Tag Archives: trump

Trade Takeaways from Trump’s Second State of the Union Address

Photo source: Pixabay

Alicia Nicholls

Last night (February 5, 2019), United States (US) President, Donald J. Trump, delivered his second State of the Union (SOTU) address before a joint session of the US Congress. The President highlighted his administration’s progress on his campaign promises, including on immigration, trade, tax policy, infrastructure and national security. This article takes a brief look at the trade takeaways from the SOTU.

The Context

President Trump came to office with the promise, inter alia, of effecting a seismic shift in US trade policy. America, Trump argued, was being taken advantage of by other countries, while “unfair” trade deals were leading to the outsourcing of American jobs to the detriment of American workers and the American economy.

An underlying theme of President Trump’s SOTU address last night was that of “promises made, promises kept”. The President reminded viewers of his campaign promise “to defend American jobs and demand fair trade for American workers”, while highlighting the achievements made thus far.

Much of President Trump’s trade policy actions have been done through executive actions utilising legislation like the Trade Act which empower the President to take certain trade-related action, such as raising tariffs. Indeed, in just two years, the Trump presidency has heralded a decidedly mercantilist turn in US trade policy, marked by increased unilateral action (even against traditional US allies, such as Canada and the EU), the US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the renegotiation of the tripartite North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), more aggressive action against China, coupled with threats of withdrawal from the WTO and blockage of appointments/re-appointments of WTO Appellate Body members.

Main Trade Takeaways from SOTU

However, in his address, President Trump focused exclusively on trade policy achievements regarding increased enforcement of US trade laws and the renegotiation of NAFTA. Below are the takeaways:

US-China Trading Relations

China has been the principal target of President Trump’s trade policy actions, leading to an escalation in trade tensions between Washington and Beijing which, according to the major multilateral institutions, are already negatively impacting global trade flows and dampening the outlook for the global economy.

In 2018, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods, to which Beijing retaliated with tariffs on $110 billion worth of US goods. Although those parties threatened to impose further tariffs, they made a truce on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in December 2018 not to impose any further tariffs for a 90-day period while trade talks resumed between them. Since the start of the truce, two sets of face-to-face trade talks have been held between the two economic behemoths.

While President Trump proudly boasted that America is “now making it clear to China that after years of targeting our industries, and stealing our intellectual property, the theft of American jobs and wealth has come to an end”, he further noted that he and Chinese President Xi were working on a new trade deal. The President, however, reiterated that any US-China trade deal “must include real, structural change to end unfair trade practices, reduce our chronic trade deficit, and protect American jobs”.

From NAFTA to USMCA

In his SOTU address, President Trump noted that “to build on our incredible economic success, one priority is paramount – reversing decades of calamitous trade policies”. To this effect, one of the President’s major trade policy campaign promises was the renegotiation of NAFTA, an agreement which he derided as a “historic blunder” in his SOTU address.

This renegotiation was accomplished last year with the signing of a replacement agreement called the US-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) Agreement. Some of the major changes include the requirement that 75 percent (up from 62.5 percent under NAFTA) of an automobile’s contents needs to be made in North America for it to qualify for duty-free treatment, greater access to the Canadian dairy market for US farmers, an extension of the terms of copyright protection, stronger labour provisions, a sunset clause and provision for review of the Agreement every six years.

The USMCA was signed in November 2018, but is awaiting ratification by the three parties. However, some Democrats have raised issues with the Agreement. President Trump encouraged Congress to ratify the USMCA, in order to “bring back our manufacturing jobs in even greater numbers, expand American agriculture, protect intellectual property, and ensure that more cars are proudly stamped with our four beautiful words: “Made in the USA.”

United States Reciprocal Trade Bill

President Trump also made a strong appeal to Congress to pass the United States Reciprocal Trade Bill (HR 764), “so that if another country places an unfair tariff on an American product, we can charge them the exact same tariff on the same product that they sell to us”.

The US Reciprocal Trade Bill, was introduced in the House on January 24, 2019, by Republican representative from Wisconsin’s 7th District, Sean Duffy (R-WI), who is currently the ranking Member of the Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing & Insurance.

Inter alia, the Bill provides that if the President determines that the rate of duty or non-tariff barriers imposed by a foreign country on a particular US good is “significantly higher ” than the rate of duty or non-tariff barriers imposed by the US on that same good imported from that country, the President is empowered to take several actions, including imposing a rate of duty on imports of that good that is equal to that imposed by that country.

