Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of the World Trade Organization. ‘If they don’t shape up, I would withdraw from the WTO,’ he said. He argues that the USA is being treated very badly by the WTO and that the organisation needs to ‘change its ways’.
Historically, the USA has done relatively well compared with other countries in trade disputes brought to the WTO. However, President Trump does not like being bound by an international organisation which prohibits the unilateral imposition of tariffs that are not in direct retaliation against a trade violation by other countries. Such tariffs have been imposed by the Trump administration on steel and aluminium imports. This has led to retaliatory tariffs on US imports by the EU, China and Canada – something that is permitted under WTO rules.
Whether or not the USA does withdraw from the WTO, Trump’s threats bring into question the power of the WTO and other countries’ compliance with WTO rules. With the rise in protectionist sentiments around the world, the power of the WTO would seem to be on the wane.
Even if the USA does not withdraw from the WTO, it is succeeding in weakening the organisation. Appeals cases have to be heard by an ‘appellate body’, consisting of at least three judges drawn from a list of seven, each elected for four years. But the USA has the power to block new appointees – and has done so. As Larry Elliott states in the first article below:
The list of judges is already down to four and will be down to the minimum of three when the Mauritian member, Shree Baboo Chekitan Servansing, retires at the end of September. Two more members will go by the end of next year, at which point the appeals process will come to a halt.
This raises the question of the implication of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit – something that seems more likely as the UK struggles to reach a trade agreement with the EU. Leaving without a deal would mean ‘reverting to WTO rules’. But if these rules are being ignored by powerful countries such as the USA and possibly China, and if the appeals procedure has ground to a halt, this could leave the UK without the safety net of international trade rules. Outside the EU – the world’s most powerful trade bloc – the UK could find itself having to accept poor trade terms with the USA and other large countries.
- Explain the WTO’s ‘Most-favoured-nation (MFN)’ clause. How would this affect trade deals between the UK and the EU?
- Would the trade deals that the EU has negotiated with other countries, such as Japan, be available to the UK after leaving the EU?
- Demonstrate how, according to the law of comparative advantage, all countries can gain from trade.
- In what ways is the USA likely to gain and lose from the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminium?
- How could a country that supports free trade ever support the imposition of tariffs?
- Why are tariffs not the most serious restriction on trade?
Since running for election, Donald Trump has vowed to ‘put America first’. One of the economic policies he has advocated for achieving this objective is the imposition of tariffs on imports which, according to him, unfairly threaten American jobs. On March 8 2018, he signed orders to impose new tariffs on metal imports. These would be 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium.
His hope is that, by cutting back on imports of steel and aluminium, the tariffs could protect the domestic industries which are facing stiff competition from the EU, South Korea, Brazil, Japan and China. They are also facing competition from Canada and Mexico, but these would probably be exempt provided negotiations on the revision of NAFTA rules goes favourably for the USA.
Assuming there were no retaliation from other countries, jobs would be gained in the steel and aluminium industries. According to a report by The Trade Partnership (see link below), the tariffs would increase employment in these industries by around 33 000. However, the higher price of these metals would cause job losses in the industries using them. In fact, according to the report, more than five jobs would be lost for every one gained. The CNN Money article linked below gives example of the US industries that will be hit.
But the costs are likely to be much greater than this. Accorinding to the law of comparative advantage, trade is a positive-sum game, with a net gain to all parties engaged in trade. Unless trade restrictions are used to address a specific market distortion in the trade process itself, restricting trade will lead to a net loss in overall benefit to the parties involved.
Clearly there will be loss to steel and aluminium exporters outside the USA. There will also be a net loss to their countries unless these metals had a higher cost of production than in the USA, but were subsidised by governments so that they could be exported profitably.
But perhaps the biggest cost will arise from possible retaliation by other countries. A trade war would compound the net losses as the world moves further from trade based on comparative advantage.
Already, many countries are talking about retaliation. For example, the EU is considering a ‘reciprocal’ tariff of 25% on cranberries, bourbon and Harley-Davidsons, all produced in politically sensitive US states (see the first The Economist article below). ‘As Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, puts it, “We can also do stupid”.’ In fact, this is quite a politically astute move to put pressure on Mr Trump.
