Tag: wto

Enduring Myths that Obscure the Case for Free Trade

Most economists agree that free trade works better than restricted trade to increase the size of the economic pie. By enlarging markets to span national borders, free trade increases the pool of potential producers, consumers, partners, and investors, which permits greater specialization and economies of scale – both essential ingredients of per capita economic growth.

But, in practice, free trade remains elusive. It is the exception, not the rule. Sure, many tariffs and other border barriers have been reduced in the United States (and elsewhere) over the years, but protectionism persists in various guises. There are “Buy American” rules limiting government procurement spending to local firms and US-made products; heavily protected services industries; seemingly endless incarnations of agriculture subsidies; import quotas on sugar; green-energy and other industrial subsidies; shipbuilding and shipping restrictions; the Export-Import bank; antidumping duties; and, regulatory protectionism masquerading as public health and safety regulations, to list some. Ironically, protectionism is baked into our so-called free trade agreements. It takes the form of rules of origin requirements, local content mandates, intellectual property and investor protections, enforceable labor and environmental standards, and special carve-outs that shield entire products and industries from international competition.

Trade agreements may be the primary vehicle through which U.S. trade barriers are reduced, but they are predicated on the fallacy that protectionism is an asset to be dispensed with only if reciprocated, in roughly equal measure, by negotiators on the other side of the table. If the free trade consensus were meaningful outside of economics circles, trade negotiations would be unnecessary. They would have no purpose. If free trade were the rule, trade policy would have a purely domestic orientation and U.S. barriers would be removed without any need for negotiation because they would be recognized for what they are: taxes on domestic consumers and businesses.

India Tosses out the WTO’s Agricultural Subsidy Disciplines

The World Trade Organization (WTO) seems on the verge of approving an agreement with India to allow the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) to move forward.  The TFA is to be applauded.  It will make a useful contribution toward helping goods move across borders more efficiently, which will tend to increase trade and promote economic growth.

The problem is not with the TFA, but rather with the high price that the global community seems ready to pay for it.  India has asked that it be allowed to exceed the level of domestic agricultural subsidies to which it agreed twenty years ago in the Uruguay Round negotiations.  For the first time in history, those talks led to limits on the ability of countries to use trade distorting agricultural supports.  Those subsidies had been rampant, often leading to surplus production that depressed crop prices in global markets.  Farmers who were being subsidized generally were happy enough with that arrangement, but it was a very different story for unprotected farmers in other countries.  Many of the world’s farmers are quite poor to start with.  Government-driven decreases in commodity prices make them even poorer.

A teachable moment is slipping away because no WTO member has been willing to stand up and explain what’s going on.  India sanctimoniously declares that it needs to promote food security through use of a robust public stockholding program, and would like the world to believe that existing WTO rules prohibit them from doing so.  This is simply not correct.  The Uruguay Round includes specific provisions detailing how public stockholding may be used for food security purposes.  A great deal of time, effort and tough negotiating went into developing those provisions.  There is no limit on government expenditures to provide food – including free or reduced-price food – to low-income people.  However, there is a clear requirement that purchases of commodities for public stocks must be made at open-market prices.  It is not allowable to purchase commodities at above-market prices in order to provide a subsidy to farmers. 

Unsettling Cotton Settlement at the WTO

Last week the U.S. government settled a long-running trade dispute with Brazil, winning taxpayers the privilege of continuing to subsidize America’s wealthy cotton farmers in exchange for our commitment to subsidize Brazilian cotton farmers, as well. That’s right! We get to pay U.S. cotton farming businesses to overproduce, export, and suppress global prices to the detriment of Brazilian (and other countries’) cotton farmers provided that we compensate the Brazilians to the tune of $300 million.

Some background. Ten years ago, in a case brought by Brazil, the WTO Dispute Settlement Body ruled that the United States was exceeding its subsidy allowances for domestic cotton farmers and that it should bring its practices into compliance with the relevant WTO agreements. After delays and half-baked U.S. efforts to comply, Brazil sought and received permission from the WTO to retaliate (or, in WTO parlance, to “withdraw concessions” because opening one’s own market in a world of mercantilist reciprocity is, perversely, considered a cost or concession). Under the threat of such retaliation, instead of bringing its cotton subsidies into WTO compliance, the U.S. government agreed to pay $147 million per year to Brazilian farmers so that it could continue subsidizing U.S. farmers beyond agreed limits. That arrangement prevailed for a few years until the funds were cut during the budget sequester earlier this year – an event that triggered a renewed threat of retaliation from Brazil, which now has been averted on account of last week’s $300 million settlement.