The Bill currently has 19 co-sponsors. According to Representative Duffy’s press release, the proposed legislation would give the President “more flexibility in responding to foreign tariffs on U.S. products” and “the tools necessary to pressure other nations to lower their tariffs and stop taking advantage of America”.

If passed, the Bill will, however, likely be challenged by affected countries through the WTO’s dispute settlement system. However, it should be noted that its successful passage by Congress is not guaranteed. Firstly, the Democrats are the majority in the House of Representatives since January 2019, some of whom have openly criticised Trump’s protectionist trade policies. Secondly, and more importantly, some members of Congress, including some Republicans, are already proposing bi-partisan legislation to limit the President’s authority to unilaterally impose trade restrictions for national security purposes.

In the House, for example, Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wi-8) introduced H.R.940 to amend the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 to impose limitations on the authority of the President to adjust imports that are determined to threaten to impair national security, and for other purposes. Meanwhile, in the Senate, for example, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT)  introduced the Global Trade Accountability Act (S 177), which would amend the Trade Act of 1974 to require congressional approval of unilateral trade action. The House version (HR 723) was introduced by Representative Warren Davidson (R-OH-8).

However, the passage of any of these proposed bills limiting the President’s trade policy powers are not a sure bet either. Even if passed by both Congressional chambers, the bill would almost certainly be vetoed by the President, and would require a two-thirds majority in each house to override a presidential veto, which is not an easy feat.

The big takeaway

The big takeaway is that President Trump is convinced that his mercantilist trade policy is delivering for the American people, a fact he evidences by the increase in jobs and economic growth. Indeed, a fact sheet  was released by the White House on the same day highlighting the President’s trade policy achievements.

However, his trade policies have come at the cost of increased trade tensions, alienating traditional US allies and creating an impending crisis in the WTO’s Appellate Body whose membership is now down to three – the minimum number of members required to hear an appeal.

Several WTO members have already initiated complaints against certain of President Trump’s trade measures, and/or have raised issues during the US’ most recent Trade Policy Review (TPR).

However, barring some Congressional limit on Presidential trade policy powers, the current trade policy approach is likely to continue for the remainder of the Trump Presidency.

The full transcript of the President’s SOTU Address may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Advertisements

The Sino-American Challenge to Multilateralism

Rasheed J. Griffith, Guest Contributor

Nations don’t trade. Metaphors can both clarify and deceive. Trade is no exception. The current commentary on trade relationships between nations has elevated the commercial profit-loss mechanisms of international trade to an abstract state level apparatus. When we say states trade what we really mean is the firms in different states have commercial relationships. Firms have a singular motive: to make profit. Similarly to making the individual-firm distinction, we must always remember to make the state-firm distinction. This distinction is further amplified when we are discussing large economy states. They too have a singular motive: geopolitical dominance.

The persistent US trade deficit with China implies that US consumers are able to buy cheaper goods from China. But it is also a signal of the erosion of the US global geopolitical dominance caused by economic decline. In the US economy financial goods are replacing physical goods. The chart below shows the increase in the financial component of US GDP relative to manufacturing.

Americasfireeconomy

Stock market capitalization of the US relative to GDP is 153%. For China it is 65% and Germany 54%. I am familiar with arguments that claim this is not problematic because countries trust the US markets most.

The 2008 financial crisis gave a glimpse of what could happen to the US economy if the financial sector collapsed.

The US government was barely able to patch up the financial markets by using excessive money creation and debt redistribution (i.e quantitative easing) in 2008. This was a necessary move but it means the Federal Reserve System balance sheet is now bloated. In another crisis, quantitative easing will likely not be effective. At that point, the money and capital markets of the US will no longer be as attractive in the long term, resulting in the dollar losing its global reserve currency status. At this point, the geopolitical dominance of US will weaken. And the main adversary (which is now China) will strive to make sure the US remains in a weakened position.

Very few people seem to understand this. But the Communist Party of China (CCP) understands. In 1999, two colonels of the People’s Liberation Army published Unrestricted Warfare[1]. The book gave strategies for defeating the USA without direct conventional military engagement. One of the core strategies was the use economic policies to eat away at the US economy. Having China being the core manufacturing hub of the world was one such strategy. This was made explicit with the ‘Made in China 2025’ policy recently launched by the CCP[2].

