Why Britain is uniquely placed to galvanise a sleepy WTO

Step changes typically pass unnoticed until after the event that triggered them has passed.

The step change anticipated if Leave succeeded was a huge loss on the markets. That did not occur. But there is an unanticipated step change. An opportunity has emerged for the UK to lead action in reconstructing the World Trade Organisation (WTO), transforming it into a fresh global platform that liberalises global trade in services and investment.

Taking such a role does not depend on the terms of Brexit. The UK is already an independent member of the WTO. Regardless of when and how it settles with Brussels, it has a place to speak now in the WTO. And an active, influential and independent UK voice on global trade and investment is sorely needed there.

It has become fashionable to opine that the era of globalisation is ending and a retreat to protectionism looms. What such commentators overlook is the institutional impediment to a global resort to protectionism – and that is the WTO. All major economies are locked into legally-binding commitments not to raise tariffs. They can only reverse these measures if they compensate other WTO members. The worst that can occur is that further liberalisation stalls.

Moreover, there has been a change that many commentators have missed. Trade analysts have been reporting annually to the G20 since the financial crisis that annual growth in world trade in goods is no longer the leading indicator of global growth. One reason is readjustment of traffic in global supply chains and related slowdown in trade between China and the US. Chinese goods are not as cheap as they used to be.

With tariffs generally low, global growth today depends on liberalising other constraints on business, specifically restrictions on access to services markets and on foreign investment. The annual rate of foreign investment is steadily rising. This focus is now a feature in the newer trade agreements being negotiated among Asian Pacific economies, and in particular in the yet-to-be-adopted 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement led by the US. They also featured in the US/EU negotiations for a TTIP agreement, but that now seems stalled.

A welcome development is the recent recognition by key developing economies that services are an important contributor to economic growth. In advanced economies like the UK, services industries generate 60 to 80 per cent of GDP. In developing economies – Asia and Latin America, for example – the contribution to GDP is just 40 to 60 per cent. They are also aware barriers to foreign investment must be removed.

These were key objectives of the now moribund “Doha Round” set of negotiations which began in the WTO in 2001. When it became clear five years ago that progress could not be made on services, “unofficial” backroom negotiations were initiated among the 50 WTO members who wanted change. The negotiations are formally private – “ex-WTO”. They are supposed to conclude this year.

A major initiative is required in the WTO to embed these new developments, and then inject energy and momentum into the organisation’s role in expanding global liberalisation of trade in services. The basic measures in WTO agreements are the bedrock of virtually all bilateral and regional trade arrangements. It is vital that its utility and credibility is maintained.

Here is a significant leadership opportunity for the UK. It is still a WTO member in its own right, as are all members of the EU. If any major global economy is to champion liberalisation of investment and services, it is the UK. This is its international economic headland.

Given the immense task of Brexit, the UK government is probably not in a position to take on such a role in the WTO right now. But one thing the Brexit process will demonstrate is that a key part of rebuilding an independent policy position on international trade and investment requires re-acquisition by UK officials of the detailed technical knowledge which is now embedded in the three overarching agreements (GATT, GATS and TRIPS), seven major agreements and the 20 odd minor agreements, as well as the WTO Dispute Settlement system. Without this knowledge, UK officials will not be able to negotiate quality bilateral trade agreements. All of them default to, or operate from, key premises enshrined in WTO agreements.

Things move slowly in the WTO. An energetic and influential party, which is a natural role for the UK, can have a major impact in revitalising the WTO system. The EU is active in this sphere, but cannot be adroit because it has too many players with diverse interests.

This article originally appeared in City AM

The G20's degeneration into a political beauty pageant

Alan Oxley, Managing Director

Vanity must be an endemic condition among heads of government. Why else would they waste their time attending G20 Summits? Its original justification was to manage the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Temporary measures were adopted, global growth stalled rather than collapsed but the necessary fundamental corrections remain unenacted. Yet there is no indication China – as G20 chair – plans to address this problem.

In this, it is simply following the lead of its predecessors. The summit has become a political version of haute couture fashion parades – all show and little substance. Take China's theme for the summit – to build an "innovative, invigorated, interconnected and inclusive world". Wordy goals for international meetings is a clear indicator there is either no agreement on what to do (as was the case in climate change conferences for over two decades) or the intent is to avoid discussing the real problems.

