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.
- Trump Authorizes Tariffs, Defying Allies at Home and Abroad
The New York Times, Peter Baker and Ana Swanson (8/3/18)
- Trump has been playing right into China’s hands
The Washington Post, Catherine Rampell (8/3/18)
- These American companies could be hurt by Trump’s tariffs
CNN Money, Julia Horowitz (8/3/18)
- Donald Trump signs order for metals tariff plan, prompting fears of trade war
The Guardian, Dominic Rushe (8/3/18)
- Trump’s Trade Wars, China Inc’.s Globalization Plan And The CPTPP — What’s Next?
Forbes, Alex Capri (8/3/18)
- A tariffically bad idea: The looming global trade war
The Economist (8/3/18)
- The threat to world trade: The rules-based system is in grave danger
The Economist (8/3/18)
- America’s allies will bear the brunt of Trump’s trade protectionism
The Conversation, Remy Davison (2/3/18)
- The war over steel: Trump tips global trade into new turmoil
The Observer, Phillip Inman (10/3/18)
- Explain how, by countries specialising in goods in which they have a comparative advantage, all countries can gain.
- Can tariffs or other trade restrictions ever be justified? Explain.
- Is there any economic justification for the US tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium?
- Can putting tariffs on US imports be justified by countries whose steel and/or aluminium industires are faced with US tariffs?
- Can trade wars be won? Explain.
According to Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF, the slow growth in global productivity is acting as a brake on the growth in potential income and is thus holding back the growth in living standards. In a recent speech in Washington she said that:
Over the past decade, there have been sharp slowdowns in measured output per worker and total factor productivity – which can be seen as a measure of innovation. In advanced economies, for example, productivity growth has dropped to 0.3 per cent, down from a pre-crisis average of about 1 per cent. This trend has also affected many emerging and developing countries, including China.
We estimate that, if total factor productivity growth had followed its pre-crisis trend, overall GDP in advanced economies would be about 5 percent higher today. That would be the equivalent of adding another Japan – and more – to the global economy.
So why has productivity growth slowed to well below pre-crisis rates? One reason is an ageing working population, with older workers acquiring new skills less quickly. A second is the slowdown in world trade and, with it, the competitive pressure for firms to invest in the latest technologies.
A third is the continuing effect of the financial crisis, with many highly indebted firms forced to make deep cuts in investment and many others being cautious about innovating. The crisis has dampened risk taking – a key component of innovation.
What is clear, said Lagarde, is that more innovation is needed to restore productivity growth. But markets alone cannot achieve this, as the benefits of invention and innovation are, to some extent, public goods. They have considerable positive externalities.
She thus called on governments to give high priority to stimulating productivity growth and unleashing entrepreneurial energy. There are several things governments can do. These include market-orientated supply-side policies, such as removing unnecessary barriers to competition, driving forward international free trade and cutting red tape. They also include direct intervention through greater investment in education and training, infrastructure and public-sector R&D. They also include giving subsidies and/or tax relief for private-sector R&D.
Banks too have a role in chanelling finance away from low-productivity firms and towards ‘young and vibrant companies’.
It is important to recognise, she concluded, that innovation and structural change can lead to some people losing out, with job losses, low wages and social deprivation. Support should be given to such people through better education, retraining and employment incentives.
IMF chief warns slowing productivity risks living standards drop Reuters, David Lawder (3/4/17)
Global productivity slowdown risks social turmoil, IMF warns Financial Times, Shawn Donnan (3/4/17)
Global productivity slowdown risks creating instability, warns IMF The Guardian, Katie Allen (3/4/17)
The Guardian view on productivity: Britain must solve the puzzle The Guardian (9/4/17)
Reinvigorating Productivity Growth IMF Speeches, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, IMF(3/4/17)
Gone with the Headwinds: Global Productivity IMF Staff Discussion Note, Gustavo Adler, Romain Duval, Davide Furceri, Sinem Kiliç Çelik, Ksenia Koloskova and Marcos Poplawski-Ribeiro (April 2017)
- What is the relationship between actual and potential economic growth?
- Distinguish between labour productivity and total factor productivity.
- Why has total factor productivity growth been considerably slower since the financial crisis than before?