China did not achieve its spectacular growth through free trade. All of China’s trade is managed by the CCP. When discussing the USA-China trade relationship we must always acknowledge that China has an authoritarian government that will create and implement policies that they believe will benefit China irrespective of what the Chinese citizens think or what multilateral organizations demand. When China ascended to the WTO in 2001 it was naively expected that China would conform to the rules of that organization. Authoritarian governments, however, do not follow neoliberal rules.

Starting around 1978 under Deng Xiaoping, the CCP began their reforms from Soviet style system wide planning to state capitalism directed by large and powerful state owned enterprises (SOEs)[3]. Although China ascended to the WTO in 2001, this model never changed. On the Fortune 500 list of largest global companies, China comes in a close second (120) behind the US (126). Japan (52) is quite far behind. But what is shocking is that 93% of the Chinese firms on the list are SOEs. The CCP heavily subsidies their SOEs, and creates rules specifically favorable to them; to the detriment of foreign entities.

The USTR Section 301 report identified several instances where China has violated the WTO rules to which it signed in 2001. These concern trading rights, import regulations, export regulations, intellectual property rights, technology transfer, foreign investment, and so on[4]. The US has complained to the WTO about China on 22 occasions and China has still persisted in violating the rules. The White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing report goes on the dissect the persistent economic aggressions of China[5].

What choice does the US have if it is not able to deal with China through WTO processes? Multilateral processes only work if everyone agrees to adhere to the same rules. Of course , though, these rules were largely set by the US. In dealing with China, the WTO is absolutely ineffective. There is no democratic fallout if China refuses to acknowledge multilateral rules (as seen explicitly in China’s absolute refusal to acknowledge the Philippine’s win in the Hague in matter of the West Philippines Sea/South China Sea). It is likely that any strong ruling in the WTO against China will similarly fall on deaf ears. (Similarly the US has substantially disregarded a WTO ruling after losing a case to Antigua).

In any case, it has gotten to a point where countries cannot simply halt or significantly decrease trade with China in the form of sanctions. The US, then, is forced to use geoeconomics – the use of economic instruments to further geopolitical goals.

As the President of the United States, Trump is right to engage China directly. His strategy is clever: robe a geostrategic containment engagement in bland terms of trade rhetoric. And this is by no means outside the modus operandi of the US. During the Cold War period the US actively practised a strategy of containment against the Soviet Union. In fact, China has accused the US of trying to economically contain China[6]. But of course, China has been engaging in geoeconomics as well recently.

For example, in 2012 China allowed farmers from the Phillipines to export their bananas to China but when the bananas arrived they were left to rot on the dock. This left the Philippines banana planters with neither stock nor payment (30% of Philippines banana exports go to China). This was used as a tactic to weaken the Philippines position when the tensions over the South China Sea were rising[7]. Another example is when China blocked rare earth metals to Japan almost crippling Japanese tech manufacturing, until Japan finally conceded, over another maritime dispute[8]. In both cases, the WTO was impotent.

What Trump gets wrong is that tariffs are not sufficient. And he failed to properly define a long term strategy to deal with China. Without such a strategy the US will continue ad hoc aggressions.

China has been shown to disregard all multilateral rules if it wants to. But even so, it is difficult being upset with China. China has succeeded in the most comprehensive and rapid poverty alleviation program in all of human history. China was able to lift over 600 million people out of poverty in less than 30 years[9]. Following along this path, it should be expected that the CCP is mounting a restoration of China to compensate for its decline after the late 1850s: the “century of humiliation[10]”. Few commentators remember that for 18 of the last 20 centuries China commanded a greater share of world GDP that any other country. Henry Kissinger reminds us that as recent as 1820 China “produced over 30% of world GDP – an amount exceeding the GDP of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States combines.”[11]

Wang Yi, however, recently attempted to assure the UN that China has no ambition of hegemonic dominance[12]. I believe that is an empty statement given Xi Jinping’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has been added to the Party constitution of the CCP[13]. From the perspective of CCP, as Lee Kuan Yew frames it, China is not looking to become dominant; rather, it is looking to restore dominance. It is a different geopolitical mindset.