There is a big one. The global economy looks increasingly stuck. The deep fear is another financial crisis, but this time debt is so large even the temporary solutions used in 2008 may not be available. China's own ability to cope is increasingly under question. Its financial situation is looking increasingly ominous. The highly-respected economic consultancy Dragenomics has just released another grim warming about deepening financial risks in China's economy. The warning three years ago of a creeping financial disaster in China by the authors of "Red Capitalism" is becoming mainstream thinking. Its capacity to contribute to action to boost in global growth is rapidly diminishing. It may be the trigger for another GFC.

Beijing plainly does not intend this to be a key subject at the G20 summit. One minor upside of China in the chair is that it is unlikely to give weight to the patent desire of the media to default to contending the free market tide is turning, protectionism is increasing and the era of globalisation is fading. And a number will contend Brexit is concrete evidence. There is every chance its impact will be opposite. We will need to wait and see.


No doubt the WTO Director General will report, a he has at previous G20 summits, that growth in world trade is lagging and there is an increasing resort to protectionism. This is policy comfort food for international bodies like the World Bank, IMF and WTO. They too can avoid discussing the elephant in the room. It is likely there will have been an uptick in resort to anti-dumping. There always is during recession, but it is not a universal phenomenon. Close examination shows this is usually predominant in a handful of struggling Latin American economies – Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina.

In this race to be first to enunciate the new paradigm there is a set of facts which demonstrate the world's economy will remain open. All the major economies are locked into legally binding commitments in the WTO and major regional agreements to hold tariffs down. This is the global baseline. A rise in anti-dumping only marginally alters it. A stalled US/EU bilateral agreement (TTIP), a delayed TPP (and its passing is by no means a certainty), and further stalling in the WTO does not mean a return to higher tariffs, it simply means a delay in advancing global liberalisation in new areas – investment and services. On this, expect the G20 simply to remain silent.

The odds of another global economic train crash are shortening. Yet the EU can turn its attention to the refugee crisis in the EU and the implications of Brexit enabling it to leave unaddressed its own looming train wreck – insistence on a monetary policy that disregards the failure to address the debt problem among the key Latin states.

If we are to have another global financial crisis, the G20 body as it stands today will be unlikely to manage a rerun of the strategy used to stem the GFC. It has become unwieldy, undisciplined and distracted. It is little more than a Head of Government beauty pageant. Giving priority to second order issues is a certain sign of terminal rot.

It is time we stopped devoting resources to this endeavour and concentrated on making the case in Australia for economic reform.

Alan Oxley is principal of ITS Global and chairman of the APEC Study Centre at RMIT University

This article appeared in the Australian Financial Review

Consumers lose out to Australia’s protectionist anti-dumping laws

Alan Oxley, Manging Director

Australia’s anti-dumping system has become tool for protecting industries which aren’t competitive. Over time federal government has cranked up penalty charges on imports, such as steel, deemed unfairly under-priced, to protect these businesses. It’s Australian consumers who bear the cost.

In its latest Trade and Assistance Review, the Productivity Commission found a pronounced spike in anti-dumping duties. The average duty on imports considered “dumped” (sold below market prices) was 5% each year between 2006 and 2011. Between 2012 and 2015 it rose 15%.

This is running against the global trend. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) reported last year that among G20 economies, increases in anti-dumping duties was abating.

The rules of the WTO allow members to impose duties on imports if they are found to be sold at prices less than the cost of the product and in quantities that distort the import market.

Typically, such imports in Australia include steel, power transformers, heavy machinery, food products, plastics, paper and other metals. How these duties are imposed is determined by the Anti-Dumping Commissioner.

Free market economists query the concept of dumping. If a product is put on the market by a business at a price below cost, is that not a standard commercial practice to offload excessive inventories or to flood the market with goods in order to build a market presence?

The WTO rules are loose enough to provide plenty of room for interpretation of what can be classified as dumping. One problem with this is that blocking imports assessed as under-priced and harming local producers is common during recessions.

The WTO began analysing the incidence of imposition of new trade restrictions including anti-dumping measures after the Global Financial Crisis. It found they multiplied three or four times.

