An agreement in principle was reached on September 30 between the USA, Canada and Mexico over a new trade deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). President Trump had described NAFTA as ‘the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.’ The new deal, named the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, is the result of 14 months of negotiations, which have often been fractious. A provisional bilateral agreement was made between the USA and Mexico in August. At the same time, President Trump threatened a trade war with Canada if it did not reach a trade agreement with the USA (and Mexico). The new USMCA must be ratified by lawmakers in all three countries before it can come into force. This could take a few months.
So is USMCA a radical departure from NAFTA? Does the USA stand to gain substantially, as President Trump claims? In fact, USMCA is little different from NAFTA. It could best be described as a relatively modest reworking of NAFTA. So what are the changes?
The first change affects the car industry. From 2020, 75% of the components of any vehicle crossing between the USA and Canada or Mexico must be made within one or more of the three countries to qualify for tariff-free treatment. The aim is to boost production within the region. But the main change here is merely an increase in the proportion from the current 62.5%.
A more significant change affecting the car industry concerns wages. Between 40% and 45% of a vehicle’s components must be made by workers earning at least US$16 per hour. This is some three times more than the average wage currently earned by Mexican car workers. Although it will benefit such workers, it will reduce Mexico’s competitive advantage and could hence lead to some diversion of production away from Mexico. Also, it could push up the price of cars.
The agreement has also strengthened various standards inadequately covered in NAFTA. According to The Conversation article:
The new agreement includes stronger protections for patents and trademarks in areas such as biotech, financial services and domain names – all of which have advanced considerably over the past quarter century. It also contains new provisions governing the expansion of digital trade and investment in innovative products and services.
Separately, negotiators agreed to update labor and environmental standards, which were not central to the 1994 accord and are now typical in modern trade agreements. Examples include enforcing a minimum wage for autoworkers, stricter environmental standards for Mexican trucks and lots of new rules on fishing to protect marine life.
Another area where the USMCA agreement has made changes concerns trade in dairy products. This particularly affects Canada, which has agreed to allow more US dairy products tariff-free into Canada (see the CNN article at the end of the list of articles below). New higher quotas will give US dairy farmers access to 3.6% of Canada’s dairy market. They will still pay tariffs on dairy exports to Canada that exceed the quotas, ranging from 200% to 300%.
The other significant change for consumers in Mexico and Canada is a rise in the value of duty-free imports they can bring in from the USA, including online transactions. As the first BBC article listed below states:
The new agreement raises duty-free shopping limits to $100 to enter Mexico and C$150 ($115) to enter Canada without facing import duties – well above the $50 previously allowed in Mexico and C$20 permitted by Canada. That’s good news for online shoppers in Mexico and Canada – as well as shipping firms and e-commerce companies, especially giants like Amazon.
Despite these changes, USMCA is very similar to NAFTA. It is still a preferential trade deal between the three countries, but certainly not a completely free trade deal – but nor was NAFTA.
And for the time being, US tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminium imports remain in place. Perhaps, with the conclusion of the USMCA agreement, the Trump administration will now, as promised, consider lifting these tariffs.
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.