The President of the United States, Donald Trump, announced recently that he will be pushing ahead with plans to impose a 25% tariff on imports of steel and a 10% tariff on aluminium. This announcement has raised concerns among the USA’s largest trading partners – including the EU, Canada and Mexico, which, according to recent calculations, expect to lose more than $5 billion in steel exports and over $1 billion in aluminium exports.
A number of economists and policymakers are worried that such policies restrict trade and are likely to provoke retaliation by the affected trade partners. In recent statements, the EU has pledged to take counter-measures if the bloc is affected by these policies. In a recent press conference, the Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmstrom, stated that:
We have made it clear that a move that hurts the EU and puts thousands of European jobs in jeopardy will be met with a firm and proportionate response.
She added that, ‘I truly hope that this will not happen. A trade war has no winners.’
Why is everyone so worried about trade wars then? Trade wars, by definition, result in trade diversion which can hurt employment, wealth creation and overall economic performance in the affected countries. As affected states are almost certain to retaliate, these losses are likely to be felt by all parties that are involved in a trade war – including the one that instigated it. This results in a net welfare loss, the size of which depends on a number of factors, including the relative size of the countries that take part in the trade war, the importance of the affected industries to the local economy and others.
A number of studies have attempted to estimate the effect of trade restrictions and tariff wars on welfare: see for instance Anderson and Wincoop (2001), Syropoulos (2002), Fellbermayr et al. (2013). The results vary widely, depending on the case. However, there seems to be consensus that the more similar (in terms of size and industry composition) the adversaries are, the more mutually damaging a trade war is likely to be (and, therefore, less likely to happen).
As Miyagiwa et al (2016, p43) explain:
A country initiates contingent protection policy against a trading partner only if the latter has a considerably smaller domestic market than its own, while avoiding confrontation with a country having a substantially larger domestic market than its own.
As both Canada and the EU are very large advanced market economies, it remains to be seen how much risk (and potential damage to the local and global economy) US trade policymakers are willing to take.
Many of the arguments used by both sides in the referendum debate centre on whether there will be a net economic gain from either remaining in or leaving the EU. This involves forecasting.
Forecasting the economic impact of the decision, however, is difficult, especially in the case of a leave vote, which would involve substantial change and uncertainty.
First, the effects of either remaining or leaving may be very different in the long run from the short run, and long-run forecasts are highly unreliable, as the economy is likely to be affected by so many unpredictable events – few people, for example, predicted the financial crisis of 2007–8.
Second, the effects of leaving depend on the nature of any future trading relationships with the EU. Various possibilities have been suggested, including ‘the Norwegian model’, where Britain leaves the EU, but joins the European Economic Area, giving access to the single market, but removing regulation in some key areas, such as fisheries and home affairs. Another possibility is ‘the Swiss model’, where the UK would negotiate trade deals on an individual basis. Another would be ‘the Turkish model’ where the UK forms a customs union with the EU. At the extreme, the UK could make a complete break from the EU and simply use its membership of the WTO to make trade agreements.
Nevertheless, despite the uncertainty, economists have ventured to predict the effects of remaining or leaving. These are not precise predictions for the reasons given above. Rather they are based on likely assumptions.
In a poll of 100 economists for the Financial Times, ‘almost three-quarters thought leaving the EU would damage the country’s medium-term outlook, nine times more than the 8 per cent who thought the country would benefit from leaving’. Most fear damage to financial markets in the UK and to inward foreign direct investment.
Despite the barrage of pessimistic forecasts by economists about a British exit, there is a group of eight economists in favour of Brexit. They claim that leaving the EU would lead to a stronger economy, with higher GDP, a faster growth in real wages, lower unemployment and a smaller gap between imports and exports. The main argument they use to support their claims is that the UK would be more able to pursue trade creation freed from various EU rules and regulations.
Then, less than four weeks before the vote, a poll of economists who are members of the Royal Economic Society and the Society of Business Economists came out strongly in favour of continued membership of the EU. Of the 639 respondents, 72 per cent thought that the most likely impact of Brexit on UK real GDP would be negative over the next 10 to 20 years; and 88 per cent thought the impact on GDP would be negative in the next five years (see chart: click to enlarge).
Of those stating that a negative impact on GDP in the next 5 years would be most likely, a majority cited loss of access to the single market (67%) and increased uncertainty leading to reduced investment (66%).
International organisations, such as the OECD, the IMF and the WTO, also argue that leaving the EU would create great uncertainty over future trade relations and access to the Single Market and would reduce inward foreign direct investment and the flow of skills.
But the forecasts of all these organisations depend on their assumptions about trade relations and that, in the event of the UK leaving the EU, would depend on the outcome of trade negotiations. The Leave campaign argues that other countries would want to trade with the UK and that therefore leaving would not damage trade. The Remain campaign argues that the EU would not wish to be generous to the UK for fear of encouraging other countries to leave the EU and that, anyway, the process of decoupling from the EU and negotiating new trade deals would take many years and, in the meantime, the uncertainty would be damaging to investment and growth.
The articles linked below looks at the economic arguments about Brexit and reflect the range of views of economists. Several are from ‘The Conversation’ as these are by academic economists. Although some economists are in favour of Brexit, the vast majority support the Remain side in the debate.