In the light of the Brexit vote and the government’s position that the UK will leave the single market and customs union, there has been much discussion of the need for the UK to achieve trade deals. Indeed, a UK-US trade deal was one of the key issues on Theresa May’s agenda when she met Donald Trump just a week after his inauguration.
But what forms can a trade deal take? What does achieving one entail? What are likely to be the various effects on different industries – who will be the winners and losers? And what role does comparative advantage play? The articles below examine these questions.
Given that up until Brexit, the UK already has free trade with the rest of the EU, there is a lot to lose if barriers are erected when the UK leaves. In the meantime, it is vital to start negotiating new trade deals, a process that can be extremely difficult and time-consuming.
A far as new trade arrangements with the EU are concerned, these cannot be agreed until after the UK leaves the EU, in approximately two years’ time, although the government is keen that preliminary discussions take place as soon as Article 50 is triggered, which the government plans to do by the end of March.
Trade deals are difficult to negotiate and Britain lacks the skills for the job The Conversation, Nigel Driffield (27/1/17)
Why a U.S.-U.K. Trade Deal Could be Harder than it Sounds Newsweek, Josh Lowe (26/1/17)
UK-US trade deal will have ‘very small upsides’ for Britain, says former Bank of England economist Independent, Rob Merrick (26/1/17)
Trump says he wants a U.K. trade deal. Don’t hold your breath CNN Money, Alanna Petroff (23/1/16)
Reality Check: Can there be a quick UK-USA trade deal? BBC News, Jonty Bloom (16/1/17)
- What elements would be included in a UK-US trade deal?
- Explain the gains from trade that can result from exploiting comparative advantage.
- Explain the statement in the article that allowing trade to be determined by comparative advantage is ‘often politically unacceptable, as governments generally look to protect jobs and tax revenues, as well as to protect activities that fund innovation’.
- Why is it difficult to work out in advance the likely effects on trade of a trade deal?
- What would be the benefits and costs to the UK of allowing all countries’ imports into the UK tariff free?
- What are meant by ‘trade creation’ and ‘trade diversion’? What determines the extent to which a trade deal will result in trade creation or trade diversion?
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.
How Donald Trump thinks about trade The Economist (9/11/16)
What President Trump’s victory means for the most important trade deal in the world Independent, James Moore (9/11/16)
Trump and trade: A radical agenda? BBC News, Ben Morris (9/11/16)
Trump could change trade stance, says former Bush adviser BBC News, Tom Espiner (11/11/16)
3 Ways President-Elect Trump May Shake Up Trade Policy NPR, Marilyn Geewax (9/11/16)
Donald Trump Win to Upend Trade Policy Nasdaq, William Mauldin and John Lyons (9/11/16)
Stiglitz Grades Donald Trump an F on Economics Bloomberg, Enda Curran and Angie Lau (19/9/16)
Trump can kill trade deals but he can’t kill globalisation The Conversation, Remy Davison (10/11/16)
Anti-free trader Donald Trump is on a collision course with economic reality City A.M., Graeme Leach (9/11/16)
What Trump And Clinton Both Get Wrong On Trade Forbes, Simon Constable (4/11/16)
The Rabble Understands Trade Pretty Well Huffington Post, Brad Miller (4/11/16)
Contrary to Donald Trump’s claims, free trade benefits the poorest Americans U.S.News, Clark Packard (27/10/16)
The Meaning of Open Trade and Open Borders The New Yorker, Bernard Avishai (17/10/16)
We just saw what voters do when they feel screwed. Here’s the economic theory of why they do it. Quartz, James Allworth (9/11/16)
- 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.
The 159 member countries of the World Trade Organisation have reached an agreement on liberalising trade. The deal, which was reached on 6 December 2013 at a meeting in Bali, is the first substantial agreement since the WTO was formed in 1995 (see Timeline: World Trade Organization for other agreements).
It involves simplifying customs procedures and making them more transparent, limited reductions in tariffs and quotas and allowing greater access to WTO members’ markets for exporters. It also permits developing countries to continue subsidising their agriculture in order to promote food security, provided the practice does not distort international trade. According to the WTO:
The trade facilitation decision is a multilateral deal to simplify customs procedures by reducing costs and improving their speed and efficiency. It will be a legally binding agreement and is one of the biggest reforms of the WTO since its establishment in 1995. …The objectives are: to speed up customs procedures; make trade easier, faster and cheaper; provide clarity, efficiency and transparency; reduce bureaucracy and corruption, and use technological advances. It also has provisions on goods in transit, an issue particularly of interest to landlocked countries seeking to trade through ports in neighbouring countries.
