Deglobalisation: ugly word, scary concept and now painful reality. The World Trade Organisation estimates global trade will drop by 9 per cent this year, its biggest decline since the second world war. Given that trade was growing at a 6 per cent clip only 15 months ago, the fall is so abrupt that some now worry about the return of Smoot-Hawley, the US tariffs law that made the 1930s depression Great.
That is alarmist. Much of the recent reversal in the global movement of capital, goods and jobs has been directly due to the financial crisis. It has been the collapse in demand, not protectionism, that has savaged trade flows. A lack of trade credit has also hurt, given that 90 per cent of trade involves some kind of credit, insurance or guarantee.
So, yes, since October, China has banned Belgian chocolate, India forbidden Chinese toys and the US energy secretary said he would like to see tariffs on Chinese goods unless Beijing reduces greenhouse emissions – the “green face” of protectionism. There are dozens more such cases. Yet the effects of such incipient protectionism have been small, so far.
Will it stay that way? Reasons to be hopeful include the WTO, and the treaties that bind its members. Companies, even those producing for domestic markets, are more dependent on imported inputs than ever before. Exporters also have more political heft. This changes the politics of protectionism. The “Buy America” programme was watered down. And, in Brazil, private sector outrage that followed an attempt to impose import controls led to their removal. That is encouraging.
Even so, protectionism could rise as the recession worsens, putting governments under pressure to protect jobs at home. Indeed, anti-subsidy duties, anti-dumping rules, imports banned in the name of health, safety or the environment – all these are WTO-legal. Eight decades ago, many sensible people opposed the Smoot-Hawley bill; 1,028 economists petitioned against it, as did Henry Ford. Yet still the “asinine” bill passed. Free traders everywhere cannot drop their guard.
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