The Peterson Institute’s Gary Hufbauer characterized the agreement as a “good deal” because it ends the specter of soured bilateral relations, which $800 million of targeted retaliation against U.S. exporters and intellectual property holders would likely produce, for a reasonable price of $300 million “spread widely across the US population, around 90 cents a person.” In Hufbauer’s opinion:

Money damages, paid in this way, are much fairer, and do not destroy the benefits of international commerce, unlike concentrated retaliation against firms that had nothing to do with the original dispute. The WTO system is only designed to authorize such retaliation, but the US-Brazil settlement points the way towards a better way of satisfying breaches of WTO obligations.

While I share Hufbauer’s desire to avoid retaliation and soured relations, his rationale for endorsing the settlement seems a bit strained. If the settlement is justifiable because the costs are spread across 300-plus million Americans, then Hufbauer can probably lend his support to most subsidies, tariffs, and other forms of protectionism, which endure because the concentrated benefits accruing to the favor-seekers are paid through costs imposed, often imperceptibly, on a diffuse base of unorganized consumers or taxpayers. Does the smallness or the imperceptibility of the costs make it right? No, but it makes it easy to get away with, which is why I think it’s pennywise and pound foolish to endorse such outcomes. There are all sorts of federal subsidies to industries and tariffs on goods that may be small or imperceptible as a cost on a standalone basis at the individual level.  But when aggregated across programs, the costs to individuals become more significant. It’s death by 10,000 cuts.

U.S. Trade Policy Attacks U.S. Energy Policy, Both Hurting

First there were oil and gas export restrictions, then pipeline injunctions, now import restrictions on the steel needed for exploration and extraction.  Washington is coming from all angles to kneecap the energy boom sparked by the horizontal drilling and fracking revolutions – a once in a generation supply-side shock, which otherwise promises to attract a flood of foreign investment and serve as a wellspring of economic growth and job creation.
The most recent assault on our “All of the Above” energy policy comes via our fantastically self-destructive trade policy. Last Friday, in a final antidumping determination, the U.S. Department of Commerce found exporters from nine countries to be dumping “Oil Country Tubular Goods” (OCTG) – a class of steel products used primarily in oil and gas well projects – in the U.S. market. The most important foreign source of OCTG in the case was South Korea, whose exporters were found NOT to be dumping in the preliminary determination issued back in February.
But in the intervening months, the U.S. steel industry and the Congressional Steel Caucus impressed upon the bean counters at Commerce that the methodology they used for the Korean preliminary determination was inferior to an alterative they favored.  Without getting too into the weeds here, as tends to happen when exposing the dishonesty of the antidumping regime, suffice it to say that the revision from 0% dumping margins to 10%-16% for Korean exporters was primarily the result of Commerce changing its estimate of what the home market profit rate “should be.”
For the preliminary determination, that estimate was based on Korean OCTG producers’ experiences (with OCTG and other products).  For the final determination, Commerce changed its estimate to one based on a University of Iowa graduate student’s estimation of the profit experience of a single Argentine OCTG producer named Tenaris.  That’s right!  The cost of steel for U.S. oil well projects will rise – maybe 16% – because some student was messing around with @functions on Microsoft Excel.

WTO Indictment of Chinese Export Restrictions Unearths U.S. Hypocrisy

Last week a WTO dispute settlement panel ruled that certain Chinese restrictions on exports of “rare earth” minerals are inconsistent with China’s WTO obligations and recommended that the PRC government bring its policies into compliance with the rules. The decision was hardly surprising, as export restrictions are prohibited under the WTO agreements – except under certain limited circumstances, which were not demonstrated to exist.

Formal complaints about these export restrictions were lodged in the WTO by the United States, the European Union, and Japan, whose manufacturers require rare earth minerals for production of a variety of high tech products, including flat-screen televisions, smart phones, and hybrid automobile batteries. By restricting exports, the complainants alleged, China’s actions reduce supply and raise prices abroad, putting foreign downstream manufacturers at a disadvantage vis-à-vis China’s domestic rare earth-using companies, who enjoy the effective subsidies of greater supply and lower input prices.

