BlackRock’s Larry Fink says the Ukraine war marks the end of globalization — but what does that mean and is he right?

March 24, 2022, 2:24 PM UTC

It’s the end of globalization as we know it, according to Larry Fink. Should we feel fine?

Five years ago, the BlackRock CEO warned in his annual letter to shareholders that the “expectation for continued globalization” had been upended by factors such as Brexit, the trade-warring ascent of then-president Donald Trump, and various geopolitical tensions.

Now, he claims, it’s game over.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put an end to the globalization we have experienced over the last three decades,” Fink wrote in his latest missive, while noting that the event also follows two years of pandemic that have strained “connectivity between nations, companies and even people.”

Fink articulated a close bond between post-Cold War globalization and BlackRock itself—he co-founded the company in 1988, just before the Iron Curtain came down.

“We believed the world would come closer together. And we saw that happen,” he wrote in the Thursday letter.

But now, Russia is being cut off from the global economy by Western sanctions and the actions of capital markets, financial institutions and companies — and Fink is now touting his asset management giant’s deep understanding of three long-term structural changes: “deglobalization, inflation and the energy transition.”

“Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its subsequent decoupling from the global economy is going to prompt companies and governments worldwide to re-evaluate their dependencies and re-analyze their manufacturing and assembly footprints—something that COVID had already spurred many to start doing,” Fink wrote.

“This decoupling will inevitably create challenges for companies, including higher costs and margin pressures. While companies’ and consumers’ balance sheets are strong today, giving them more of a cushion to weather these difficulties, a large-scale reorientation of supply chains will inherently be inflationary.”

Of course, globalization has existed in one form or another for a lot longer than three decades—just look at ancient trade routes such as the Silk Road and the Spice Routes.

But modern globalization grew hand-in-hand with the Internet and cheap air travel, encompassing an unprecedented flow of both information and people, as well as the mass offshoring of manufacturing.

The pendulum is now “swinging away from globalization and toward onshoring,” wrote Howard Marks, the co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management, in his own Wednesday memo to shareholders.

The reason? Negative aspects of globalization, in particular its dependency on positive international relations and efficient transportation.

“Rather than the cheapest, easiest and greenest sources, there’ll probably be more of a premium put on the safest and surest,” Marks wrote, citing as an example the recent Western push to build semiconductors at home.

How long that trend continues will partly depend on “how the current situations are resolved and in part on which force wins: the need for dependability and security or the desire for cheap sourcing,” he added.

But the current upheaval doesn’t indicate the end of globalization, argues Holger Görg, professor of international economics at the University of Kiel in Germany.

Görg told Fortune on Thursday that the organization of production and global supply chains was “under reconsideration long before this terrible war started,” perhaps as far back as the 2008-9 Financial Crisis.

“I think investors have become even more aware how important these things, like country risks, pandemics, natural disasters, political instability, wars and so on, have become,” he said.

That might lead companies to change how they do things, but “it won’t change the fact we’re organized in a global network of financial transactions, production and knowledge flows.”

Instead, Görg said, we’re likely “moving into a different phase” of globalization, where companies that have built footholds around the world “might now reconsider and optimize their global production chain.”

“Perhaps you could call it a phase of consolidation rather than the unfettered growth we had for the last three or four decades,” he said. “We see the exchange of goods still growing, but by far less than it used to… Growth on top of a very high level still means we’re increasing the level.”

People who talk about deglobalization tend to be mostly referring to trade in goods, Görg added, but “trade in services is where the potential is.”

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