Global Trade – Good or Bad For Nations – For Individuals — a Factor in Encouraging Greater Sustainability for Society?

by Hank Boerner – Chair, G&A Institute

“Trade” can be viewed in the macro-environment or the micro, with personal advantages and disadvantages for men and women in both developed and developing nations.

With a new administration coming to Washington DC in January 2017, the heated rhetoric of the 2016 presidential primaries and during the general campaign quickly moved “trade” as a loose-lip and often-un-informed talking point at rallies in the direction of possibly enacted national public policy.

Tear up NAFTA  – punish China – make cozy deals with countries one-at-a-time instead of multi-lateral agreements.  That’s seemingly the direction of the Trump Administration policy-making in 2018 — if we believe the rhetoric.

So — the question hangs — is global trade good or bad for U.S. workers…for the economy…for workers in both developed and developing nations…as a positive or negative in the quest for greater global sustainability?

As in all policy making, we must search for truth and evidence to help answer the questions — and guide public governance.

We do have help if we want to tune in to the source:  The independent, not-for-profit National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) weighed in in April with a Working Paper: “How Large Are the U.S. Economy’s Gains From Trade?”

FYI – NBER (founded in 1920) is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has a huge cadre of economists and researchers that work to provide us with “objective, quantitative analysis of the American economy.”

The scholars issue a steady stream of Working Papers for public consumption (and study and discussion by policy makers looking for “truth, fact, objectivity, reliable findings”  — my characterizations).

The name may ring a bell — NBER is the non-governmental organization that declares the official start and end of a U.S. recession, for example.  Their declaration is often separate of what is going on in the capital markets so it stands out.

In the current paper, the researchers examined “estimates of the economic benefits of a globally-open economy.”  And the impact plus or minus on the American economy.

Most likely results: they see a gain for the U.S. domestic economy of from 2% to 8% through open global trade, depending on certain assumptions about consumer and producer behavior.

What if we actually slammed the door shut on trade beyond our borders?  Authors Arnaud Costinot and Andres Rodrigues-Clare explain there is [surprisingly] little direct quantitative evidence on how the economy would react if we did begin to close the doors on global trade. (Note to policymakers: That’s why we don’t make hasty or dumb decisions on trade!)

Looking at such factors as labor and capital embedded in goods purchased from around the world, they estimated the gains from trade by comparing the size of a “counter-factual” U.S. economy that would depend entirely on domestic sources compared with a nation (like the USA) that has ready access to foreign services and goods.

While the dollar value of U.S. imports is large, as a percentage of national spending it is actually really small.

There are varying impacts of open trade on individual industries – and the enterprises and their workers.

For garment and apparel companies the demand for cheap labor is “in-elastic” in economic lingo. Not much wiggle room or flexibility. That is why the companies go to East Asia for labor inputs.

For an American automaker, the import of German-made transmissions for installation in Detroit’s models is somewhat lesser of an impact (there are always alternatives).  US manufacturers used to be more “integrated” and made most of the components for their trucks and cars. Now the industry is defined as a global sourcer.

For U.S. farmers, the impact depends on where else in the world wheat is grown and the ready availability and pricing for that wheat. Trade is critical to the American farm belt.

Think of rare minerals used in manufacturing — if vital minerals are only available in certain areas of the globe, and are needed (say for making cell phones or other electronic products), the dependency is greater for U.S. manufacturers (again, in-elasticity reigns).

Tradeoffs in global trade exist everywhere: Lower consumer prices are enjoyed (as designer-label garments flow to U.S. retailers’ shelves from cheap East Asian labor sourcing) — but too many American workers may lose jobs and/or work for lower wages.  And in turn, local communities suffer.  The 2016 elections showed one of the results of that suffering as voters signalled their discontent with trade policies.

Global Trade ESG Issues

NBER researchers looked at a different topic in the trade bucket for their Working Paper: the effects of Fair Trade Certification.

The movement began led by a church-affiliated NGO in Holland and quickly spread throughout Europe and to the U.S.A. and various groups coalesced in the Fair Trade Labelling Organization (“FLO”) in 1997.

In this research effort, NBER authors Raluca Dragusanu and Nathan Nunn examined the impact of the Fair Trade movement on coffee producers in the Central American nation of Costa Rica, in the heart of the global coffee belt (typically countries near the Equator).

They looked at FLO impacts on incomes of coffee growers, their neighbors and communities.

Fair Trade policies, they assert, is a positive as it raises prices for local growers, to begin with, high enough to cover the cost of production. The higher prices are typically intended as well to raise the quality of life in the coffee-growing region.

Premium prices paid by buyers above the set minimums are used to build schools and establish scholarships, create local health care facilities, and various infrastructure, and to help improve growing practices.

Through fair trade practices, income rises in Fair Trade growing areas, for both certified growers and many of their non-growers neighbors.

Income levels were on average 3.5% higher for growers and as much as 7.5% for “skilled” coffee growers (when the “intensity of fair trade increases in an area).

The researchers found that price premiums for growers increased school enrollments (2%-to-5%) for children ages 13-to-17 — critical ages for young men and women preparing for their adult lives.

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We found this and other NBER research interesting. We have “cold, hard facts” about the economy and trade and the “what-ifs” if present trade policies and practices are messed with, and the results are in the main “unknown”.

And we see that global trade is lifting people and their communities in a Central American country where coffee growing is an important agricultural pursuit.  And a benefit of open and fair trade.

Like climate change and many other public issues, there are plusses and minuses in trade affairs — and no easy answers!

Therefore, we can argue, let reason reign, common sense be applied — and science and facts and evidence-based research be the foundations of good public sector decision-making!

Thanks to NBER researchers for their efforts (in producing more than 1,000 Working Papers a year) to continue to produce research and surface evidence that can add to be leveraged to develop both public and private sector strategies.

You can learn more at:  www.nber.org

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