But cannot countries appeal to the WTO? Possibly, but this route might take some time. What is more, the USA has attempted to get around WTO rules by justifying the tariffs on ‘national security’ grounds – something allowed under Article XXI of WTO rules, provided it can be justified. This could possibly deter countries from retaliating, but it is probably unlikely. In the current climate, there seems to be a growing mood for flouting, or at least loosely interpreting, WTO rules.
- Trump Authorizes Tariffs, Defying Allies at Home and Abroad
The New York Times, Peter Baker and Ana Swanson (8/3/18)
- Trump has been playing right into China’s hands
The Washington Post, Catherine Rampell (8/3/18)
- These American companies could be hurt by Trump’s tariffs
CNN Money, Julia Horowitz (8/3/18)
- Donald Trump signs order for metals tariff plan, prompting fears of trade war
The Guardian, Dominic Rushe (8/3/18)
- Trump’s Trade Wars, China Inc’.s Globalization Plan And The CPTPP — What’s Next?
Forbes, Alex Capri (8/3/18)
- A tariffically bad idea: The looming global trade war
The Economist (8/3/18)
- The threat to world trade: The rules-based system is in grave danger
The Economist (8/3/18)
- America’s allies will bear the brunt of Trump’s trade protectionism
The Conversation, Remy Davison (2/3/18)
- The war over steel: Trump tips global trade into new turmoil
The Observer, Phillip Inman (10/3/18)
- Explain how, by countries specialising in goods in which they have a comparative advantage, all countries can gain.
- Can tariffs or other trade restrictions ever be justified? Explain.
- Is there any economic justification for the US tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium?
- Can putting tariffs on US imports be justified by countries whose steel and/or aluminium industires are faced with US tariffs?
- Can trade wars be won? Explain.
A paper by three University of Sussex academics has just been published by the university’s UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO). It looks at possible trade relations between the UK and the EU post Brexit. It identifies four key government objectives or constraints – what the authors call ‘red lines’ – and five possible types of trade arrangement with the EU.
The four red lines the authors identify are:
||Limitations on the movement of people/labour;
||An independent trade policy;
||No compulsory budgetary contribution to the EU;
||Legal oversight by UK courts only and not by the European Court of Justice.
Just how tight each of these four constraints should be is a matter for debate and political decision. For example, how extensive the limitations on the movement of labour should be and whether or not there should be any ‘voluntary’ budgetary contributions to the EU are issues where there is scope for negotiation.
Alongside these constraints is the objective of continuing to have as much access to and influence over the Single Market as possible.
The five possible types of trade arrangement with the EU identified in the paper are as follows:
||Full Customs Union (CU) with the EU-27
||Partial Customs Union with EU (based on EU-Turkey CU)
||Free Trade Area (FTA) with access to the Single Market (European Economic Area)
||Free Trade Area without automatic access to Single Market
||Reversion to World Trade Organisation (WTO) Most Favoured Nation (MFN) terms
To clarify the terminology: a free trade area (FTA) is simply an agreement whereby member countries have no tariff barriers between themselves but individually can choose the tariffs they impose on imports from non-member countries; a customs union is a free trade area where all members impose common tariffs on imports from non-member countries and individual members are thus prevented from negotiating separate trade deals with non-member countries; membership of the European Economic Area requires accepting freedom of movement of labour and compulsory contributions to the EU budget; WTO Most Favoured Nation rules would involve the UK trading with the EU but with tariffs equal to the most favourable ones granted to other countries outside the EU and EEA.
The red lines would rule out the UK being part of the customs union or the EEA. Although WTO membership would not breach any of the red lines, the imposition of tariffs against UK exports would be damaging. So the option that seems most appealing to many ‘Brexiteers’ is to have a free trade area agreement with the EU and negotiate separate trade deals with other countries.
But even if a tariff-free arrangement were negotiated with the EU, there would still be constraints imposed on UK companies exporting to the EU: goods exported to the EU would have to meet various standards. But this would constrain the UK’s ability to negotiate trade deals with other countries, which might demand separate standards.
The paper and The Economist article explore these constraints and policy alternatives and come to the conclusion that there is no easy solution. The option that looks the best “from the UK government’s point of view and given its red lines, would be an FTA with a variety of special sectoral arrangements”.
Brexit means…a lot of complex trade decisions The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (15/11/16)
UK–EU Trade Relations post Brexit: Too Many Red Lines? UK Trade Policy observatory (UKTPO), Briefing Paper No. 5, Michael Gasiorek, Peter Holmes and Jim Rollo (November 2016)
- Explain the difference between a free trade area, a customs union and a single market.
