Free traders are ecstatic. Negotiators at the 9th World Trade Organization ministerial conference in Bali cheered, hugged, and wept at what they see as the successful culmination of their recent round of talks. “A giant step for businesses large and small,” enthused the CEO of UPS. The well-regarded Fung Business Intelligence Centre announced that the agreement among the 159 WTO members “will not only restore confidence in the multilateral trading system, but also boost world GDP by nearly $1 trillion and generate 21 million jobs.”
“Joy unbounded, with wealth surrounded,” to borrow from Gilbert and Sullivan. The joy is easy to understand. Any agreement reached after years of bickering takes on out-size proportions, witness the joy last week when Democrats and Republicans reached a budget agreement. Never mind that the Ryan-Murray deal can have little fiscal impact. From little compromises mighty agreements of consequence grow seems to be the general belief. The fact of deal is more important than the facts in a deal. Hence the joy unbounded in Bali and, separately, here in Washington.
Unfortunately, joy unbounded will not necessarily leave us “with wealth surrounded.” The WTO agreement is a modest one, aimed primarily at facilitating the cross-border movement of goods by reducing customs delays at national borders. Richer countries will provide less developed ones with resources with which to train border agents and, presumably, reduce their temptation and ability to look to bribes to supplement their meagre incomes. All to the good. But I am reminded of a British economist, who shall remain nameless lest his superiors at the international agency to which he has been seconded demonstrate that in their circles candor is not widely appreciated. He warned me that estimates of the economic effect of trade deals are handed down from above to staff economists who only then develop data-laden reports to support their bosses’ press releases.
The fact is that the trade facilitation deal just reached in Bali is of little real consequence, other than as proof that minor deals can be reached. The Wall Street Journal’s description throws a bit of cold water on the celebrants, “A scaled-back package…, a modest break-through in the trade discussion that began in 2001 in Doha, Qatar….[It] still needs formal ratification by all 159 WTO members and could take months, or even years, to come into effect.”
The real action is at the regional or bilateral level, rather than at the WTO global level. Add up all the demands for protection by important voting blocs in every member country, and you have a prescription for paralysis. Reduce the number of negotiators and you reduce the special interests being catered to, and increase pressure on those nations not unenthused about a deal, but fearful that remaining outside of the tent might disadvantage them in the region.
Regionalization produces an alphabet soup of trade deals:
· Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agreement that reduced trade barriers between the US, Mexico and Canada, will mark its 20th anniversary on January 1 of the coming year. Mexicans plan to celebrate, American politicians, especially Democrats whose then-leader President Bill Clinton signed the deal that its critics claim cost 700,000 America jobs, are hoping voters won’t notice the anniversary.
· TTIP, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a deal that would remove some of the non-tariff barriers (tariffs are already low) to trade and investment between the US and the EU. Auto makers are keen to harmonize safety regulations in the US and EU, leftish Democrats are keen to maintain a good distance between America’s tougher banking regulations and the weaker ones that might emerge from harmonization.
· TPP, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership between the three NAFTA members and 9 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. If successful this would cover about 40% of US imports and exports.
· CAFTA-DR, the free trade deal between US, on the one side, and Central American countries and the Dominican Republic on the other hand.
· AGOA, the trade pact between America and the sub-Saharan African countries, due to expire in 2015 unless congress responds favorably to President Obama’s request to renew it.
“The action is in the regionals,” the University of California’s Kati Suominen tells the press. And whether that “action” reduces trade barriers will depend on America, the world’s biggest market. Which puts President Obama at center stage, with congress waiting in the wings. The president dearly wants to make successful conclusions of these various regional negotiations part of his legacy. For one thing, he is convinced that freer trade would spur U.S. exports, accelerate now-anemic economic growth, and create jobs. For another, his hope that Obamacare would provide an enduring legacy and a place on Mount Rushmore is fading as the difficulties inherent in his health care revolution become apparent. Bringing free trade to the world might have to do as a substitute, although lesser, legacy than bringing affordable health care to all Americans.
But wishing won’t make it so. For example, to make the U.S.-EU deal happen, French president François Hollande will have to risk alienating his powerful farm bloc by lowering the barriers to imports from more efficient US agriculture. And Obama will have to face down his trade union and environmental supporters who fear increased competition from countries with lower labor, health and safety, and green standards, and China-bashers among the Senate Democratic leadership team who want currency manipulation outlawed. Or say they do.
The TPP also needs such muscle as a politically wounded American president can muster. Obama’s low approval rating (around 40 percent) make it difficult for him to wring concessions from textile, apparel, dairy and sugar interests and their congressional supporters, concessions some countries are demanding in return for giving U.S. pharmaceutical and entertainment companies stronger protection for IP rights, which would raise the prices of drugs and audio-visual products in importing countries.
Most important, the president must have what is called fast-track authority—the right to put any deal before Congress on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, no amendments to protect some local special interest allowed. Although 170 of the 435 members of the House have signed letters opposing such authority, betting here is Congress will give Obama what he wants. In return for the president's agreement to have his negotiators demand consideration of currency manipulation, congressional negotiators have agreed to recommend to the House and the Senate that the president get the authority he seeks. Both bodies are unlikely to ignore that recommendation.
Trade policy has winners and losers. If the president can push his trade agenda through Congress, owners of IP (his rich Hollywood backers), and sellers of financial services (the bankers Obama despises except when fund-raising in New York) will be big winners, and middle class workers competing with foreign and state-supported manufacturing enterprises the losers. That would further exacerbate the income-inequality Obama is pledged to ameliorate, but that’s a story for another day.