The WTO decision was lauded across Washington, but more for its dig on China than for its basis in principle or sound economics. Emblematic of official sentiment was the following statement from arch-import-foe-temporarily-turned-globalization-advocate, House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI):

Through the aggressive efforts of the Obama Administration, the WTO has struck down China’s efforts to block our companies from having access to key inputs.  Our high-tech industries, from smartphones to medical equipment to wind turbines, depend on access to these rare earths and other chemicals. Holding China accountable, and enforcing the rules of international trade are vital to U.S. businesses and workers and key to trade expansion efforts (emphasis added).

Frederic Bastiat Makes the Case for Trade Facilitation

Earlier this month in Bali, WTO ministers reached agreement on a set of negotiating issues known as “trade facilitation,” which deal mostly with customs reform and related measures to reduce the time and cost of transporting goods and services across borders. If removing tariffs is akin to turning on a water spigot full blast, trade facilitation is the act of untangling and straightening out the attached hose. A kinked hose impedes the flow as an administratively “thick” border impedes trade.
This paper, which I wrote a few years ago, describes the importance of trade facilitation reforms to economic growth, and explains why subjecting such self-help reforms to negotiation – instead of just undertaking them as a matter of surviving in a competitive global economy – would only delay the process of removing inefficiencies. Five years after the paper was written and 12 years after multilateral negotiations were launched in Doha, a deal was reached obligating governments to reform and streamline their customs procedures, with technical and financial assistance provided by the wealthy to the developing countries.
As I wrote yesterday, this is small relative to the overall Doha Round agenda and relative to what might have been accomplished over these past 12 years in the absence of Doha (i.e., without adhering to the pretensions that our own domestic barriers to foreign commerce are assets to be dispensed with only if foreigners dispense of theirs). 
But perhaps nobody has been more gifted at exposing the absurdity of administrative trade barriers with pithy wit and grace than the 19th century French classical liberal business and economics writer Frederic Bastiat. Around 1850, Bastiat made a case for trade facilitation that can scarcely be improved:
Between Paris and Brussels obstacles of many kinds exist. First of all, there is distance, which entails loss of time, and we must either submit to this ourselves, or pay another to submit to it. Then come rivers, marshes, accidents, bad roads, which are so many difficulties to be surmounted. We succeed in building bridges, in forming roads, and making them smoother by pavements, iron rails, etc. But all this is costly, and the commodity must be made to bear the cost. Then there are robbers who infest the roads, and a body of police must be kept up, etc.
Now, among these obstacles there is one which we have ourselves set up, and at no little cost, too, between Brussels and Paris. There are men who lie in ambuscade along the frontier, armed to the teeth, and whose business it is to throw difficulties in the way of transporting merchandise from the one country to the other. They are called Customhouse officers, and they act in precisely the same way as ruts and bad roads.
 Congratulations, negotiators, for agreeing to remove the kinks from your hoses. 

Bali’s Lessons for Trade Negotiators

The future of multilateral trade has presented some vexing questions for policy watchers over the past few years. With the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations hopelessly stalled and the proliferation of regional and bilateral agreements in its stead, contemplation and debate about the fate of the World Trade Organization, its successful adjudicatory body, international trade governance, and globalization have been all the rage.

December continues to shine a particularly bright light on these issues, as U.S. and EU negotiators are in Washington this week discussing the proposed bilateral Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Last week, negotiators from the United States and 11 other nations met in Singapore in an effort to advance the regional Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. The week prior, representatives of 159 WTO members were in Bali, Indonesia for the Ninth Ministerial Conference (MC-9), where a multilateral agreement was reached on a set of issues for the first time in the WTO’s 19-year history.

The significance of the Bali deal depends on whom you ask. Those heavily vested in the current architecture of the multilateral system tend to hail Bali as proof that multilateral negotiations are back in business and that there is renewed promise for completing the long-stalled Doha Round. Frankly, taking 12 years to forge an agreement on trade facilitation (basically, reform of customs procedures, which constitutes a tiny fraction of the Doha Round’s objectives) plus some concessions to permit more subsidization of agriculture in the name of food security is not exactly convincing evidence that Doha Round negotiators have demonstrated their cost effectiveness or the utility of this approach.