Is It Necessary to Cut Trade Deficit and Achieve Trade Balance?

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While the Trump Administration is seeking to reduce the U.S. trade deficit and achieve a more “balanced trade” with its trading partners, a newly-released World Economic Forum (WEC) paper questions the necessity and economic rationale of doing so. As argued by the paper:

First, a country’s trade balance is NOT a measurement of its international commercial success. Neither is the case that “imports are bad and exports are good. “Instead, the paper says that “it is more accurate to think of imports as the benefits of trade, and exports as the cost that needs to be paid to obtain these benefits.”

Second, it is a misconception that “trade deficits cause a reduction in employment and production and trade surplus increase them.” Rather, imports could  increase because of an increase in domestic income thereby increasing the aggregate demand. Empirical studies also overwhelmingly find that rapid economic growth and larger trade deficit are associated with faster employment growth in the United States in history (see the graphs above).

Third, as the supply chain goes global, a tax on imported inputs can reduce rather than promote a country’s exports, particularly manufacturing goods (for example high tariffs on imported fabrics will reduce the price competitiveness of clothing exports). Likewise, trade barriers could disrupt production and reduce domestic employment in both the “protected” industries and those downstream sectors that use their outputs.  

Fourth, primarily trade balance is a function of a country’s national saving and investments, not of trade policies. In other words, trade policies, such as higher tariffs and quantitative restrictions, will have no impact on a country’s trade balance. Interesting enough, countries like Singapore which maintain fairly low trade barriers, run a trade surplus equal to as high as 20% of its GDP. In comparison, India was one of the most highly protected economies in the early 1990s when it experienced unsustainable large trade deficits. Further, there is a dynamic balance between a country’s trade balance and exchange rate: in an open economy, reducing a country’s imports could lead to an appreciation of its currency and eventually hurt its exports as well.     

What is your view on the trade deficit and trade balance? Why do you agree or disagree with the arguments of the WEC paper? Do you find any evidence that challenges the findings of the paper? Please feel free to leave your comments.

Tariff Remains a Critical Trade Barrier for the Textile and Apparel Sector (Updated December 2017)

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According to latest statistics from the World Trade Organization (WTO), in 2016, the average applied tariff rate remained at 10.5% for textiles and 17.5% for apparel worldwide. Compared with the average tariff rate for all sectors, the tariff rate for textile and apparel is 1.4 percentage points and 8.4 percentage points higher respectively. The result suggests that while tariff may no longer be a critical trade barrier for some sectors, it still significantly matters for the textile and apparel industry.

Least developed countries (LDC) overall set a higher tariff rate for textiles and apparel than other more advanced economies. For many poorest countries in the world, tariff remains the single largest source of tax revenue for the local government. However, it is also true that should these LDCs lower their tariff rate for textile inputs such as yarns and fabrics, it may help apparel manufacturers in these countries lower production cost and improve the price competitiveness of their finished apparel products in the world marketplace.

At the country level, countries with the highest tariff rate for textiles include Bahamas (37.1%), Ethiopia (28.0%), Uzbekistan (24.5%), Algeria (24.0%), Argentina (23.3%), and Brazil (23.3%). Whereas countries with the highest tariff rate for apparel include South Africa (41.0%), Namibia (41.0%), Swaziland (41.0%), Botswana (41.0%), Lesotho (41.0%), Bolivia (40.0%), Egypt (38.4%), Argentina (35.0%), Ethiopia (35.0%) and Brazil (35.0%).

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Data also shows that the import tariff rates of the US, EU(28) and Japan, the top three largest textile and apparel importers in the world, stay unchanged over the past three years.

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Additionally, there seems to be a positive relationship between a country’s import tariff rate for new clothing (HS 61 & 62) and used clothing (HS 6309). Of the total 180 countries covered by the International Trade Center (ITC) database, about 62.7% set an equal or higher tariff rate for new clothing than used clothing. Some African nations place a particularly high tariff rate for used clothing, including Zimbabwe (167%), South Africa (149%), Rwanda (117%), Namibia (80%), Tanzania (56%), and Uganda (41%).

Detailed tariff rates in Excel can be downloaded from HERE