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.
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.
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.
President-elect Donald Trump has blamed free trade for much of America’s economic problems. He argues that cheap imports from China, partly from an undervalued yuan, have led to a loss of jobs and to large-scale income flows from the USA to China. “They have taken our jobs; they have taken our money; and on top of that they have loaned the money to us and we actually pay them interest now on money,” he claimed to The Economist.
And it’s not just trade with China that he criticises. He sees cheap imports from developing countries generally as undermining US jobs. The solution he advocates is the imposition of tariffs on imports that threaten US jobs and scrapping, or fundamentally renegotiating, trade deals.
He refers to NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico – as the worst trade deal in US history and blames it for the loss of thousands of US manufacturing jobs. He has said that he will demand better terms from Mexico and Canada. If they don’t agree to them, he’d pull the USA out of NAFTA altogether.
A more recent trade agreement is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 other Pacific rim countries (but not including China). The agreement was signed on 4 February 2016, but is awaiting ratification from member countries. Amongst other things, the agreement cuts over 18,000 tariffs. Donald Trump has said that he would block the deal, even though it would lead to the elimination of tariffs on most US manufactured and agricultural products exported to the other countries. He argues that it would lead to a large-scale loss of US jobs from cheap imports.
Another major trade deal criticised by Trump is that being negotiated between the USA and the EU – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). It has already faced fierce opposition in Europe, with many fearing that it would give too much power to US corporations in their operations in Europe. With the opposition from Trump, it looks unlikely that the agreement will be signed, even in an amended form.
So is this more protectionist stance by Donald Trump in America’s interests? The main argument against restricting imports is that people generally in the USA would be poorer. This is the prediction from the law of comparative advantage. Trade allows a country to consume beyond its production possibility curve by specialising in the production of goods with relatively low opportunity costs and importing goods which would have had a higher opportunity cost if they were produced domestically (see, for example, Economics, 9th edition, pages 711–4). By imposing tariffs or other restrictions on cheap imports, consumers would end up paying more for such goods if they now have to be produced domestically. Cheap Chinese t-shirts would be replaced by expensive US ones. Real US incomes would be lower.
Another danger of pursuing protectionist policies is that other countries might retaliate. Trade wars might result, with the world ending up poorer.
Then there is a problem of locating products. It is not a simple question of saying a product is made in the USA or elsewhere. With complex modern supply chains, many products use components and services, such as design and logistics, from many different countries. Imposing restrictions on imports may lead to damage to products which are seen as US products.
An open trade policy, by contrast, not only leads to higher consumption, it stimulates economic growth and the extra competition it creates improves domestic productivity. As the pro-free trade article by Graeme Leach, linked below, argues:
There is overwhelming evidence that free trade improves economic performance by increasing competition in the domestic market. Trade disciplines domestic firms with market power, and simultaneously promotes productivity growth. Research also shows that a 10 per cent increase in trade leads to a 5 per cent increase in per capita income. More open trade policies are associated with higher per capita incomes.
And as the article by Clark Packard argues:
There is no question that America’s middle and lower classes have benefited from our trade liberalization. Through the widely accepted principle of comparative advantage in our trade policies, productivity has surged and prices have declined. Lower prices save the average American family thousands of dollars a year on goods they consume, raising the standard of living through enhanced purchasing power.
Despite these arguments, there is one crucial problem with free trade. Although overall levels of consumption may be higher, trade may make some people poorer. If workers in the US steel or garment industries lose their jobs because of cheap imports, they will certainly feel worse off, especially if there is no prospect of them getting another job elsewhere. They may lack transferable skills or have too many family or personal ties to move elsewhere in the country.
The government could help to ameliorate the problems of those made unemployed by providing retraining or resettlement grants or by investing in infrastructure projects that require relatively low skilled, but local, construction workers. But, as the Forbes article states:
It is in helping displaced workers of all types that US government, as well as the leaders of other rich countries, have largely failed. Little has been done to assist laid-off workers whose industries simply cannot compete in developed countries anymore.
What is more, inequality has been growing in the USA, and in most other developed countries too. International trade and investment and the growing concentration of power in large corporations has meant that most of the gains from trade have gone to the richest people. Many of the poor blame trade for their plight and the argument that they have still made some gains is either not believed or is not enough to appease them.
An interesting insight into why people may have voted for Trump and his policy of protectionism is provided by the Ultimatum Game (see also). As the final article below explains:
The game itself involves two players. The first player receives a sum of money, and gets to propose how to divide it between the two players. The second player can do only one thing: accept or reject the proposal. If the second player accepts, then the money is divided between the two players as proposed. But if the second player rejects the proposal, then neither player gets anything.
It might seem that the rational thing for the second person to do is to accept whatever the first person proposes, however little it gives to the second person providing it is something – after all, even a little is better than nothing. But experiments show that people playing the second person do not behave in that way. They seek a fair distribution. If the proposed distribution is perceived as unfair, they would prefer to reject the proposal, with both players getting nothing.
This may help to explain the psychology of poor blue-collar workers. They would rather punish the rich a lot, and possibly themselves a little, than let the rich continue getting richer while they are stuck on low wages with little prospect for improvement. But, of course, they may also believe Trump’s rhetoric that they will indeed be better off from protectionist policies that help save their jobs.
What precisely Donald Trump will do about trade agreements and protection, we will have to wait and see. Often what is pledged in an election campaign is not carried out in office or is substantially watered down.
Use a simple two-product production possibility diagram to demonstrate the possible consumption gains to a country from trading with another country and specialising in exporting the good in which it has a comparative advantage.
Search Donald Trump’s speeches to identify statements he has made about the trade policies he will pursue as president.
Explain why some people may gain more from free trade than others. Why do the people who have gained the most tend to be the richest people?
What are the arguments for and against the free movement of labour (a) within countries; (b) between countries?
Compare the relative benefits and costs of tariffs and various forms of administrative constraints on trade.
If the second player in the ultimatum game rejects an ‘unfair’ offer, should this behaviour be described as ‘irrational? Explain.
Find out the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. In what ways, other than through increased trade, would the agreement benefit the residents of the member countries?
Does free trade threaten employment in the long term? Explain.
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.
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.