The Coming Trade Wars

By Garten, Jeffrey E. | Newsweek International, February 9, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Coming Trade Wars


Garten, Jeffrey E., Newsweek International


The massive intrusion of government into national economics could spark disastrous protectionism.

It's hard to find a top economic official, economist or global business leader who doesn't recognize today's heightened dangers of protectionism. U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently called protectionism the "road to ruin," HSBC chairman Stephen Green has urged governments to "avoid the protectionist errors of the 1930s" and WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy never misses a chance to warn against new tariffs. But it is equally difficult to identify any high-powered efforts to actively ward off the prospect of higher tariffs, quotas or trade-blocking regulations. It is as if talking about the threat is seen as enough to deter a gigantic rollback of global commerce. But rhetoric will not prevent a trade war, which is now, I believe, more likely than it has been at any time since the early 1970s, when currencies were no longer fixed to the value of gold and began to float against one another.

A half-century of steady trade liberalization was in jeopardy even before the current financial and economic meltdown. Prior to the implosion of Bear Stearns, the U.S. Congress had taken away almost all of President Bush's trade-negotiating authority, feeling that the U.S. was no longer gaining enough from new trade agreements, while jobs were being lost and wages undercut. Well before "subprime" entered the popular lexicon, the Doha round of trade negotiations had collapsed, as rich and poor nations fought over contentious issues like agriculture. The rise of China and India has raised deep concerns over import penetration, not just in the U.S. and Europe but also in emerging markets like Mexico. For a few years now, prominent economists such as Princeton's Alan Blinder and Harvard's Larry Summers were raising warning flags that support for free trade was being eroded by the perception that trade was contributing to ever-greater income inequalities.

Now, however, the collapse of the global banking system, a deepening global recession (global growth this year might not reach even 1 percent, according to Goldman Sachs) and the massive intrusion of governments into national economies--a trend that can't help but politicize economic policy decisions--have all added fuel to the fire. Unemployment is growing, with more than 70,000 layoffs announced in the U.S. and Europe last Monday alone, and global trade volume is now decreasing--by more than 2 percent, according to the World Bank--for the first time in a quarter century. Container ships sit idle in ports--demand is down 50 percent year on year. America's own exports declined 6 percent last year, China's 9 percent and Japan's a shocking 35 percent. Trade financing, the essential lubricant of the entire commercial system, has dried up. Slow growth has meant massive industrial overcapacity in heavy industries such as steel, automobiles and electronics, and with global manufacturing dropping at an annual rate of 20 percent, the situation will get much worse. To be sure, we have yet to see a major outbreak of protectionism. Unlike crises in finance, trade problems are slow to emerge, but once the momentum begins, the trend takes years to reverse.

Meanwhile, there are straws in the wind. In the first half of 2008, antidumping investigations around the world were up at least 30 percent. In December, Washington expanded existing sanctions against selected EU food products in retaliation for Europe's boycott of American hormone-treated beef, an old dispute to be sure, but one that is being escalated. Brazil and Argentina are exerting pressure on members of Mercosur, the South American trade block, to raise the group's external tariff. And because the WTO's permissible limits on tariffs level are often much higher than the actual tariffs that countries have imposed in recent years, it is all too possible that governments will now raise tariffs and still be within their legal limits--a blow to trade, whatever the law says. …

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