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?
Governments of twelve Pacific rim nations, including the USA, Canada, Japan and Australia have just agreed to a trade deal – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This represents the most significant trade deal since the completion of the Uruguay Round and the creation of the World Trade Organisation in 1994. Together these countries account for some 40% of global GDP. The deal must still be signed by the leaders of the TPP countries, however, and, more importantly, ratified by their legislatures, where, to put it mildly, agreement is not universal.
The deal is hailed as a move towards freer trade in a number of areas, including agriculture and services. But it also provides greater protection for owners of intellectual property. Proponents of the deal argue that it will to lead large-scale reductions in tariffs and other trade restrictions. As the Economist article states:
For American exporters alone, 18,000 individual tariffs will be reduced to zero. Much the same will be true for firms in the other 11 members. Even agricultural barriers, usually among the most heavily defended, will start to come down. Foreigners will gain a toehold in Canada’s dairy sector and a bigger share of Japan’s beef market, for example.
But despite this being the biggest trade deal for some 20 years, it has been highly criticised by various groups. Freer trade threatens industries that will face competition from other countries in the TPP. This unites both corporations and unions in trying to protect their own specific interests. However, the agreement gives ground to many special industries by retaining protection in a number of areas, at least for several years.
It has also been criticised by environmentalists who worry about the removal of various environmental safeguards. In answer to these concerns, there are several provisions in the agreement that provide some measure of environmental protection so as to slow things such as deforestation, overfishing and carbon emissions. But environmentalists argue that these provisions do not go far enough.
Others are concerned that the agreement will allow corporations to challenge governments and undermine the ability of governments to regulate them.
The articles look at some of the details of the agreement and at the arguments for and against ratifying it. Some of these arguments go to the heart of the age-old free trade versus protection debate.
US, Japan and 10 countries strike Pacific trade deal Financial Times, Shawn Donnan and Demetri Sevastopulo (5/10/15)
What Trade-Deal Critics Are Missing Wall Street Journal, Zachary Karabell (8/10/15)
The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Weighing anchor The Economist (10/10/15)
A trade deal is no excuse to milk taxpayers Globe and Mail (Canada), Yuen Pau Woo (7/10/15)
What Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP)? Electronic Frontier Foundation
Wikileaks release of TPP deal text stokes ‘freedom of expression’ fears The Guardian, Sam Thielman (9/10/15)
TPP’s clauses that let Australia be sued are weapons of legal destruction, says lawyer The Guardian, Jess Hill (10/11/15)
- Who are likely to benefit from the TPP?
- Why are American republicans generally opposed to the agreement?
- What are the objections to the TPP’s provisions for the protection of intellectual property rights?
- Would the current twelve members of the TPP gain if China joined?
- What are the objections of environmentalists to TPP?
- What effect will the TPP on European countries?
- Other than a reduction in tariffs, what other types of measures are included in the TPP?
- What is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism and what criticisms have been made of it? Are they justified?
In October 2004, the USA lodged a complaint with the WTO. The claim was that the EU was paying illegal subsidies to Airbus to develop new aircraft, such as the superjumbo, the A380. This provoked a counter-complaint by Airbus, claiming unfair subsidies for Boeing by the US government since 1992. In July 2005, two panels were set up to deal with the two sets of allegations.
A ruling on the US claim was published on 30 June 2010. The WTO found Airbus guilty of using some illegal subsidies to win contracts through predatory pricing. For example, some of the ‘launch aid’ (LA) for research and development was given at below market rates and hence violated WTO rules. Also the provision of infrastructure and infrastructure grants for runways, factories, etc. also violated the rules. However, the WTO dismissed some of Boeing’s claims, as many of the subsidies were reimbursable at commercial rates of interest.
We still await a ruling on the EU’s complaint against US support for Boeing. This is due later in July.
WTO backs Boeing in Airbus dispute Financial Times, Joshua Chaffin and Jeremy Lemer (30/6/10)
FACTBOX-Subsidies and the WTO – issue at heart of Airbus case Reuters (30/6/10)
Q&A-What next in the Airbus dispute? Reuters (30/6/10)
TIMELINE-Key dates in Airbus subsidy dispute Reuters (30/6/10)
EU Airbus subsidies illegal, says WTO BBC News (30/6/10)
Boeing and Airbus row ruling to be made public BBC News, Richard Scott (30/6/10)
European loan rates to Airbus illegally low, says WTO Europolitics, Chiade O’Shea (30/6/10)
Airbus Subsidies From Europe Are Ruled Improper New York Times, Christopher Drew (30/6/10)
Airbus-Boeing Rivals May Benefit From Spat Aviation Week, Madhu Unnikrishnan (28/6/10)
WTO issues panel report on Airbus dispute WTO (30/6/10)
Data on orders and deliveries
Competition between Airbus and Boeing (orders and deliveries) Wikipedia
- What is meant by ‘predatory pricing’?
- Which subsidies were found to be illegal by the WTO? What was it about them that violated WTO rules?
- What is Airbus’s complaint against Boeing?
- How might strategic trade theory be used to justify subsidies given to Airbus?
- In what ways might the disputes between Boeing and Airbus benefit other aircraft manufacturers?
In October 2004, the USA brought a complaint to the WTO that Airbus had received illegal subsidies from the UK, French, German and Spanish governments. One of these subsidies was the so-called ‘launch aid’, which the US government argued was a form of export subsidy. In a counter-complaint to the WTO made on the same day, the EU maintained that the US government had provided illegal support to Boeing in the form of subsidies, legislation, regulations and other administrative measures.
On 4 September 2009, the EU and the USA were handed the confidential preliminary findings by the WTO panel in the first of the two disputes. This found that some of the support measures by the EU countries violated WTO rules. However, some two thirds of the complaints by the USA were dismissed.
Despite some progress in its deliberations, the WTO is unlikely to give a final judgment in the first case for several months and not even a preliminary report has been issued on the second case (the EU’s complaint against the USA). But can any conclusions be drawn at this interim stage? The following videos and articles look at the findings and their implications.
Airbus violated trade laws msnbc news (4/9/09)
WTO issues report on Airbus-Boeing dispute AlJazeera (4/9/09)
Update – Boeing vs. Airbus Bloomberg (4/9/09)
Airbus Loans Toward A380 Jumbo Faulted in WTO Ruling Bloomberg (4/9/09)
World trade body ruling reflects pre-crisis time Boston Globe (Associated Press report) (5/9/09)
WTO rules that Airbus benefited from E.U. subsidies MarketWatch (4/9/09)
Boeing wins first round in trade battle with Airbus Independent (5/9/09)
WTO rules on huge plane dispute BBC News (4/9/09)
Boeing and Airbus: Round one to Boeing The Economist (4/9/09)
Partial US victory on Airbus funds Financial Times (5/9/09)
- What sanctions does the WTO have to enforce its rulings? (see the WTO site.)
- What sanctions do individual governments have for ensuring that countries abide by the WTO rulings?
- How could strategic trade theory be used to justify support to aircraft manufacturers? Do such arguments apply to Airbus and Boeing?
- Do airlines and airline passengers gain or lose from the behaviour of Airbus and Boeing? Should the WTO take this into account?