This to me is the crux of the Sino-American challenge. The US is right that China is not properly following WTO rules because it has disregarded many of those rules to accelerate its economic growth. And it has been exceedingly effective. But if China were to conform to the WTO rules, it would not match the model that has been so successful.

Multilateral trade rules were not designed by China to fit China’s model (authoritarian government, state capitalism). They were primarily designed by liberal democracies – the US in particular. Both of these nations have fundamentally different economic models and justifiable geopolitical reasons for disregarding WTO rules to protect (or increase) their geopolitical dominance.

We are living in a time of multilateralism. But this time is anomalous. Dani Rodrik has explained in detail why “free trade agreements” have little to do with free trade[14]. Those agreements are primarily political documents. In fact, “76 percent of existing preferential trade agreements covered at least some aspect of investment (such as free capital mobility) by 2011; 61 percent covered intellectual property rights protection; and 46 percent covered environmental regulations”[15]. These are political documents that attempt to alter a nation’s domestic policies with the preferences of international actors.

This is not possible with a powerful authoritarian government. It is a grave error to treat China as just another Western country; like how you would treat Japan. China is an ideological adversary to the US that has now become an economic adversary. When at odds with geopolitical motives multilateralism always fails. Geoeconomic escalation is not only justified but it is inevitable.

Rasheed Griffith’s professional interests include Southeast Asian Monetary Policy and AML Compliance. He may be contacted at rasheed.j.griffith AT gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @RasheedGriffith

[1] http://www.c4i.org/unrestricted.pdf

[2] https://supchina.com/2018/06/28/made-in-china-2025/

[3] https://orca.cf.ac.uk/99467/1/Publication_2016_IJEMSc.pdf

[4] https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/Section%20301%20FINAL.PDF

[5] https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/FINAL-China-Technology-Report-6.18.18-PDF.pdf

[6] http://www.atimes.com/article/us-tariffs-are-containment-beijings-message-fed-by-the-white-house/

[7] https://www.asiasentinel.com/society/the-china-philippine-banana-war/

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/23/business/global/23rare.html

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_China#Poverty_reduction

[10] https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/10/how-humiliation-drove-modern-chinese-history/280878/

[11] https://www.amazon.com/China-Henry-Kissinger/dp/0143121316

[12] http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201809/30/WS5bafb647a310eff303280520.html

[13] https://idsa.in/idsacomments/what-the-inclusion-of-bri-in-the-chinese-constitution-implies_jpanda_071117

[14]https://drodrik.scholar.harvard.edu/files/dani-rodrik/files/what_do_trade_agreements_really_do.pdf

[15] Limão, Nuno. 2016. “Preferential Trade Agreements.” NBER Working Paper 22138, March

The Trump Presidency – Implications and Opportunities for Caribbean IFCs

Alicia Nicholls

On March 31, 2017 I was a panellist representing FRANHENDY ATTORNEYS at the Barbados International Business Association (BIBA) Barbados International Business Forum 2017 entitled “Is the Barbados International Business Sector Under Attack?” held at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre in Barbados.

I was on the second panel which discussed the topic “The Trump Presidency – Implications and Opportunities for IFCs“. My esteemed fellow panellists were Jeremy Stephen, Economist and UWI Lecturer, Lisa Cummins, Executive Director of UWIConsulting and Cadian Dummond, Attorney at Law. The discussion was expertly moderated by Melanie Jones, Partner at Lex Caribbean Attorneys-At-Law.

I spoke to the possible implications of the Trump Presidency in regards to de-risking, FATCA and visa restrictions.

For those who missed the panel discussion and have expressed interest in my remarks, please find a copy of same in powerpoint form here. Enjoy!

For more on past presentations I have done, please see news and announcements.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

 

 

President Trump’s Trade Policy Agenda for 2017 Released

Alicia Nicholls

The Office of the United States’ Trade Representative (USTR) today released a preliminary report outlining President Trump’s Trade Policy Agenda for 2017.  It should be noted that this is a preliminary report prepared in order to comply with the statutory deadline for the report’s annual release March 1, but bearing in mind that President Trump’s nominee for USTR, experienced trade lawyer and former deputy USTR under former President Ronald Reagan, Robert Lighthizer, has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. As such, it has been noted in the report that  a more detailed version will be published once the USTR has been confirmed and has had the opportunity to provide input in that report’s development.