When governments cut tariffs, as the Hawke Government did in the late 1980s, political pressure to impose new restrictions on cheaper imports was expected. So it set up an independent regulator (the Anti-Dumping Authority) to rule if imports were unfairly-priced and undermined Australian policy to open markets. Strict criteria were set.

But as tariffs started to reduce, Australian farmers and manufacturers pressed the Howard Government to loosen them and the Authority was abolished.

Responsibility for assessing complaints was shifted from an independent regulator to a Minister or senior official accountable to a Minister. This opened a channel for political pressure.

And over time, the interpretation of what was a “dumped” product was progressively expanded. The amount of time defendants had to respond to claims of dumping was also progressively reduced diminishing their opportunity for equal hearing.

The Gillard Government went further, creating an Anti-Dumping Commissioner. It is now official government policy endorsed by the Coalition government that the Commission is to “level the playing field”. Incredibly, this is now official terminology.

The Productivity Commission assessed that rulings by the Commissioner distinctly favoured domestic producers.

Australia’s anti-dumping system has become a protectionist tool. The Commission reportsthe average duty imposed over the last six years was 17%, the median 11%. Where Australia still imposes tariffs, the average is 5%.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott helps a worker at Independent Steel Company in Queanbeyan, Thursday, May 31, 2012. Lukas Coch/AAP

Liberal National Party Governments have been as receptive to this as Labor Governments. As Prime Minister, Tony Abbott wanted the system toughened and advocated reversal the onus of proof when importers were accused of dumping. Legal common sense prevailed and this was dropped.

Instead, the then relevant Minister, Christopher Pyne, announced a tightening of procedures to assess dumping. According to the former Assistant Minister for Science, Karen Andrews, the Commission would also monitor trends which pointed to dumping. This came at the time of the serious financial problems facing the steel works in Wollongong and Whyalla.

The Government has negotiated important Free Trade Agreements with Australia’s Asian neighbours. If the commitments in those agreements to reduce tariffs are obviated by subsequent decisions by the Anti-Dumping Commission to impose new higher duties on imports, this would undermine Australia’s credibility as a promoter of growth through open markets.

Australia should not forget steel from China, a target of anti-dumpers, is made from Australian iron ore and Australian coal which are much larger industries and earners for Australia than its steel industry. The coal and iron ore industry workforce combined is 98,000 and the workforce at Bluescope and Arrium is 10000.

Cutting tariffs in the nineties gave Australia the highest consistent growth rate of any OECD country for over 25 years. As global growth slows, what is the sense of reintroducing protection in Australia?

This article originally appeared on The Conversation

Australia should aim for a trade deal with the UK post Brexit

Alan Oxley, Managing Director

Brexit may be bad for sharemarkets in the short term, but it could present an opportunity for more liberal trade in the long run. The Australian government is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the European Union (EU) but it may be better to put that on a very slow track because there are advantages in completing an FTA with the UK first.

The UK is not a member of the Eurozone and has adjusted to the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis, putting it in a manageable position. The UK is Australia’s eighth largest two-way trading partner and accounts for around 25% of the total trade of the EU’s 28 members with Australia. Services account for around half of Australia’s trade with the UK.

Germany’s total trade is smaller: it is Australia’s tenth largest trading partner and services contribute less than a quarter of the total value of trade. OECD analysis shows Germany protects its services industries more than the UK.

There are advantages to Australia’s completing an FTA with the UK first. It would be quicker and easier than negotiating with the EU and more likely produce better access for Australian services businesses to the UK market. As a member of the EU, the UK is obliged to follow a common EU position. Greater German restrictions on foreign services suppliers would make the EU position as a whole less liberal.

Historically, the UK has been a leading advocate of free trade in Europe. If it’s freed of the requirement to support consensus in the EU, it is likely to be even more liberal outside it.

As demonstrated in Australia’s latest FTAs and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) a leading focus for opening markets today is to remove restrictions on foreign services business, such as banking and accountancy. Traditionally, trade liberalisation has focused on reducing trade barriers - tariffs. Most tariffs on goods worldwide today are low. This is also feature of the Trans-Pacific Trade and Investment Partnership (TPIP) which the EU and the US are struggling to complete.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) annual report records that around one fifth of world trade is services. Services also contribute to the cost of producing products that are traded, for example with transport or IT. Providing competitively-priced services is now a critical element globally in getting returns from international trade.

