In his March 2021 Budget, Rishi Sunak announced the setting up of eight freeports in England. These will be East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe & Harwich, Humber, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth and South Devon, Solent, Teesside and Thames. The locations were chosen after a bidding process. Some 30 areas applied and they were judged on various criteria, including economic benefits to poorer regions. Other freeports are due to be announced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish government is stressing their contribution to the green agenda and will call them ‘green ports’.
Unlike many countries, the UK in recent years chose not to have freeports. There are currently around 3500 freeports worldwide, There are around 80 in the EU, including the whole or part of Barcelona, Port of Bordeaux, Bremerhaven, Cadiz, Copenhagen, Gdansk, Luxembourg, Madeira, Malta, Plovdiv, Piraeus, Riga, Split, Trieste, Venice and Zagreb. The UK had freeports at Liverpool, Southampton, the Port of Tilbury, the Port of Sheerness and Prestwick Airport from 1984, but the government allowed their status to lapse in 2012.
Freeports are treated as ‘offshore’ areas, with goods being allowed into the areas tariff free. This enables raw materials and parts to be imported and made into finished or semi-finished products within the freeport area. At that stage they can either be imported to the rest of the country, at which point tariffs are applied, or they can be exported with no tariff being applied by the exporting country, only the receiving country as appropriate. This benefits companies within the freeport area as it simplifies the tariff system.
The new English freeports will provide additional benefits to companies, including reduced employers’ national insurance payments, reduced property taxes for newly acquired and existing land and buildings, 100% capital allowances whereby the full cost of investment in plant and machinery can be offset against taxable profits, and full business-rates relief for five years (see paragraph 2.115 in Budget 2021).
Benefits and costs
Freeport status will benefit the chosen areas, as it is likely to attract inward investment and provide employment. Many areas were thus keen to bid for freeport status. To the extent that there is a net increase in investment for the country, this will contribute to GDP growth.
But there is the question of how much net additional investment there will be. Critics argue that freeports can divert investment from areas without such status. Also, to the extent that investment is diverted rather than being new investment, this will reduce tax revenue to the government.
Then there is the question of whether such areas are in breach of international agreements. WTO rules forbid countries from directly subsidising exports. And the Brexit trade deal requires subsidies to be justified for reasons other than giving a trade advantage. If the UK failed to do so, the EU could impose tariffs on such goods to prevent unfair competition.
Also, there is the danger of tax evasion, money laundering and corruption encouraged by an absence of regulations and checks. Tight controls and thorough auditing by the government and local authorities will be necessary to counter this and prevent criminal activity and profits going abroad. Worried about these downsides of freeports, in January 2020 the EU tightened regulations governing freeports and took extra measures to clamp down on the growing level of corruption, tax evasion and criminal activity.
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?
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?