David A. Coulter, the chairman and chief executive officer of BankAmerica Corp., is an unapologetic free-trader and internationalist.
But with his San Francisco-based bank company operating in 38 countries, he can't afford not to be.
Mr. Coulter used his May commencement address at his alma mater- Carnegie-Mellon University's Graduate School of Industrial Administration- to bang the drum for global awareness. Excerpts of his speech follow.
I believe we are at a strategic inflection point in major sectors of the economy. New markets are emerging the world over and, with them, new opportunities.
Countries as diverse as Vietnam and Romania are now beginning to embrace market principles.
This is very significant, but so are the ties we see developing and strengthening between nations and regions previously isolated from one another.
History has set a new course and technology is aiding it. Everywhere you look the barriers that once separated us are crumbling.
These are positive events, but at the same time the basic question is: How is the U.S. economy going to participate in this brave new world?
From a macro perspective, the lowering of trade barriers has had a salutary effect on all the nations involved.
Take Asia. Not so long ago the buzz in Asia centered on the four "tigers."
But today the seven countries making up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with a combined average growth rate of 7.6% and a market of 420 million people, are the fastest growing market in the world.
ASEAN already takes in three times more U.S. exports than China. Only Japan and the European Union buy more. While the Orient has become a favorite destination for many, still others are understandably content to look south of the border.
Consider this: After Asia, Latin America today has the second-fastest- growing regional economy in the world. Foreign and domestic direct investments there are at record levels. And over the past decade U.S. imports to the region have more than tripled, while the United States in turn receives 41% of Latin America's combined exports.
From another perspective, more open trade has also begun to have a tremendous impact on our own economy.
Over the last decade U.S. exports have been responsible for a third of our economic growth.
Export-related employment has grown four times faster than overall private sector job growth during that same time.
Today 58% of all U.S. exports are generated by companies that have assembly plants, wholesaling operations, or some other direct investment overseas.
Companies with investments abroad directly employed 17.7 million Americans-18% of the U.S. labor force-and these companies repatriated $90 billion in income back to the United States in 1994 alone.
But despite these impressive indicators of trade's impact on the U.S. and global economies, we find ourselves in a constant debate about the value of free trade and how we are going to participate.
In discussions about globalization, nobody disputes the value of technological advances to businesses, or their beneficial impact. But when the subject is changed to the merits of international trade, passions on all sides of the debate run high.
This debate is not new. Well over a century ago, a distinguished European observed: "Free trade, one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer upon a people, is in almost every country unpopular."
But while the debate may not be new, the impact of its conclusions has certainly increased.
Today there is a very sophisticated and active coalition at work here in the United States which comprises elements of the far right and the liberal left.
These unlikely bedfellows strongly oppose free trade and routinely demagogue the merits of existing and proposed agreements. Theirs is an inward-looking view of the world, whose populist appeal plays on traditional fears.
At times the proponents of free trade have almost ceded the battle. During the last presidential election, in fact, we practically forfeited the trade debate to the protectionists, in part because we forgot the concerns of working Americans-our employees and our customers.
I think this showed us that while we may be eager to move ahead toward greater globalization of business and trade, we must remain very sensitive to the implications and the impact of change at every level of business.
We cannot be blind apologists for some of the problems created by a global economy.
Many American corporations have gone through wrenching reorganization and downsizing to adapt to the difficult demands of global competition.
But at the same time the future economics are clear, and economics will prevail. That is: To sustain our current employment levels in a mature economy with 3% GDP growth, the United States must sell to those emerging markets that are enjoying growth levels two and three times faster than ours.
To improve the incomes and living standards of our middle class, we must serve the needs of the rapidly growing middle classes of India, ASEAN, and Latin America.
And as hard as it may be to accept in the most powerful economy in the world, to do this in an increasingly competitive world, we must continue to adapt faster; we must compete smarter; and we must act more boldly and with a broader vision.
Make no mistake: The world is watching ... but it is not waiting.
While Washington is caught in self-doubt about whether or not we should have signed Nafta, regional and subregional trade pacts are springing up or expanding.
The result is: Where dictators and tariffs once thrived hand in hand, today the economic and political barriers to trade are coming down and, in some cases, tariffs are falling below levels here in the United States.
I ask that you consider that your assignment in your post-postgraduate life is to become true internationalists and advocate that point of view.
We've already talked about the political forces at work that oppose expanding international trade agreements-despite the clear benefits.
I buy into the philosophy of Andy Capp, the cartoon character, who once said: "I've learned one thing-people who know the least always seem to know it the loudest."
So we need smart people like you to speak up and help our nation be smart about international trade and business.
Let me mention a couple of examples where we need your voice.
If you can buy the premise of free trade, it seems apparent to me that our government should be doing much more to promote trade agreements.
Like giving the authority to the President to move trade agreements through Congress quickly-which is called fast track-before we're locked out of regional trade agreements in Latin America and the Pacific Rim.
However, the best bet today is that fast track authority won't be addressed until 1998, so we're dead in the water in terms of opening up new growth for the rest of this year. That's not smart.
Likewise, we should be increasing our funding of agencies that promote U.S. exports like Opic and Ex-Im Bank.
These agencies allow U.S. companies to engage in trade and infrastructure development in the emerging markets where both the risks and returns are the highest.
We cannot allow the so-called "infrastructure revolution" to occur in emerging markets without us.
But we're questioning whether we need to consolidate or get rid of these agencies.
These are just two examples of areas where we need to step up our efforts in our own best interest.
But whether the issue is fast track or China or Cuba, what's most important for you is to understand the issues and join the debate.
Because what's being debated-in a very real way-is your future. And if you don't speak up for it, who will?