Once outside the EU, the UK would have positive influence in enhancing global efforts to open services markets. About 50 members of the WTO (total membership is 162), which generate most of the global services traded, have been pushing to further open services markets. The EU is key player in that process.

But its negotiating modus operandi is that it only presents positions which are consensus among all member states. Outside the EU and acting as an independent party to the WTO, the UK would be likely to take significantly more liberal positions.

OECD analysis shows that the UK and Netherlands loosened regulation to create the most open services sectors in the EU. The services markets of other major EU economies (Germany, France and Italy) are more regulated.

Australia and New Zealand have also been leaders in this sphere. The ANZCERTA free trade agreement between them was the first trade agreement to commit to fully open services between two economies.

Australia could retain goodwill with the EU by extending, on an interim basis, its standing policy now in FTAs to provide freedom to invest up to a billion dollars. Australia can commit to making it permanent when a full agreement is negotiated with the EU later.

What the Brexit result should do is focus the EU on the very deep problems in its own backyard - the Eurozone. While Greece’s incapacity to meet its financial obligations has drawn most attention, Spain and Italy still have mountainous debt respectively equivalent to 150% and 200% of GDP and record unemployment.

German monetary policy has shaped this circumstance. It prospers while standards of living in the southern tier of the Eurozone fall.

With luck, Britain’s intention to withdraw will return the focus of members of the Eurozone to its highly fragile financial situation. This is the problem in the EU and they and we should all be focusing on it, not the Brexit result.

This article originally appeared in The Australian

Bonding with Indonesia an endurance race, not a sprint

Alan Oxley, Managing Director

Indonesia's new trade minister, Thomas Lembong, was in Melbourne the weekend before last on his first official visit to Australia. It was no coincidence a huge delegation accompanied him to watch Indonesia’s Formula One driver in his first race.

The minister announced opportunities to expand financial services between Australia and Indonesia.

Financial services is Australia’s biggest business sector. There is significant investment offshore and that is driven by the superannuation industry, most of which is based in Melbourne.

The minister’s aim is to resuscitate the idea of a free trade agreement with Australia, including, presumably, increased financial services transactions between the two.

This is a fresh project for Australia’s new trade minister, Steven Ciobo, who also has a commercial background.

Until two decades ago trade liberalisation was all about cutting tariffs. That was not particularly popular in Victoria, or South Australia.

Steel and cars were made more cheaply elsewhere. High tariffs — import taxes — kept these lower-priced products, particularly vehicles, out of the Australian market.

The money spent buying cars built in Australia soaked up money people could have used to educate their children, to invest in the share market and to build super funds.

This loss to the community at large far outweighed the benefits to the relatively small workforce that built cars.

Australia finally joined the community of developed countries which for decades had built economic growth on trade in open markets.

Tariffs were cut and this underpinned sustained growth in Australia. A few years back The Economist dubbed Australia the world’s new California — for decades the US’s most economically successful state. Exports of iron and coal generated huge sales over the past decade.

That has tailed off. Now, exports of services — selling to foreigners or in foreign markets — is growing faster.

Today, two of Victoria’s biggest export earners are foreign students and tourists.

Indonesia is underweight in this trade, yet it is geographically closer to Australia than New Zealand.

The reason we should have closer trade relations with Indonesia is as much political as economic. Indonesia’s population is 250 million. It is a young population and growing quickly.

The Indonesian market is huge and understandably Indonesian big business wants to keep that market to itself.

The challenge is before the Australian community — business and government. Risk is high doing business in Indonesia.

Success depends as much on cultural understanding as business nous.

Advocates of free trade focus on the economics. Clear the market of regulatory obstacles and all sides will benefit. That basic proposition still stands.

But culture matters. This is not new for Australian exporters — those for years who worked patiently in Japan to understand how importers set huge deals of trade in resources and agriculture understand culture and the Japanese business model.