As stated in the report, President Trump sees bipartisan support by the American people for a complete overhaul of US trade policy. In order to effect this, the report states that the overarching purpose of the Trumpian trade policy “will be to expand trade in a way that is freer and fairer for all Americans”.

To this effect, the report outlines four priorities identified by the Administration:

(1) defend U.S. national sovereignty over trade policy;

(2) strictly enforce U.S. trade laws;

(3) use all possible sources of leverage to encourage other countries to open their markets to U.S. exports of goods and services, and provide adequate and effective protection and enforcement of U.S. intellectual property rights; and

(4) negotiate new and better trade deals with countries in key markets around the world.”

Several preliminary things stand out from the report:

(1) The report highlighted that the US is not bound by WTO decisions and evinces a policy stance going forward not to accept any adverse rulings from the WTO. The paragraph below taken directly from the report is instructive:

“And, when the WTO adopts interpretations of WTO agreements that undermine the ability of the United States and other WTO Members to respond effectively to these real world unfair trade practices with remedies expressly allowed under WTO rules, those interpretations undermine confidence in the trading system. None of these outcomes is in the interest of the United States or a healthy global economy.”

This is coupled with what appears to be the Trump administration’s plans to make greater use of unilateral remedies.

US disregard for adverse WTO rulings is a troubling prospect for many reasons, but particularly for small island states’ enforcement of their trade interests. It should be noted that the Caribbean island state of Antigua & Barbuda is still awaiting compensation from the US, after many years, since winning the US-Gambling dispute. It remains to be seen whether this will ever be resolved.

(2) Based on the arguments made in this report, I think it likely that Trump’s team will advocate for changes to be made to the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism for their own interest.

(3) The Administration has stated its intention to not only more aggressively go after countries the US deems to be “engaging in unfair trade practices”, but will also with equal zeal go after countries which do not sufficiently open their markets to US exports. As mentioned previously, the pursuit of countries’ trading practices which are perceived to be inimical to US interests is not new and has been US policy for years. The singling out of China in this regard came as no surprise.

(4) The Trump administration’s criterion for whether a trade agreement is bad or good appears to be based solely on whether the US has a trade (merchandise) deficit with the country in question. This is not just a facile way of assessing the merits of a trade agreement, but also ignores services trade and investment which in many cases the US has a surplus with its trading partners.

(5) While there are references to “free and fairer trade” throughout the report, I believe the term “zero sum” trade may be the more appropriate term to describe these proposals.

The full report may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

 

Trump Trade Policy ‘Achievements’: The First Month

Alicia Nicholls

February 20th marked United States (US) President Donald Trump’s first full month in the Oval Office. And what a month it has been! We have seen a lot of focus by his administration on immigration. But what about trade? Trade occupied a major part of the platform of then US presidential candidate Trump. In his Contract with the American Voter , he had enumerated several trade-related pledges as part of his 100-day action plan to “Make America Great Again”. His first one hundred days are not yet up, but it is worth looking at what have been the achievements towards his “America first” trade policy during his first month in office.

President Trump’s Trade Promises

As a reminder, these were the major trade-related promises gleaned from his Contract with the American Voter. He pledged to:

  • Announce his intention to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205;
  • Announce the US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership;
  • Direct the Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator;
  • Direct the Secretary of Commerce and U.S. Trade Representative to identify all foreign trading abuses that unfairly impact American workers and direct them to use every tool under American and international law to end those abuses immediately;
  • Work with Congress to introduce the “End Offshoring Act” to establish tariffs to discourage US companies from laying off their workers in order to relocate in other countries and ship their products back to the U.S. tax-free.

Three main reasons possibly explain Mr. Trump’s slow progress on his trade agenda thus far. Firstly, two key members of his trade team  who are needed to help effect his policies are still awaiting Senate confirmation, namely his United States Trade Representative (USTR) pick, noted trade lawyer and former deputy USTR under President Ronald Reagan, Robert Lighthizer, and his commerce secretary nominee, Wilbur Ross, an investor and former banker.

Secondly and related to the first point,Mr. Trump’s policy inexperience means he will likely be more reliant on the guidance and advice of his yet-to-be confirmed trade team than would other presidents. Thirdly, it is possible that Mr. Trump is realising that there is a wide chasm between presidential campaign rhetoric and how Washington and the role of president actually work, particularly when contrasted with being a CEO of one’s own company.

