At the White House, Confusion (Apparently) Reigns on US Trade Agreements

Friday afternoon, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced a new White House Executive Order to study “violations and abuses” of US trade agreements. The EO itself is hardly remarkable – President Trump’s first 100 Days have featured numerous executive demands for studies, investigations and reports on various international trade issues (without any actual anti-trade actions, so far) – but what was remarkable was the substance of Ross’ speech itself, which appeared to be unaware of certain basic facts about US trade agreements. In this regard, Ross’ statements raise questions about not only the White House’s basic research competence, but also what they’ll eventually produce in their final “trade agreement abuses” report.

A full accounting of the errors and omissions in Ross’ press briefing is beyond the scope of this short blog post, but the four most basic are below. (My Cato colleague Simon Lester handles some of Ross’ confusion surrounding basic World Trade Organization rules and procedures in a separate blog post, so be sure to check that out too.)

ROSS: And as far as I can tell there has never been a systematic evaluation of what has been the impact of the WTO agreements on the country as an integrated whole.

Actually, the US government has produced dozens of studies on the impact of US trade agreements, including the WTO Agreements, over the last decade or so.  Indeed, just last year both the US International Trade Commission and Congressional Budget Office produced comprehensive reviews of how our trade agreements have affected the US economy as a whole, each finding that our trade agreements have produced small but significant net benefits for the US economy in terms of GDP, employment, wages and so forth.  Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly examined the specific issue of US trade agreement enforcement – see, for example: here, here and here – finding limited concerns, while the USDA has often examined the benefits of US trade agreements for the American farm sector.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

ROSS: But there are those problems that I mentioned, then there’s also the structural problem of the [WTO] dispute resolution mechanism.  Takes a very long time, and given the composition of the WTO panels, often we’re defeated when people come and appeal it.  Because if the people on the panel are mostly people who are doing the same thing as what you’re complaining about, it’s a little bit hard to get them to vote for you.

WTO dispute settlement does, indeed, suffer from delays – a problem brought about by high use and a staffing crunch – but it’s beyond a stretch to imply, as Ross does here, that it harbors some sort of institutional bias against the United States.  In fact, the United States is very successful in WTO dispute settlement –more so than most other Members.  As my colleague Dan Ikenson noted recently–

The “WTO” doesn’t file complaints at the WTO. WTO members do. And they do so when they are aggrieved and when they are as close as possible to 100% certain that they will prevail if the matter goes all the way through dispute settlement. As a result, complainants prevail almost all of the time – on 90% of adjudicated issues. When the United States has been a complainant (as it has in 114 of 522 WTO disputes over 22 years – more than any other WTO member) it has prevailed on 91% of adjudicated issues. When the United States is a respondent (as it has been in 129 cases – more than any other WTO member), it has lost on 89% of adjudicated issues.

Just as importantly, the United States’ win/loss records in dispute settlement are also good in comparison to other WTO Members.  According to a recent Bloomberg analysis, the United States actually wins more often than average and loses less often than average and has a far better “loss rate” (i.e., we successfully defend more often) than the EU, Japan and China.  Furthermore, the United States itself has a less-than-stellar record of non-compliance with the WTO Agreements and adverse WTO dispute settlement decisions.  How these hard numbers can possibly reflect, as Ross asserts, a “structural problem” with the WTO is beyond me.

ROSS: And I think that points out one of the issues with our current relationship with the World Trade, namely Mexico and others have had very big external tariffs on many, many goods.  U.S. is the least protectionist country.  Many goods come in totally free, and others have little, tiny tariffs, like 2.5 percent.  Countries like Mexico frequently have 15, 20 percent, even more than 20 percent tariffs.

By no conceivable measure is the United States “the least protectionist country” in the world. As I noted last fall, for example, “according to a recent analysis by Credit Suisse, when you add up all forms of trade barriers imposed between 1990 and 2013, the biggest protectionist in the world isn’t China or Mexico but none other than… the United States.”  This includes the 370+ protective duties – often over 100%! – through our trade remedy (antidumping and countervailing duty) laws and our “Buy American” rules for federal procurement – measures that the Trump administration has expressly targeted for expansion.  Even the United States’ basic tariff rates aren’t the world’s lowest – not even close, actually.  As Ramesh Ponnuru recently noted, “[t]he World Bank reports that we have higher average tariff rates than Canada, Israel, the European Union, Japan, and many other countries. Our average tariff level is just slightly below the developed-world average.”  (Using a different tariff metric, the WTO also finds that the United States is not the best.) We also are about average when it comes to restrictions on trade in services.

ROSS: What are some of the problems under WTO?  Its 160-some-odd countries are participants in the WTO, and the vast majority of those are countries that export to us, and in most cases, export more than they buy from us.

The Trump administration’s obsession with trade deficits and balanced trade is well-known at this point, so I won’t rehash all of that here.  Nevertheless, calling the US trade balance a “problem under the WTO” defies the most basic of economics.  In particular, I highly recommend this recent (very short!) explainer from the San Francisco Federal Reserve on what drives the US trade balance and whether trade deficits are really a “problem” per se.  (Spoiler: it’s not the WTO Agreements and no).

There are plenty of substantive questions surrounding the alleged “violation and abuse” of US trade agreements.  Of the top of my head: Are such violations and abuses really pervasive?  Do they actually harm the economy? Either way, what should we do about them? And, finally, is the United States really so innocent here? As such, an assessment of international trade agreement violations and abuses is, in theory, worthy of undertaking.  If the aforementioned errors are any indication, however, the result of the new US investigation won’t provide many good answers.