Australian business has yet to put in the hard yards with Indonesian business. It will be costly and painful. There is a special case here for the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation, the federal government financier of export projects the market will not support, to open a special window for Indonesia.

We also need more “people-to-people” contact with Indonesia.

A free trade agreement with Indonesia must be treated as a special case, as we treat NZ in the Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement.

It will be at our cost if we don’t.

This article originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review

Learning from past Chinese protectionism can help future trade negotiations

Alan Oxley, Managing Director 

What is to be made of the warnings from Chinese quarters during the Prime Minister's visit to Beijing that Australia's trade interests may be jeopardised if it continues to call for all parties to settle the territorial dispute in the South China Sea? Recent history may be a guide.

In 2005, a large delegation of Australian officials and business leaders trooped to Beijing to inaugurate negotiation of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). After the usual diplomatic speeches, comments were invited from the floor. The last intervention was from an official from the Chinese Agricultural Ministry. He basically said "Don't you Australians think we will let our markets be flooded with Australian farm products".

Chinese restrictions on imports of wool were significant. A review a couple of years later by ITS Global showed Chinese authorities adjusted the rate of imports as it suited. Australian woolgrowers could not plan to expand production. Chinese agricultural officials argued the controls were necessary to protect Uighur sheep farmers in Northern China. Yet they were not competitors. They produced coarse wool (for carpets) not the fine wool (for clothing) produced by Australian farmers.

The matter became academic. Obdurate agricultural officials were not the only problem. Canberra had also pressed for access to services markets. That had not been Chinese policy in the FTAs it had negotiated to that point. Negotiations of the China FTA stalled.

Ten years later, Andrew Robb had the good luck to become Trade Minister when China was ready to change. The Chinese leadership realised their farmers couldn't meet demand from its rapidly expanding middle class and that the services sector needed reform to maintain growth. The FTA was concluded with better terms than China had negotiated with others. It opened agriculture significantly for beef and dairy – it expanded the annual wool quota by ten percent – and opened some services markets.

Free Trade Agreements drive reform of economies. They enable government to buttress that reform by exposing markets to efficient foreign competitors. Reform of the Chinese economy is still a work in progress. It has major problems – huge debt and state dominance of markets. Analysts warn that if there is a GFC Mark II, China no longer has the reserves to buttress its economy the way it did with the GFC. US investment analysts assess the that the yuan is 40 per cent overvalued.

Until private property rights are more secure in China, it would be wiser for foreign businesses, particularly those which require fixed assets, to focus on trading and limit investment in fixed assets until foreign ownership is protected in law. There is plenty of opportunity, even within that restraint.

Two other sectors which China is opening are tourism and education. This is great business for Australia since most expenditure occurs in Australia, yet they generate foreign earnings like sales in foreign markets.

There is growing opportunity in other services. China is steadily, but surely, seeking to reform and open its financial services sector as well as sectors meeting the needs of an aging population. ANZ bank and QBE insurance for example, are seeking business bases to exploit the opportunities as China adjusts.

Like the agricultural sector a decade ago, there are other interests in the Chinese government today who view controls on foreign trade and investment as potential political tools to advance other interests. Chinese diplomatic and security authorities have not been backward in warning other nations to steer clear of military and shipping installations built by China in the South China Sea. Journalists now opine about China's threat to Australian trade.

Is the People's Liberation Army (PLA) another anti-growth, anti-trade interest in today's China, like agricultural officials a decade ago? The PLA would be a tougher nut than the Agriculture Ministry for the government to deal with. It is a key institution in the Chinese communist political structure, one which sharp leaders keep close to their side, not just to preserve national security but preserve national order. China's rapid economic development has generated unrest.

So what matters more to China in the long run? It is now in a position where what it does has bearing on the global economy. Maintaining growth, meeting the needs of an aging society and enlarging the contribution of services to the national economy would seem – on the surface – to be a greater political imperative in the long run than staking out a strategic military interest in the South China Sea.

Those military installations will not resolve China's huge debt or assist in the building of a more productive services sector, a loosening of the control of major businesses or the playing of a larger role in global economic affairs.

I know where I would put my money.

Alan Oxley is Principal of ITS Global and Chair of the APEC Study Centre at RMIT University.

This article originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review