Late January sees the annual global World Economic Forum meeting of politicians, businesspeople and the great and the good at Davos in Switzerland. Global economic, political, social and environmental issues are discussed and, sometimes, agreements are reached between world leaders. The 2019 meeting was somewhat subdued as worries persist about a global slowdown, Brexit and the trade war between the USA and China. Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Theresa May were all absent, each having more pressing issues to attend to at home.
There was, however, a feeling that the world economic order is changing, with the rise in populism and with less certainty about the continuance of the model of freer trade and a model of capitalism modified by market intervention. There was also concern about the roles of the three major international institutions set up at the end of World War II: the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO (formerly the GATT). In a key speech, Angela Merkel urged countries not to abandon the world economic order that such institutions help to maintain. The world can only resolve disputes and promote development, she argued, by co-operating and respecting the role of such institutions.
But the role of these institutions has been a topic of controversy for many years and their role has changed somewhat. Originally, the IMF’s role was to support an adjustable peg exchange rate system (the ‘Bretton Woods‘ system) with the US dollar as the international reserve currency. It would lend to countries in balance of payments deficit to allow them to maintain their rate pegged to the dollar unless it was perceived to be a fundamental deficit, in which case they were expected to devalue their currency. The system collapsed in 1971, but the IMF continued to provide short-term, and sometimes longer-term, finance to countries in balance of payments difficulties.
The World Bank was primarily set up to provide development finance to poorer countries. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and then the WTO were set up to encourage freer trade and to resolve trade disputes.
However, the institutions were perceived with suspicion by many developing countries and by more left-leaning developed countries, who saw them as part of the ‘Washington consensus’. Loans from the IMF and World Bank were normally contingent on countries pursuing policies of market liberalisation, financial deregulation and privatisation.
Although there has been some movement, especially by the IMF, towards acknowledging market failures and supporting a more broadly-based development, there are still many economists and commentators calling for more radical reform of these institutions. They advocate that the World Bank and IMF should directly support investment – public as well as private – and support the Green New Deal.
- What was the Bretton Woods system that was adopted at the end of World War II?
- What did Keynes propose as an alternative to the system that was actually adopted?
- Explain the roles of (a) the IMF, (b) the World Bank, (c) the WTO (formerly the GATT).
- What is meant by an adjustable exchange rate system?
- Why did the Bretton Woods system collapse in 1971?
- How have the roles of the IMF, World Bank and WTO/GATT evolved since they were founded?
- What reforms would you suggest to each of the three institutions and why?
- What threats are there currently to the international economic order?
- Summarise the arguments about the world economic order made by Angela Merkel in her address to the World Economic Forum.
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?