In a report published by the Peterson Institute in Washington, it is estimated that the extra trade will add some $960bn to world GDP and create some 20.6m extra jobs. But how fully does it meet the objectives of the Doha Development Agenda, the yet-to-be-concluded trade round started in Qatar in November 2001?
According to the EU’s trade commissioner Karel De Gucht, about one quarter of the goals set for the Doha Round have been achieved in this agreement. This, of course, still leaves a long way to go if all the Doha objectives are to be met. World trade, although now likely to be somewhat freer, is still not free; developing countries will still find restricted access for their agricultural products, and manufactures too, to many markets in the rich world; rich countries will still find restricted access for their manufactured products and services to many markets in the developing world.
A ‘lifeline’ to the world’s poor: Cameron hails WTO historic global trade deal Independent, Kashmira Gander (7/12/13)
Timeline: World Trade Organization BBC News (7/12/13)
WTO Seals Deal for First Time in 18 Years to Ease Trade Bloomberg, Neil Chatterjee, Brian Wingfield & Daniel Pruzin (7/12/13)
WTO agrees global trade deal worth $1tn BBC News, Andrew Walker (7/12/13)
WTO: Government’s tough stand helps clinch deal in its favour Economic Times of India (7/12/13)
India Inc, exporters welcome WTO pact on trade The Hindu, Sandeep Dikshit (7/12/13)
WTO: Pact will help poor Bangkok Post (7/12/13)
WTO overcomes last minute hitch to reach its first global trade deal NDTV Profit (7/12/13)
WTO reaches ‘historic’ trade deal in Bali Aljazeera (7/12/13)
WTO agrees global trade deal worth $1tn BBC News, Karel De Gucht (7/12/13)
Why the WTO agreement in Bali has finally helped developing countries The Guardian, Paige McClanahan (6/12/13)
WTO agreement condemned as deal for corporations, not world’s poor The Guardian, Phillip Inman (7/12/13)
Bali trade agreement: WTO set the bar high but has achieved little The Guardian, Larry Elliott (6/12/13)
Reports and documents
Payoff from the World Trade Agenda, 2013 Peterson Institute for International Economics, Gary Hufbauer and Jeffrey Schott (April 2013)
Days 3, 4 and 5: Round-the-clock consultations produce ‘Bali Package’ WTO (7/12/13)
Draft Bali Ministerial Declaration WTO (see, in particular, Agreement on Trade Facilitation) (7/12/13)
- According to the law of comparative advantage, there is a net gain from international trade. Explain why.
- What are the likely gains from freer trade?
- Is freer trade necessarily better than less free trade?
- Who is likely to gain most from the WTO deal reached in Bali?
- What were the goals of the Doha Development Agenda?
- In what ways does the Bali agreement fall short of the goals set at Doha in 2001?
- Why is it so difficult to reach a comprehensive international deal on trade liberalisation that also protects the interests of poor countries?
- Do you agree with the World Development Movement (WDM) that the Bali Package is “an agreement for transnational corporations, not the world’s poor”?
- Would it now benefit the world for individual countries to pursue bilateral trade deals?
With countries around the globe struggling to recover from recession, many seem to believe that the answer lies in a growth in exports. But how can this be achieved? A simple solution is to lower the exchange rate.
Under a pegged exchange rate, the currency could be devalued. Alternatively, if the country’s inflation is lower than that of other countries, merely leaving the exchange rate pegged at its current level will bring about a real devaluation (in purchasing-power parity terms).
Under a floating exchange rate, one answer would be to lower interest rates. This would involve open market operations to support the lower rate and that would increase the money supply. But with central banks’ interest rates at virtually zero, it is not possible to lower them further. In such circumstances a solution would be a deliberate policy of increasing the money supply through “quantitative easing”. For example, the USA is considering a second round of quantitative easing (known as “QE2”). This would tend to push down the exchange rate of the dollar.
But stimulating exports through devaluation or depreciation is a zero-sum game globally. If currency A depreciates against currency B, currency B necessarily appreciates against currency A. Country A’s gain in exports to Country B are an increase in imports for Country B. It is logically impossible for every currency in the world to depreciate! Yet depreciation is exactly the policy being pursued by countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which have directly intervened in the currency markets to lower their exchange rates. And, in each case of course, other countries’ currencies have an equivalent appreciation against them.
Economists and politicians in the USA argue that the dollar is fundamentally over valued against the Chinese yuan (or ‘renminbi’ as it is sometimes called). They are calling on China to revalue by far more than the 2% increase since June 2010. But what if China refuses to do so? On 29 September the House of Representatives passed a bill giving the executive branch the authority to impose a wide range of tariffs on imports from China. The bill was passed with a huge majority of 348 to 79.