- Go through each of the four red lines identified in the paper and consider what flexibility there might be in meeting them.
- What problems would there be in operating a free trade agreement with the EU while separately pursuing trade deals with other countries?
- What is meant by ‘mutual recognition’ and what is its significance in setting common standards in the Single Market?
- What problems are likely to arise in protecting the interests of the UK’s service-sector exports in a post-Brexit environment?
- What does the EU mean by ‘cherry picking’ in terms of trade arrangements? How might the EU’s attitudes in this regard constrain UK policy?
- Does the paper’s analysis suggest that a ‘hard Brexit’ is inevitable?
According to the law of comparative advantage, trade can benefit all countries if they export goods which they can produce at lower opportunity costs than their trading partners. Trade enables all countries to consume beyond their production possibility frontier. What is more, trade can increase competition, which encourages firms to be more efficient.
That trade is beneficial has been generally accepted by governments around the world since the Second World War, with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and then the World Trade Organization (WTO) advocating the dismantling of trade barriers. Countries have participated in a series of trade ’rounds’, such as the Uruguay Round (1986–94) and most recently the Doha Round (2001–15). But since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been waning enthusiasm for freer trade and growing calls to protect strategic and/or vulnerable industries. To some extent this mirrors the growth in protection after the Great Depression of the early 1930s as countries sought to boost their own industries.
After some progress in the Doha round talks in Nairobi in December 2015, the talks effectively marked the end of a fourteen-year road for the round (see also). There was a failure to agree on a number of items and chances of resurrecting the talks seem slim.
The classic response to calls for protection is that it can lead to a trade war, with a net loss in global output as less efficient domestic industries are shielded from competition from lower-cost imports. Consumers lose from no longer having access to cheaper imported goods. Trade wars, it is argued, are a negative sum game. Any gains to one country are more than offset by losses elsewhere. In fact, it is likely that all countries will lose.
One argument for protection recognises the efficiency gains from free trade, but argues that current trade is distorted. For example, countries may subsidise the export of products in which they have a comparative disadvantage and dump them on the rest of the world. The WTO recognises this as a legitimate argument for tariffs, if they are used to offset the effect of the subsidies and make import prices more reflective of the cost of production.
But increasingly arguments go beyond this. Industries that are regarded as strategic to a country’s future, such as the steel industry or agriculture, are seen as warranting protection. With protection, investment may flow to such industries, making them more efficient and even gaining a comparative advantage at some point in the future.
Then there is the question of income distribution. Trade with poor countries may help to close the gap somewhat between rich and poor countries. The reason is that poor countries, with an abundance of labour, are likely to have a comparative advantage in labour-intensive products. The demand for exports of such products will help to drive up wages in such countries. However, income distribution within the rich countries may become less equal. Cheap imports from developing countries may depress the wages of unskilled or low-skilled workers in the rich countries.
Another argument concerns the devastation caused to communities by the closure of plants which are major employers. Workers made redundant may find it hard to find alternative employment, especially if their skills are specific to the plant that has closed. At least in the short term, it is argued that such industries warrant protection to allow time for alternative employers to be attracted into the area.
Arguments such as these are being used today in many countries as they struggle with slowing growth in China, a glut of global resources and overcapacity in certain industries.
The steel industry is a case in point. The announcement by Tata Steel that it intends to close the Port Talbot steel works has been met with consternation and calls for protection against subsidised Chinese steel imports. The USA already imposes tariffs of 256% on corrosion-resistant Chinese steel. The EU has proposed raising tariffs on Chinese steel to the full amount of the subsidy, but the UK has blocked this, not wishing to trigger a trade war with China. In the meantime, China has announced the imposition of a tariff of 46% on a particular type of hi-tech steel imported from the EU.
On the other side of the Atlantic, there have been growing protectionist calls from presidential front runners. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on the Republican side, and Bernie Sanders and now Hilary Clinton on the Democratic side, are opposed to the trade agreement that President Obama has been seeking with the EU – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Donald Trump has proposed imposing tariffs of 45% on all Chinese imports.
The following articles look at the growing calls for protection, especially against China, and at the arguments about what should be done to protect the UK and EU steel industry.