What has he achieved so far and what hasn’t he?

With that in mind, it is not surprising that of his stated promises, his only substantive trade policy achievement thus far has been directing the USTR via a presidential memorandum to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Withdrawal from the TPP was a low-hanging fruit. The US had signed but not yet ratified the Agreement and there was almost bi-partisan criticism of the deal. The acting USTR has since followed up on this memorandum, submitting a withdrawal letter to the TPP depository and TPP partners, and indicating their interest in bilateral trade deals with former TPP partners with which the US does not currently have a trade agreement.

Further to the latter point, President Trump and his soon-to-be confirmed trade team have been consistent so far on their preference for bilateralism over multilateralism. Trade was one of the hot button topics at his initial meetings with United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Theresa May,   Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

In keeping with his campaign promise that post-Brexit UK would not be at the back of queue for a trade deal, Mr. Trump received Prime Minister May as his first foreign head of government. The two have reportedly agreed to establish working groups in regards to a possible post-Brexit US-UK trade deal. Indeed, the UK House of Common’s International Trade Committee has already launched an inquiry on this.  However, formal negotiations on any such deal can only legally begin once the UK concludes its withdrawal agreement with the European Union (EU) pursuant to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

More immediately possible, however, may be trade talks between Japan and the US. Despite Mr. Trump’s earlier criticism of former TPP partner Japan’s “unfair trade practices”, the meeting with Mr. Abe went cordially, with agreement in principle for beginning US-Japan trade and investment talks. It should be noted that Japan has a large trade surplus with the US, boosted particularly by automobile exports, which might be a bone of contention in any trade talks between the two countries.

Outside of withdrawing from the TPP and these preliminary aspirational trade talks, there has been limited progress so far on his specific campaign promise in comparison to the ambitious agenda he proposed. So far he has not labelled China a “currency manipulator”. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had indicated that China’s currency was no longer below value. Nonetheless, Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin, hesitated in a recent CNBC interview to “pass judgment” on China’s currency practices, stating his preference to go through the US Treasury’s established process on judging whether China (and other countries) was manipulating its currency to boost exports.

Additionally, President has not yet triggered the 90-day notice period by informing Congress of his intention to renegotiate NAFTA, which he had promised to do “immediately”. While Mr. Trump has criticised the shift of US jobs to Mexico and the US’ large merchandise trade with that NAFTA partner, it is also not clear on what particular provisions of the agreement he wishes to “tweak”.

What is clear is that Mr. Trump’s main grievance with NAFTA appears to be with Mexico more so than with Canada. Indeed, Mr. Trump took a less protectionist stance towards Canada during his meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau, speaking collectively of keeping jobs and wealth within North America (US and Canada) and not just the US. While reporting on his meeting with Canada’s Prime Trudeau indicates that he would be looking for greater access by American firms to Canadian procurement markets, it is unclear when the NAFTA renegotiation talks will begin.

With respect to the promise to direct the USTR to identify countries engaging in “unfair trade practices”, his USTR nominee is still awaiting confirming. However, it has been longstanding US policy to challenge nations whose actions are against US economic and trading interests, as evidenced by the large number of disputes brought by the US before the WTO’s dispute settlement body.  Therefore, President Trump will not be doing anything more than what previous US administrations have done in this regard, although we will likely see an even more aggressive stance towards China’s trade practices.

Mr. Trump has spoken frequently against US companies which offshore production processes (and therefore jobs), as evidenced by his deal with air conditioner maker Carrier. He has promised to, but has not yet proposed, legislation to impose a punitive tax on US companies seeking to offshore may receive stiff opposition from the business community and from Congress.

He has, however, vacillated in his views on the controversial Border  Adjustment  Tax (BAT) proposal being pushed by Congressional Republicans as part of their tax reform plan. Different from Trump’s border tariff proposal, the GOP BAT Proposal seeks to convert the US corporate income tax from an origin-based to a destination-based tax. It would prevent companies from deducting the costs of their imported goods as an expense, while giving a tax break to companies which export. However, while some business leaders have praised the idea, some economists have argued that it will not boost US exports.

What next?

