist parties. Nevertheless, it may be rather premature to assume such a relationship exists. This article looks at whether inequality is actually one of the factors behind the rise in populism and, if so, how much impact it really has.

Focusing on the first question, it should be noted that there are hardly any academic articles in the field of economics that provide clear-cut evidence of a cause/effect relationship between inequality and populism. The exceptions are the articles that were written, in 2016, by the renowned economists David Autor, David Dorn, Gordon Hanson and Kaveh Majlesi, focusing on the US.1 However, this contrasts with the absence of similar studies showing such a relationship in Europe. The aforementioned authors present a convincing case that it is precisely in those American districts with greater exposure to import competition from China that have elected congressional representatives with more extreme ideologies and where the Republican Party significantly increased its electoral support in 2016 compared with 2000.

In addition to this empirical evidence, studies that contribute to understand the impact of Chinese import competition in one of the key areas behind the trend in inequality, namely the labour market, are also particularly useful for an analysis of the causal relationship between inequality and populism. An important strand of the economics literature has shown that those areas most exposed to import competition with China have suffered more job losses and more industrial plants foreclusers.2 In fact, according to a recent article,3 this commercial shock resulted in 1.98 million job losses between 1999 and 2011, of which 985,000 were in manufacturing. According to another article by Autor, Dorn and Hanson,4 competition from Chinese imports lies behind one fourth of the jobs lost in the US manufacturing sector.

Having reached this point, it is important to note that, although these studies help show the relationship between inequality and populism, we should not infer that commercial integration is negative per se as there is also extensive literature documenting the positive impact of trade on an economy as a whole,5 although there are very specific economic sectors that may be harmed by greater commercial integration, as has been the case in the US. Neither should we forget that manufacturing’s progressive share loss in the economy is due mainly to changes in technology and in the production model (see the Dossier «Industry 4.0» in MR11/2016).

As we look into why these changes in the labour market have increased economic inequality in the US we should remember that, in this country, inequality is a reflection of the polarised nature of labour. Between 1950 and 1980, the manufacturing sector allowed a large number of US workers without secondary education or a university degree to access the middle class. But nowadays, the labour market, with an increasing share of services in GDP, is providing more job opportunities for other types of employment in which high value activities coexist with lower value activities. As a result, the salaried class, which had been more homogeneous in wage terms, is now more polarised. This could help explain why populism has emerged recently. The key lies in the fact that the increasing polarisation of labour over the last few decades has led to the impoverishment of a part of the middle classes so that a large social group has seen how their living conditions and social status declined substantially. This phenomenon has resulted in social unrest, which is fertile ground for political proposals which claim that it is possible to go back to the good old times quickly and easily.

Summarising the analysis carried out thus far, the literature points to a certain causal relationship between inequality and populism in the US and, among the different mechanisms that may be playing a role, the studies have explored one specific channel: the one that goes from international competition to industrial job losses and from a decline in employment in the secondary sector to a rise in inequality, finally closing the circle and stating that, in these cases, political polarisation has increased.

Having confirmed the causal relationship between inequality and populism in the US, we should now examine its extent and determine whether inequality is the main source of the current political polarisation. This magnitude is not especially sizeable: in those electoral districts most exposed to commercial competition with China, electoral support for the Republican Party in 2016 was 2.2 pps higher than in those districts with little competition with China. Given this number, it would be audacious and even hasty to claim that inequality is the main factor fuelling populism, especially when we know there are other economic and financial variables that are also related to the success of populist movements. A case in point are financial crises: according to an influential article by the German economists Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick and Christoph Trebesch, electoral support for
far-right parties has increased by 30% after the financial crises occurring between 1870 and 2014 in the main developed countries, a considerable increase

Another reason to be cautious is that there is a growing body of opinion among various economists and political scientists that claims cultural factors are at least as important as economic factors, or even more so, in explaining the rise in populism. Those defending this opinion believe that people vote for populist parties because some layers of society wish to preserve their cultural homogeneity and certain social attitudes. In this respect, the political scientists of Michigan and Harvard, Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, have shown that, in the European Union, cultural values are a more accurate indicatior of support for populist parties. In particular, electoral support for these parties is stronger among the elderly, men, people with less educational training and ethnic majorities. On the other hand, such conclusive findings do not hold for the economic variables. Similar analyses carried out after the Brexit vote suggest that cultural and social factors are crucial to explaining the outcome of the referendum, casting doubt on the view that inequality is the main cause of such populism. For example, a study by the Nesta think tank in the UK shows that being in favour of the death penalty is a far better predictor of voting in favour of leaving the European Union than income or social class, and a survey led by the Birkbeck College professor, Eric Kaufmann, indicates that those in favour of Brexit were much more concerned about immigration than inequality.

In short, economic inequality is a factor to bear in mind when analysing the origins of the rise in populism at a global level. In the case of the US, academic studies have appeared recently that use reliable econometric techniques and demonstrate a causal relationship. Nonetheless, this impact does not seem to be very large and there are reasonable doubts that inequality is the main driver. Whatever the case, it is evident that the rise in populism is a phenomenon of the utmost importance that warrants more in-depth study.

Javier Garcia-Arenas

Macroeconomics Unit, Strategic Planning and Research Department, CaixaBank

1. See Autor, D., Dorn, D., Hanson, G. and Majlesi, K. (2016), «Importing Political Polarization? The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure» and «A Note
on the Effect of Rising Trade Exposure on the 2016 Presidential Election», MIT Working Papers.

2. See, among others, Pierce, J. and Schott, P. (2016), «The Surprisingly Swift Decline of US Manufacturing Employment», American Economic Review.

3. See Acemoglu, D., Autor, D., Dorn, D., Hanson, G., and Price, B. (2016), «Import Competition and the Great US Employment Sag of the 2000s», Journal of Labor Economics, 34(S1).

4. See Autor, D., Dorn, D. and Hanson, G. (2013), «The China Syndrome: Local Labor Market Effects of Import Competition in the US», American Economic Review 103(6).

5. See, among others, Grossman, G. and Helpman, E. (1991), «Trade, Knowledge Spillovers, and Growth», European Economic Review 35, 517-526.

6. See Funke, M., Schularick, M. and Trebesch, C. (2015), «Going to Extremes: Politics after Financial Crises, 1870-2014», CEPR, Discussion Paper No. 10884.

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