Too Much Hysteria about Trade

The World Bank issued a press release on Tuesday announcing the results of a study published March 2, which concludes that 17 of the 20 so-called G-20 countries have invoked at least some protectionist measures since pledging last November to avoid protectionism for at least one year.

Of course the Washington Post—which now specializes in printing run-of-the-mill stories about trade that rarely come close to justifying the sensational headlines, provocative subheads, or gripping leads — jumped all over the report as evidence that: “Trade Barriers Could Threaten Global Economy: World Bank Finds Protectionist Trend.”

Well, we all know that trade barriers do threaten the global economy — in times of economic expansion and contraction. But most of the measures cited in the report are not particularly spectacular or unusual from a trade perspective. For better or worse, most WTO member countries do have some latitude to raise trade barriers — sometimes unconditionally. But also, in any given year, governments institute policies that happen to have adverse affects on trade (even if the measure wasn’t intended to be protectionist).

Sometimes aggrieved interests in affected countries prevail upon their governments to protest or otherwise seek resolution. And more often than not, under those circumstances, resolution is achieved. But sometimes, a protectionist measure doesn’t even provoke any kind of protest. So, quantifying protectionist measures is one thing, but qualifying them is quite another, more important exercise, if one is interested in making judgments about protectionist trends.

The by-line of the WP story belongs to Anthony Faiola, who last week wrote story titled: “U.S. to Toughen Its Stance on Trade: New Policy Reflects Growing Dissatisfaction With Global Markets.” The lead paragraph of the story read:

The Obama administration is aggressively reworking U.S. trade policy to more strongly emphasize domestic and social issues, from the displacement of American workers to climate change.

But nothing in the story supports the assertion that anyone is “aggressively reworking U.S. trade policy.” Nothing supports the subhead that there is a growing dissatisfaction with global markets. Trade policy may be in for some changes simply because there’s a new sheriff in town, who is beholden (to what extent we shall see) to interests that oppose competition, but not because of dissatisfaction with global markets.

Certainly there is no evidence of dissatisfaction with global markets in the story, which was occasioned by Ron Kirk’s confirmation hearing as U.S. Trade Representative. Kirk testified—before a Senate that already has before it legislation to make enforcement, rather than negotiation, the priority of trade policy for the next couple years—that he intends to focus on enforcement, rather than negotiation. Well, duh! What else is a nominee whose fate depends on the blessing of the people who want more enforcement going to say? For the record, it’s been known for quite some time that the administration would focus on systematizing enforcement efforts, so that’s not really news.

What is newsworthy, however, are the parts of Ron Kirk’s testimony that went unrevealed in Faiola’s reporting. For example, Kirk said that “at an appropriate time and with proper congressional input and concerns addressed,” the administration would ask Congress to grant the president fast-track trade negotiating authority, which is a tool required only by presidents interested in negotiating and expanding trade.

Kirk also said that “We are mindful that the benefits of trade are diffuse, while its pain is often concentrated. It is within that context that we seek to restore and build new bipartisan support for a progressive trade agenda for America.”  Where, then, is the reporting that the Obama administration does not reject trade? Where is the headline that Obama seeks support for a progressive trade agenda? (Cato is publishing a paper next month by Scott Lincicome and me that explains how President Obama can help restore the pro-trade consensus, which includes a large section on the role the media has played in perpetuating destructive myths about trade and globalization).

Where is the reporting that Democrats in Congress are not all opposed to trade liberalization? Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus told Kirk during the hearing: “I also want to find a way to begin consideration of the three pending trade agreements. We should start with Panama. That’s the agreement that’s most ready for action. And it’s the agreement that will win the greatest level of support.” Reporting on these matters would be newsworthy and constructive since so few in the media seem to be willing to publish stories that contravene conventional wisdom about trade.

The fact of the matter is that there isn’t any discernible trend toward protectionism in the United States or in the world right now. World leaders issue warnings about the consequences of protectionism, but there are not trends. There are incidences, but no trends. The ballyhooed World Bank paper cites 78 trade measures “proposed and/or implemented,” 66 of which involved trade restrictions, 47 of which eventually took effect. The long footnote associated with the presentation of these numbers (footnote 1) includes the following sentence: “It is important to note that it is difficult to distinguish the trade policy measures that are taken in response to the current crisis from measures that might have been taken anyway.”

Most of the 47 measures cited in the report happened in November and December of 2008, and Faiola already ranted about them in the WP on December 22, 2008:

Moving to shield battered domestic manufacturers from foreign imports, Indonesia is slapping restrictions on at least 500 products this month, demanding special licenses and new fees on imports. Russia is hiking tariffs on imported cars, poultry and pork. France is launching a state fund to protect French companies from foreign takeovers. Officials in Argentina and Brazil are seeking to raise tariffs on products from imported wine and textiles to leather goods and peaches, according to the World Trade Organization.

There may be nothing necessarily incorrect about the facts reported. But the tone and implications are possibly misleading. It is hard to accept the otherwise marginally significant facts without also accepting the provocative metaphors and sense of impending doom. Those actions have less antagonistic explanations and more benign interpretations.

For example, the actions of Indonesia, Argentina, and Brazil are consistent with their rights under the WTO agreements and will have a negligible collective impact on world trade. Russia is not even a member of the WTO and frequently behaves outside of international norms, so its actions have very limited representative value. And France has intervened to block foreign takeovers of French companies on other occasions this decade, so its actions are not particularly noteworthy.

At least the World Bank study is careful enough to report some of the positive trade developments and reasons for optimism that I discuss in more detail in this paper that Cato published last week. The World Bank notes 10 instances of trade liberalization around the world, which presumably includes Mexico’s admirable decision to reduce tariff rates on 70 percent of the products listed in its tariff schedule; Brazil’s decision to scrap tariffs on certain raw materials, components, capital goods; China’s decision to forego inclusion of Buy China provisions in its own massive spending bill; and the signing of new free trade agreements between Australia, New Zealand, and the ASEAN countries.

The WB study, like my paper, points out that the sturdy legal and institutional infrastructure of the GATT/WTO system combined with the fact of growing interdependence between countries that are now linked by transnational supply chains will likely diminish prospects for more consequential protectionist indulgences.

Of course Anthony Faiola is not the only person at The Washington Post guilty of hyping protectionist rhetoric and war metaphors in trade stories (and the WP is not the only media outlet engaging in hype). But one of the more egregious disconnects between headline/subhead/lead and the body of the story is found in an article on U.S.-China trade relations by Faiola’s colleague, Ariana Eunjung Cha (which is dissected and analyzed here).

World policymakers and policy watchers do need to be vigilant about ensuring that the world doesn’t descend into a protectionist abyss. They will have plenty of help from their domestic constituencies who rely on open trade in both directions. But some vigilance must be reserved for a media that, if left unchallenged, could provoke a trade war on its own. The more reporting there is about protectionist measures—even if it is just more reporting about the same protectionist measures (as today’s WP article is)—the more justified or compelled policymakers will eventually feel in turning to that poison. If a Congressman’s aide can point to articles that cite rising protectionism, even if the measures cited don’t justify the label of protectionism, it becomes less taboo to propose or support protectionist policies. That kind of fear mongering needs to be identified as such.

Yes, some countries are likely to dabble in some degree of protectionism—either with border measures or the more camouflaged regulatory variety. But the costs of that protectionism will quickly become apparent in a world where capital and talent flow to the jurisdictions with the fewest physical and administrative frictions.

Maybe that story will be written as the economy is on its way back up.