So is this the start of a trade war? Many in the USA argue that China is already waging such a war by giving subsidies to a wide range of exports. And that war is hotting up. China has just announced that it is imposing traiffs ranging from 50% to 104% on various poultry imports from the USA. And if it is a trade war, will there be any winners? The following articles investigate.
Global recovery’s weakness raises possibility of trade war Guardian, Larry Elliott (4/10/10)
Tension mounts as China and US trade insults over currency Independent, Stephen Foley (1/10/10)
Is the world in a trade war? Time Magazine blogs: The Curious Capitalist, Michael Schuman (29/9/10)
Trade War Is Here – and We’ve Disarmed The Huffington Post, Robert Kuttner (3/10/10)
US House Passes Anti-China Trade War Bill GlobalResearch.ca, Barry Grey (1/10/10)
Currencies the key to market’s next move BBC News, Jamie Robertson (3/10/10)
A Message for China New York Times (30/9/10)
Taking On China New York Times, Paul Krugman (30/9/10)
Krugman Makes Two Powerful Arguments Against “Taking on China” Wall Street Pit, Scott Sumner (2/10/10)
Why the U.S. can’t win a trade war with China The Globe and Mail (Canada), Carl Mortished (4/10/10)
China-Japan trade war looms CTV News (Canada), Mark MacKinnon (23/9/10)
IMF chief’s warning of currency war ‘real threat’ BBC News, interview with Dominique Strauss-Khan, head of the IMF (7/10/10)
Could disputes over currency levels lead to a depression? BBC World Service, interview with Robert Zoellick (8/10/10)
China stands firm over yuan move BBC News, Andrew Walker (9/10/10)
What to do about China’s currency? Washington Post (10/10/10)
How to stop a currency war The Economist (14/10/10)
What’s the currency war about? BBC News, Laurence Knight (23/10/10)
Nominally cheap or really dear? The Economist (4/11/10)
- Why are competitive devaluations globally a zero sum game while global trade wars are a negative sum game?
- What are the arguments for and against using tariffs as a means of stimulating recovery?
- Why has quantitative easing so far had a more discernible effect on asset prices than on the real economy?
- Do a search on “Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act” of 1930 and describe its impact on the global economy in the 1930s. Are there any parallels today?
- How is it possible for massive trade surpluses and deficits to persist and yet for individual countries’ exchange rates and overall balance of payments to be in equilibrium?
- Are global trade imbalances widening, and if so why?
- What would determine the size of the effect on the US balance of trade of an appreciation of the yuan?
Even in the current gloomy economic climate, there is something else that has grabbed media attention – the outbreak of swine flu. This is of particular concern, given the WHO’s announcement that we are in an H1N1 flu pandemic. The symptoms and health risks have been widely broadcast, but it is not just this that governments are concerned about. The economies of some countries, in particular Mexico, have been suffering. ‘Swine flu has dealt a major blow to Mexico’s already battered economy’. Many countries have issued advice to businesses on dealing with a potential pandemic and some countries are facing trade restrictions. It’s important to consider the economic consequences of this outbreak in a time of global recession. How will some of the worst hit industries cope and what are the costs that firms could face if the situation gets worse? The following articles explore the issues.
Economic impact of swine flu BBC News: World News America (4/5/09)
Advice to businesses on swine flu BBC News (4/5/09)
Swine flu nations make trade pleaBBC News (3/5/09)
WTO protectionism report to feature swine flue bans The Economist (12/6/09)
Mexico economy squeezed by swine flu BBC News (30/4/09)
Swine flu fears hit travel shares BBC News (27/4/09)
Swine flu: Four ETFs to watch Seeking Alpha (12/6/09)
Employers have to pay for swine flu quarantines Scoop Business: Independent News (12/6/09)
- Which industries are the most affected by the outbreak of swine flu?
- What are some of the costs that businesses will face following the WHO’s announcement that we are in a flu pandemic?
- Some of the articles talk about possible trade restrictions. What are the arguments (a) for (b) against protectionist measures in these circumstances?
- How will this flu pandemic add to the global crisis we are currently facing? What will happen to share prices, to tourism, to people’s expectations?
- Do you think that firms have a social responsibility to deal with this pandemic?
- Will there be additional health costs and who should bear them? What do you think will be the impact on the NHS, given its method of provision and finance?
- Do you think that this pandemic will affect the global economy’s ability to recover from this recession?