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Should trade policy be about “the art of the deal” or about facilitating economic growth?

Thursday, March 9, 2017 18:23
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“We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.  Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength” – Donald Trump, Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 2017 

How should the Australian government respond to the potential for the crazy trade policies of President Trump to take the world into a new era of trade protectionism? Since Trump’s inauguration the depth of his commitment to trade protectionism has become clearer. In my view we should be prepared for the unravelling of much of the international trade liberalisation encouraged by the U.S. in the latter half of the 20thCentury.
If the Australian government continues with the current directions of international trade policy – viewing trade policy from an economic diplomacy perspective – there is a real risk that it will take ill-considered retaliatory action to foreign protectionism. Politicians who put their faith in trade diplomacy – the art of the export deal – think that they are pursuing the national interest when they make access to the Australian market contingent upon foreigners allowing our exporters to gain access to their markets. In terms of that mindset, if foreigners restrict access to their markets, it would appear logical for us to retaliate.
By contrast, political leaders who view trade policy as part of economic growth policy are more likely to keep in mind that the substantial trade liberalisation effort that Australia has made over the last 40 years has occurred unilaterally, rather than as part of any international deal. A growth policy perspective recognises the contribution that unilateral trade liberalisation has made to our prosperity.
The substantial trade liberalisation efforts made in Australia since the beginning of The Tariff Review, established in 1971, have all occurred for domestic reasons. Except for the 25 percent tariff cut of 1973, which was motivated primarily by macro-economic objectives, all of the reductions in industry assistance have occurred primarily to promote the micro-economic reform objective of providing incentives for greater productivity throughout the economy. That applies to reductions in non-tariff barriers, including reform of agricultural marketing arrangements, as well as reductions in reductions in tariff barriers.
As with other microeconomic reform policies, trade liberalisation efforts in Australia have not been pursued with equal enthusiasm by all governments. However, a sustained push toward trade liberalisation was initiated by Bob Hawke (then prime minister) and Paul Keating (treasurer) in May 1988 as part of a major package of microeconomic reform measures. In delivering the statement, Keating commented:
The way forward for Australia is not to be closeted and sheltered, but to be open and dynamic, trading aggressively in the world. Only this kind of economy can provide the employment and rising living standards that Australians aspire to”.

In the light of the toxic political environment currently prevailing in Canberra it is worth remembering that those reforms were facilitated by support from the Liberal–National Party Opposition.
The trade liberalisation that was being undertaken in pursuit of microeconomic objectives was subsequently ­offered, and accepted, in Uruguay negotiations as our market-opening contribution to global trade reform. As the Tasman Transparency Group has noted, this approach enabled us to secure all the gains available from trade negotiations — the major gains in efficiency from reducing the barriers protecting our less competitive industries, as well as those available from access to external markets. That exercise should have provided the model for all subsequent international trade negotiations.
Unfortunately, the opportunity for further gains from the pursuit of microeconomic reforms has been missed in subsequent trade negotiations. Australia’s agenda in recent negotiations establishing a range of preferential trading agreements (PTAs) was simply a market access wish list. Following the conclusion of PTAs, governments have measured their success solely on the basis of whether the outcomes improved access to external markets.
The academic research that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is now sponsoring on “the effectiveness of economic diplomacy in contributing to Australia’s exports and inflow of foreign investment” does not seem to be directed at answering a comprehensible, policy-relevant question. Research being undertaken by the Productivity Commission on implications for Australia’s trade policy of possible international shifts towards a more protectionist stance seems more likely to provide a basis for sensible policy development.
Previous research on the consequences of PTAs suggests that there are no grounds for complacency that the economic benefits even exceed costs. For example, using an analytical framework developed by the Productivity Commission to assess our much-heralded trade agreement with the United States, Australian National University economist Shiro Armstrong has concluded that “the data shows that … Australia and the United States … are worse off than they would have been without the agreement”. He says: “The agreement was responsible for reducing — or ­diverting — $53.1 billion of trade with the rest of the world.”
Recent Australian governments have at times acknowledged that trade policy should be part of a wider productivity promoting agenda. Nevertheless, the government seems to have been at a loss to know how to counter the argument that Australian governments should be seeking to provide a level playing field for domestic industries vis a vis subsidized foreign competitors. This argument has figured prominently in lobbying in some quarters for further government assistance by way of anti-dumping action and government procurement preferences. The government has been slow to point out that if we are to use a playing field analogy – and our interest is in promoting the wellbeing of Australians rather than conducting trade wars – the relevant basis for comparison is the relative assistance levels of different Australian industries. As a rule, if industries need assistance to compete internationally, they can’t be making efficient use of resources. 

If the Australian government is serious about its commitment to lift national productivity it should place trade policy in the Treasury department – the department with central responsibility for facilitating economic growth. This would add some much-needed economic discipline to the conduct of trade policy as we face a more difficult world trading environment. The last thing we need in this environment is a bureaucratic structure for trade policy that is biased toward mindless deal-making and retaliation



Source: http://wintonbates.blogspot.com/2017/03/should-trade-policy-be-about-art-of.html

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