• 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

Politics and economics in 2017: an inseparable duo

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December 20th, 2016

In the last few months we have seen how political events have become a key variable when analysing economic prospects. The science of economics has taken on board this new situation to such an extent that some economists now talk about political business cycles and study not only the classical technological and monetary shocks but also shocks of a political nature. This situation will intensify in 2017 and the duo of politics and economics will become inseparable. After being sworn in as US President, Donald Trump will start his mandate on 20 January while the EU will have to tackle negotiations with the UK and a political agenda packed with important elections, especially those of France, Netherlands and Germany.

There are two factors related to the political sphere that are a particular cause for concern due to their possible repercussions on the economy at a global level. The first is the observed rise of political polarisation or, in other words, increased support for extreme economic or populist policies, either on the right or the left wing. The second is the intensification of political instability. As can be seen in the enclosed graphs, in the last few years there has been a substantial increase both of polarisation and political instability in Europe. This greater polarisation has also occurred in the US: according to the PEW Research Center, in 2014 92% of Republican voters had a more conservative stance than the average Democrat voter (64% in 1994) and 94% of Democrat voters held more left-leaning views than the average Republican voter (70% in 1994).

There is broad consensus in the economics literature regarding the negative consequences of both political polarisation and political instability for economic progress. Focusing on the first factor, political polarisation, according to the classic definition coined at the beginning of the 1990s by the renowned MIT economist Rudiger Dornbusch, populism is a set of policies that prioritise short-term economic growth without taking into account the potential risks, such as damaging public accounts in the medium term. According to Dornbusch, populism can have a positive impact in the short term although this is misleading since, in the medium term, economic imbalances result in very severe adjustments for the economy.

An increase in political polarisation can also damage economic growth through two other channels. On the one hand, polarisation makes it difficult for different agents in society to reach agreements and, in many cases, political leaders end up choosing to implement the economic policy that benefits their potential electorate even when this might not be the right one for society as a whole. This factor is especially important during economic booms as the larger volume of available resources means that political leaders can carry out their agenda more easily. Moreover, this gives rise to pro-cyclical fiscal policies when the ideal approach would be to implement counter-cyclical fiscal policies; in other words, saving during booms to be able to spend more during recessions and thereby revitalise the economy.

The second channel through which an increase in political polarisation can damage growth is the fact that, in general, this tends to be associated with the surge of political instability and therefore uncertainty.

In a recent article, an economist from the Federal Reserve of Philadelphia, Marina Azzimonti,1 has attempted to quantify the impact on the economy of the rise of political polarisation in the US between 2007 and 2012. The results obtained highlight that this is not a minor phenomenon. According to the author, due to the increase in political polarisation, 1.75 million jobs were lost, investment fell by 8.6% and GDP contracted by 2%.

The second factor of concern is growing political instability, beyond that caused by the increase in polarisation. Greater instability has a negative effect on the economy because, as has already been mentioned, it fuels uncertainty, leading to the delay of investment decisions and of the hiring of new workers. One example of how the uncertainty caused by political instability affects economic decisions is that, in the developed countries, private investment tends to fall by 1 pp in the quarter prior to elections.2 This figure is important to bear in mind given the large number of elections which will be held in Europe in 2017. Similarly, the IMF economists Ari Aisen and Francisco José Vega3 have shown that political instability tends to be associated with lower growth and that this is particularly due to a reduction in productivity growth.

Looking now at Europe, and in addition to the increase in polarisation and political instability, the condensed electoral calendar for 2017 could also temporarily increase the pressure on public finances. The fact is that, as explained by the Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Matteo Paradisi in a recent study,4 governments tend to implement more expansionary fiscal policies in the run-up to elections in order to improve their chances of being re-elected; a phenomenon that increases especially when the outcome of the election is up in the air. And if there is one thing that characterises the elections to be held in Europe next year, it is precisely that the outcome seems quite uncertain, at least at present. In this respect, a recent study by Goldman Sachs suggests that this factor will lead to remarkable fiscal easing in France, Germany and Italy.

In short, 2017 will be a crucial year in political terms both in the US and in Europe, and this will have considerable repercussions at the economic level. In particular, there are legitimate concerns regarding how political polarisation and instability might result in greater economic uncertainty and an increase in macroeconomic imbalances. Should the political situation get worse, the common European project may falter, aggravating the loss of mechanisms for multilateral cooperation. Avoiding such a situation will require great political care and everyone concerned will have to show a great deal of high-mindedness.

Javier Garcia-Arenas

Macroeconomics Unit, Strategic Planning and Research Department, CaixaBank

1. See Azzimonti, M. (2013), «The Political Polarization Index», Working Paper No. 13-41, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

2. See Canes-Wrone, B. and Ponce de Leon, C. (2015), «Electoral Cycles and Democratic Development», Princeton Working Paper.

3. See Aisen, A. and Veiga, F. J. (2011), «How Does Political Instability Affect Economic Growth», IMF Working Paper.

4. See Alesina, A. and Paradisi, M. (2014), «Political Budget Cycles: Evidence from Italian Cities», NBER Working Paper.

    Long-term trends


    We analyse the major geopolitical trends and how they influence the financial markets and economy.