Besides the questions surrounding the renegotiation of NAFTA and which other nations the Administration will earmark for future bilateral deals, it is unclear what will be the Trump administration’s stance on other existing trade agreements, and on the on-going negotiations, including the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU and on the plurilateral negotiations such as the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). There is also need for clarity on the Administration’s position on key multilateral trade issues, bearing in mind the WTO’s upcoming 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires at the end of this year.  Nonetheless, it is early days yet and it is hoped there will be greater policy clarity before the one hundred days have elapsed.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Trump Trade Team poised to reset US Trade Policy

Photo source: Pixabay

Alicia Nicholls

Just three weeks shy of his inauguration date, United States President-elect Donald Trump has completed his trade team by nominating veteran trade lawyer and negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, as the next United States Trade Representative (USTR). Last month the President-elect had announced Wilbur Ross Jr as his Commerce Secretary nominee and Peter Navarro as head of the new White House Trade Council.

A cabinet-level office, the Office of the USTR is responsible for developing and coordinating US trade and investment policy and overseeing negotiations with third countries. Mr. Lighthizer’s pick comes as no surprise as he was an early Trump supporter. Moreover, a former deputy USTR in the Reagan Administration, Mr. Lighthizer is the most qualified of Mr. Trump’s nominees to date, bringing considerable technical expertise and professional experience to the post of USTR. Currently a partner with law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates, he also served as the Chief of Staff of the United States Senate Committee on Finance. Mr. Lighthizer will be taking over from current USTR under President Obama, Michael Froman. One of his first tasks from day one will likely be working on the renegotiation of the North-American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as promised by President-elect Trump in his 100 days proposal.

Mr. Lighthizer’s conservative views on trade, including his criticism of free trade, are in consonance with the President-elect’s binary trade views, as well his hard-line position on China’s so-called currency manipulation. Mr. Lighthizer also had some harsh words for the WTO’s dispute settlement system in regards to dealing with what he had termed China’s “mercantilism”.

His choice of the word “mercantilism” is curious as it can actually be used to describe Mr. Trump’s “America first” stance on trade. Mercantilist theory, prevalent during 16th century Europe and also refined by Alexander Hamilton during the US’ post-independence period, views trade in a zero sum way, that is, only one country can win in trade. It favours the use of protectionist policies, such as tariffs, subsidies and quotas, to protect domestic industries from foreign competition.

Granted lingering traces of protectionist practices are not alien in current US trade policy and all modern “great powers” have used mercantilist policies to develop in their early stages (see the works of Professors Erik Reinert and Ha-Joon Chang for greater information on this). Just consider the protection given to sensitive sectors like agriculture. This is true not just for the US but for most other trading nations as well. However, in the last three decades US trade policy has been guided (if not always in practice, at least in theory) by neoliberal tenets, based on the works of Adam Smith and later David Ricardo, which extolled the benefits of free markets and became the dominant economic theory. However, while trade is a good thing, there are winners and losers, and the “losers” made their voices known this election, and increasingly in other western states.

Capitalising on the populist backlash to free trade, Mr. Trump’s trade team seems poised to break with this three-decade old policy stance towards a more neo-mercantilist disposition, with an emphasis on positive trade balances, and a proclivity for the use of protective and retaliatory tariffs to discourage imports in order to protect American jobs and industries and punish “cheaters”. On this front at least, Mr. Trump has tremendous popular support, especially in the rust belt, at home.

So what can we in the rest of the world expect? We can probably expect greater confrontation by the US with China on trade matters. We can expect even more aggressive US pursuit of countries in general believed to be engaging in “unfair trade practices” (and the USTR has already been doing this through the WTO’s dispute settlement system), However, there might be less emphasis under the Trump administration on utilising the WTO’s rules-based system and a resort to unilateral action, with the possibility of trade wars.

Perhaps, one saving grace is that the US Congress alone has the power to impose tariffs, although this CNN Money article notes there are several pieces of legislation which give the President some flexibility, for example, during “times of war” or during “a national emergency”.

As I have said in previous posts on Trump’s trade policy, President-elect Trump has changed his positions on many things so there is still great uncertainty about which of his policy proposals he will seek to implement. However, if the Carrier deal were not enough to show that Mr. Trump’s “America first” trade policy is more than mere bloviating on his part, his protectionist-leaning trade team confirms his intention  to shake up American trade policy, and not just in optics.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

 

« Older Entries