Defiant China slaps steel tariffs on Britain as trade war looms The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (1/4/16)
China’s soaring steel exports may presage a trade war, The Economist (9/12/15)
Trade, at what price? The Economist (30/3/16)
Free trade in America: Open argument The Economist (2/4/16)
Can the British steel industry be saved? Financial Times (2/4/16)
Steel crisis: UK government plays down China tariff fears BBC News (2/4/16)
The dogmas destroying UK steel also inhibit future economic growth The Observer, WIll Hutton (3/4/16)
UK accused of leading efforts to block limits to Chinese steel dumping The Guardian, Frances Perraudin (1/4/16)
There’s always an excuse to justify suspending free trade – Tata is the latest The Telegraph, Allister Heath (1/4/16)
Can one of the world’s top economies live without making steel? Bloomberg, Thomas Biesheuvel (1/4/16)
Trade policy is no longer just for political nerds: it matters in the UK and US The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/3/16)
Steel shrivels while Britain’s balance of payments crisis grows The Observer, WIlliam Keegan (3/4/16)
Trump’s tariff plan could boomerang, spark trade wars with China, Mexico Reuters, David Lawder and Roberta Rampton (24/3/16)
Analysis: A Trump trade war could cost the U.S. millions of jobs Daily Herald (Chicago), Jim Tankersley (3/4/16)
- What is meant by the ‘law of comparative advantage’? Does the law imply that countries will always gain from totally free trade?
- Demonstrate the gains for each of two countries which choose to trade with each other (see, for example, pages 711–3 in Economics, 9th edition).
- What is meant by ‘strategic trade theory’? How would such theory relate to the case of steel production in south Wales?
- What are the arguments for and against the EU imposing tariffs on Chinese steel imports equal to the subsidy given by the Chinese government?
- Is protectionism always a negative sum game? Explain.
- Assess the validity of various arguments for protection.
- Why did it prove impossible to complete the Doha round?
- What is meant by the ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)’? Why is there so much opposition to it?
- Are bilateral trade deals, such as the TTIP, the best way of moving forward in reaping the gains from freer trade?
One thing that economists often argue for is free trade. It promotes competition, allows greater choice and generates efficiency gains through specialisation to name a few of the advantages. Barriers to trade have gradually been brought down across the global economy, but some do still exist.
Although free trade does have many advantages, there are also arguments for barriers to trade, especially for developing or emerging economies. In some cases, barriers to trade can help a country to develop a particular industry or offer protection to a new sector from the giants of the world. In the case of China, it had a quota system in place since 2009 to restrict exports of ‘rare earth materials’, such as Tungsten and Molybdenum. Many of the hi-tech products that China specialises in require these rare minerals during production and, as the dominant producer of these minerals, Beijing had imposed restrictions on exporting them in an attempt to develop these industries.
However, other countries had raised concerns about the quota system being used, suggesting that by restricting exports of rare earth minerals, China was driving up their price. It was also suggested that the restrictions benefited domestic producers, at the expense of foreign competitors, given that domestic producers were able to access the raw materials at cheaper prices.
A complaint was made to the World Trade Organization in March 2014 by the USA, supported by the EU, Canada and Japan. Following an investigation by a WTO panel, the panel found that China had failed to show sufficiently that the quotas were justified. After an appeal by China, the panel’s findings were upheld in August by the WTO.
In response to the failure of its appeal, China has just announced that it is removing the quotas on exports of rare earth materials. However, this is unlikely to be the end of the story, as other policies may well be imposed, including a resources tax; and an export licence is still required. The following articles consider this battle.
China axes rare earth export quotas Financial Times, Lucy Hornby (5/1/15)
China scraps quotas on rare earths after WTO complaint BBC News (5/1/15)
China ends rare-earth minerals export quotas Wall Street Journal, Chuin-Wei Yap (5/1/15)
China scraps rare earth export controls after losing WTO appeal Bloomberg (6/1/15)
China abolishes rare earth export quotas: state media Reuters (4/1/15)
- What are the benefits of free trade?
- Why do some countries choose to impose protectionist measures and what type of measures can be put in place?
- Using a diagram, explain the impact that export quotas would have on Chinese firms using these rare minerals and also on foreign firms.
- Why have other countries argued that export quotas push up prices of these minerals?
- What other policies might China put in place in order to protect its industries?