Towards a More Inclusive Trading System

A timely, informative and intellectual discussion with Roberto Azevêdo, Director General of the World Trade Organization on the state of global trade and its governance. Some important key points during Roberto’s presentation/discussion:

  • Trade has proved to be one of the most powerful pro-growth, anti-poverty tools in history: In recent decades it has helped to lift one billion people out of poverty in developing countries. The World Bank found that income grew more than three times faster for developing countries that lowered trade barriers than for those that did not. in the US, estimates show that the gains from globalization have raised real household incomes by up to $10,000 annually.
  • Trade means more choice, lower prices and real dollar in the pocket for consumers: A joint study by UCLA and Columbia found that people with high incomes could lose up to 28% of their purchasing power if borders were closed to trade. But the poorest consumers, they could lose up to 63% of their spending power
  • Trade is imperfect: Despite the obvious overall gains, trade can have negative effects in some parts of the economy. And those effects can have a big impact on some people’s lives. But we would be betraying those very same people, and many, many more, if we turned against trade and allowed the negative arguments to go unanswered.
  • Trade protectionism is an ineffective and very expensive way of protecting jobs: In the latter part of the 20th century, the EU protected various industries — including steel, agriculture and textiles. The French economist Patrick Messerlin analyzed this approach. He found that the average cost per job saved was several hundred thousand euros, or about 10 times the corresponding wage in each of those industries. The US applied tariffs on Chinese truck tires in 2009. Around 1,200 jobs were saved, but this came at a cost of $1.1 billion in higher prices for consumers. That works out as a cost of about $900,000 per job. The Petersen Institute estimates that these higher prices also resulted in around 2,500 job losses in the tire retail sector due to slumping sales.
  • Trade protectionist solutions do not reflect the nature of the modern economy and the international nature of production: Most goods aren’t made in one country. Most exports have components which have been imported. So by restricting imports, a country can restrict its own ability to export. Trade protectionism is also a two-way street. It leads to retaliation and the domino-effect.
  • Unemployment is not strictly or mainly a trade issue, trade measures will NOT address this disorder: trade is a relatively minor cause of job losses. The evidence shows that well over 80% of job losses in advanced economies are not due to trade, but to increased productivity through technology and innovation.
  • The real economic revolution that is happening today: Studies suggest that almost 50% of existing jobs in the US are at high risk of automation. An International Labor Organization (ILO) study on Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand found that 56% of jobs are at high risk of automation. And that’s just on average. In some sectors over 80% of jobs are at risk. In Japan, there are 315 robots per 10,000 workers. In China that number is only 36 — but it is rising fast. In the US, the number is 164, which is still relatively low. But it is set to go up!

Questions for thinking:

  • How do we ensure that trade can continue to promote growth and lift people out of poverty?
  • How to RESPOND to the rising anti-trade sentiment in public discourse? Is trade protectionism the right approach?
  • How to ensure that the benefits of trade reach further and wider– in other words, how to create a more inclusive global trading system? How to harness the power of e-commerce to support inclusiveness?
  • How do we help small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to leverage technology so that this marketplace doesn’t just become the preserve of the big players?
  • How can the trading system adjust to the shift from a world of few, large, known exporters to a world in which exporters are many, small and unknown? How can we ensure that this transition works for consumers?