- Is sustained productivity growth (a) a necessary and/or (b) a sufficient condition for a sustained growth in living standards?
- Give some examples of technological developments that could feed through into significant growth in productivity.
- What is the relationship between immigration and productivity growth?
- What policies would you advocate for increasing productivity? Explain why.
The Treasury has published a paper analysing the costs of Britain leaving the EU. Its central assumption is that the UK would negotiate a bilateral trade deal with the EU similar to that between Canada and the EU. Under this assumption the Treasury estimates that, by 2030, GDP would be 6.2% lower than if the UK had remained in the EU, meaning that the average household would be £4300 per year worse off than it would otherwise have been. The analysis also finds that there would be a total reduction in tax receipts of £36 billion per year – far greater than any savings from lower contributions to the EU budget.
Not surprisingly the ‘Vote Remain’ campaign for the UK to stay in the EU has welcomed the analysis, seeing it as strong evidence in support of their case. Also, not surprisingly, the Vote Leave campaign has questioned both the analysis and the assumptions on which it is based.
The Treasury analysis looks at three possible scenarios: (a) a Canada-style bilateral arrangement (the central estimate); (b) the UK becoming a member or the European Economic Area – the ‘Norwegian model’ (according to the Treasury, this would reduce GDP by 3.8%); (c) no specific deal with the EU, with the UK simply having the same access to the EU as any other country that is a mamber of the WTO (this would reduce GDP by 7.5%). Thus the Norwegian model would probably result in a smaller reduction in growth, but the UK would still continue to make contributions to the EU budget and have to allow free movement of labour. Only in option (c) would it have total control over migration. Each of the estimates has a margin of error, giving a range for the reduction in GDP across the three scenarios from 3.4% to 9.5%.
The Treasury used a three-stage process to arrive at its conclusions, as explained in the FT article below:
First, it uses gravity models to estimate the effect of different trade relationships on the quantity of trade and foreign direct investment. Gravity models take into account how close countries are to each other geographically, as well as their historical links, rather than assuming that trade flows to wherever the lowest tariffs are.
Second, it uses external academic results to estimate the consequences for productivity – the efficiency of the UK economy – from different levels of trade and foreign direct investment.
Third, it plugs the productivity numbers unto a global economic model run by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to estimate the long-run differences in national income and prosperity.
Clearly there is large-scale uncertainty over any forecasts 14 years ahead, especially when the relationship with the EU and other countries post-EU exit can only be roughly estimated. The question is whether the assumptions are reasonable and whether there would be substantial costs from Brexit, but not necessarily of £4300 per household.
The following articles look at the analysis and its assumptions. Unlike many newspaper articles, which clearly have an agenda, these articles are relatively unbiased and try to assess the arguments. Of course, it would be difficult to be totally unbiased and it would be a good idea to try to spot any biases in each of the articles.
Treasury’s Brexit analysis: what it says — and what it doesn’t Financial Times, Chris Giles (18/4/16)
A Treasury analysis suggests the costs of Brexit would be high The Economist (18/4/16)
George Osborne says UK would lose £36bn in tax receipts if it left EU The Guardian, Anushka Asthana and Tom Clark (18/4/16)
Will each UK household be £4,300 worse off if the UK leaves the EU? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/4/16)
FactCheck Q&A: can we trust the Treasury on Brexit? Channel 4 News, Patrick Worrall (18/4/16)
Reality Check: Would Brexit cost your family £4,300? BBC News, Anthony Reuben (18/4/16)
Brexit sparks outbreak of agreement among economists Financial Times, Chris Giles (27/4/16)
EU referendum: HM Treasury analysis key facts HM Treasury (18/4/16)
HM Treasury analysis: the long-term economic impact of EU membership and the alternatives HM Treasury (18/4/16)
- Would households actually be poorer if the Treasury’s forecasts are correct?
- What alternative trade arrangements with the EU would be possible if the UK left the EU?
- What are the Treasury model’s main weaknesses?
- What considerations are UK voters likely to take into account in the referendum which are not included in the Treasury analysis?
- Make out the case for supporting the analysis of the Treasury.
- Make out the case for rejecting the analysis of the Treasury.
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?