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From a Free Trade Regime to a Responsible Trade and Investment Regime

18 October 2016
by Guest author
the-elephant-graph

The elephant in the room

Marten van den Berg, Director-General for Foreign Economic Relations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands

Today’s economy is unquestionably global. National markets for goods and services have become increasingly integrated. This process of globalisation has taken place over the past centuries. But during the period of 1987-2000 we saw a big leap in globalisation. And we saw a rapid development of Global Value Chains (GVC’s). Many countries have benefitted enormously from this process of globalisation. Not only high income countries, but also hundreds of millions of people in low and middle income countries have been taken out of poverty because of international trade and investment.

International trade and investment generate employment and income. But they are also a channel for knowledge transfer, technology flows and for specialisation according to comparative advantage. Through trade, firms get better access to cheaper and better quality inputs. And cheap imports raise consumer welfare. Openness matters for growth. This is why so many trade agreements have been negotiated between so many countries. Or why now 154 countries are a member of the WTO.

There is substantial evidence that trade agreements have a significant effect on trade and investment relations and therefore on jobs and productivity growth. However we should acknowledge that there are also income and distributional effects. Some sectors will experience significant expansions, other sectors will contract. Productive firms gain from international trade, others will lose. At the same time some workers will see a rise in their wages, others will see their wages stabilise or decrease. The famous “elephant graph” illustrates where there are losers (low-middle income group in US/Europe/Japan) and where we see winners (middle income class in China and India).

The shift in relative importance of different sectors as a consequence of international trade and investment generates labour and capital displacement. This will lead to adjustment costs for those that need to change employment. These adjustment costs have raised questions about the benefits of international trade and investment. But there are also concerns about fairness (unfair competition) and about the relation between international trade and investment regimes and labour and environment standards. And concerns that international regimes limit room for manoeuvre at a national level.

In 2007 the process of rapid globalisation came to an end. Growth in global trade today is less than half the growth during the two decades prior to the global financial crisis. This slowdown is largely the result of the decline in investment, the rebalancing of China and the shortening of the GVCs. But stalled liberalisation in trade and the increase of protectionism are also holding back international trade and investment.

Together with the decline in global trade, we see more and more people standing up against international trade and investment agreements. For example, neither candidate in the US presidential race supports a free trade agenda. In Europe there is a lot of resistance against TTIP. Also among economists we see a more intensive debate about the winners and losers of international trade and investment.

The lack of progress in trade liberalisation and the opposition to international trade and investment agreements is understandable, but still bad news. We should not forget that international trade and investment are important sources for productivity growth. In fact, it is one of the few proven sources of productivity growth in a world that is characterised by low productivity growth. And reducing trade costs in low and middle income countries where the poor live increases the competitiveness of the goods and services traded by poor people in the lower income groups. And in an increasingly digitalised world even start-ups and tiny companies can operate on a global scale (mini-multinationals), making open trade essential for SMEs.  But the debate about those agreements is good news. In the past we probably were too much focused on the macro benefits of free trade and investment and did not sufficiently address the concerns among society of international trade and investment. Concerns about unfair elements of the international trade and investment system, about the negative effects of international trade on labor and environment standards, and about the adjustment costs of international trade and investment.

These concerns are genuine. How should we respond? Refusal to acknowledge these concerns undermines international trade and investment relations. So we have to rebalance our trade and investment policies. We have to shift from trying to organise a free trade regime to an architecture of a responsible trade and investment regime. We need to make the international trade and investment system fair and sustainable and inclusive. First we have to address the complexity issue of the system and include new economic and social developments. Secondly we need public discussion and consultation about those international trade and investment agreements. And finally, but perhaps most important, we need effective national policies to adequately complement international trade and investment policies.

Complexity and new issues

Through GVC’s markets and companies, including SMEs, are connected in many ways. Today our international markets are highly complex. It is almost impossible to regulate this complex system in a sustainable and fair way through a spaghetti bowl of regional and bilateral trade and investment agreements. We have to return to a more global architecture of the international trade and investment regime. We need a revival of the multilateral system. Therefore it is good news that we have seen small successes in the WTO negotiations in Bali and Nairobi. But a new success in Buenos Aires is also crucial. Not only on the Doha Development Agenda issues, but also on other issues relevant to international trade and investment. For example digital trade. But also on investment we have to focus more on a global architecture. The outcome of the G20 under Chinese presidency in concluding non-binding principles for investment was a very important step. We should continue on this path and international organisations like the OECD and UNCTAD can and should play a major role in this process.  The issue of sustainability should be an integral part of this agenda. Therefore it is good news that among the non-binding principles for investment responsible business conduct is one of them. The OECD guidelines for Multinational Companies are of key importance here.

Get stakeholders involved

Second, it is extremely important that relevant stakeholders are involved in the process of designing and implementing international trade and investment agreements. CETA is a very good step forwards in this respect. Canada and the European Union have committed themselves to a stakeholder consultation process: employers, unions, business organisations and environmental groups are getting a key role in the implementation of CETA. In the future public discussions and stakeholder involvement should be an integral part of our international trade and investment agenda. That’s the way to make trade and investment a “race to the top” in terms of standards.

Complementary national policies

Finally, national policies need to effectively complement international trade and investment policies. More (pro-)active labour market and social security policies are needed to minimise adjustment costs. We need targeted education and skill policies to help vulnerable groups to keep up with the fast changing demands of labour markets. We need stronger tax policies to address the issue of inequality, e.g. implementing the OECD guidance on tackling Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS). In lower income countries national policies are needed in order to address challenges like lack of infrastructure and education to ensure that lower trade barriers actually benefits the poor.

To conclude, we need to shift from a free trade regime to a sustainable and inclusive trade and investment regime. And we need national policies to make globalisation work for all. I look forward to discuss this in the meeting of the Global Strategy group at the OECD on 28-29 November. These changes are needed and the only way to restore public trust and to build public support for globalisation and for an international trade and investment regime. And we absolutely need this, because international trade and investment are crucial engines for productivity growth, for implementing the SDGs and to abolish poverty.

Useful links

OECD work on trade

International trade: Free, fair and open? Patrick Love, OECD Insights

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