Wednesday, November 19, 2014

World trade: a catalogue of failure

000a cars-019 trade.jpg

Following on from Siemens propaganda over the weekend, where the happy Mr Maier was telling us how good the EU was for business, the European Commission has issued a press release telling us exactly the opposite.

This mea culpa, however, isn't exactly transparent – one has to read into the title which hides its light under a substantial bushel: "the 11th report on potentially trade-restrictive measures identified in the context of the financial and economic crisis". What it conceals is the catalogue of failure of the entire global trading system. 

In the 13 months covered by the report, we are told, G20 members and other key EU trading partners adopted a total of 170 new trade-unfriendly measures. The countries that have adopted the most such measures, by the way, were Russia, China, India and Indonesia. 

At the same time, only 12 pre-existing trade barriers have been removed. This means that hundreds of protectionist measures adopted since the beginning of the economic downturn continue to hamper world trade, despite the G20 commitment to easing barriers. 

This is very much a hidden failure, though. Twenty years ago, at the inception of the WTO, replacing the GATT, tariffs were still very much the issue. Then European levels typically at 20 percent. But now, with levels in the order of five percent, one might think that the problem was over (or diminishing). 

Indeed, while the process of reducing tariffs globally has been considered a successes, it has also been described as like draining a swamp. The lower water level has revealed all the snags and stumps of non-tariff barriers that still have to be cleared away. 

After thirty years of swamp draining, the stumps have started to grow. Observers are thus notingthat decades of ever tighter regulation of goods - most of which was adopted for purely domestic policy aims - have escalated regulatory protection. 

As a result, these "Non-Tariff Measures" (NTMs) – or, alternatively, technical barriers to trade (TBTs) - have become more important than tariffs. By way of background, we see that in 1995, the WTO received 386 formal notifications (complaints) of TBTs. By 2013, this had risen to 2,137 (see chart below). 

Putting clothes on this, we see the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT)complaining that non-tariff barriers such as different regulations and standards add over 20 percent to the cost of trading between the EU and US. Trade barriers have replaced tariffs. 

Any which way you look at them, the data suggest that restrictive measures are increasing: trade is still a long way from free and, since the global crisis of 2008, is becoming even less so. The great experiment in "free trade", of which the EU is a central part, has indeed been an almost unremitting failure. 

This puts to bed all this "motherhood and apple pie" rhetoric about free trade. We can waffle all we like about free trade areas, WTO and all the rest. Decades of labour and millions of man-hours (and not a few women hours) have simply changed the nature of the barriers which businesses encounter. 

Interestingly – or perhaps appallingly – we don't even know how to measure trade properly, or assess the impact of trade flows. 

For instance, ONS published the definitive trade statistics for 2013 recently, with much made of the trading deficit with the EU, running at £66 billion. This is out of a total deficit in goods running at £110 billion – a disastrous performance until one adds in services, whence the deficit drops to £33 billion. 

Now here's the thing. Trade in goods is geographically rooted. We can tell where our deficits in goods come from, but that is not the case with services. Much of the foreign currency which is gained from trade which qualifies as "exports" of services is earned in the City. But then international tourism also goes in that bag, so it gets extremely difficult to pin a flag on the money. 

000a WTO-019 TBT.jpg

As long as we keep goods and services in separate boxes, though, we can moan about the imbalance of, say, car sales as between the UK and Germany. But are services and goods so unrelated? It is said of Ford that they make no money out of assembling cars. Their profit comes from financing the sales, selling high-priced loans to eager buyers to let them drive their showroom-fresh dreams out of er… the showrooms.

Cars, in this context, are just the mechanism for selling loans. That makes them part of the financial services industry, at which the UK excels. While the Germans make their money screwing nuts onto bolts, we could be making more by lending their customers the money to buy them. We could, but we just don't know.

Then there is the nature of the automotive industry itself. It accounts for four percent of our GDP (£60.5 billion) and currently provides employment for more than 700,000 people in the UK.

But the thing to appreciate is that it is an automotive industry – it sells components as well as cars. The UK produced 1.6 million cars and commercial vehicles but it sold almost 2.6 million engines in 2013. And about 75 percent of components production is exported to mainland Europe.

Then, according to statistics collected by the SMMT in 2013, 2.3m new cars were registered on UK roads and we built 1.5m cars, of which 1.2m were exported. That left us to import about 2m cars. But that doesn't tell the whole story. We are the second largest premium vehicle manufacturer after Germany, so the average per car came to £20,600, while the average value of imported cars was £13,000. We exported, in value terms £24.4bn and imported £24.7bn - the deficit only £0.3bn.

Now we factor in the components, and here it gets doubly interesting. The European manufacturing industry works at a regional level. For UK-built cars, about 35 percent of components are sourced from other EU countries. But, since about £5bn-worth of UK-produced components are exported – with 75 percent to EU countries - some components come back to us, built into assembled cars. Others are exported to other countries. German cars become vehicles - so to speak - for British exports.

And that's the real reason why the industry is so nervous about the UK leaving the EU. The supply chain is so complex that no one really understands it. And with a totally integrated industry - much of it working on a "just-in-time" basis - disruption of the supply chain engendered by the loss of the single market would bring the industry to a halt, Europe-wide.

What this isn't about, therefore, is relative trading disparity. We don't know how to measure trade, we're not measuring it properly and we don't really know where it is all going. And, in terms of trying to improve trade, we're not really much better off there, either.

It seems to me, in fact, that we have a long way to go before we even begin to understand how the system really works. And as long as we have so many parties churning out their dogmas, we're not even making a start. What we mustn't do, though, is put a dirty great spanner in the works. We must be able to assure industry that, when we leave, the goods will keep flowing.