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Economist: Reality Check for Prophets of Protectionism

08-17 08:29 Caijing

Anxiety over protectionism may be groundless, as a downturn in wealthy countries today does not mirror the 1930s calamity.

By Jonathan Anderson, head of Asia-Pacific Economics for UBS

One of the greatest fears among investors today is that the global economy will be affected by the return of protectionism. Many remember the 1930s as a disastrous time for trade. Not only did rich countries sink in the Great Depression, but they gradually closed doors to global trade and capital flow, starting with the passage of the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in the United States in 1930.

International trade spiraled down. It's been estimated that total global trade volume fell by nearly two-thirds between 1929 and 1933, dealing a crushing blow to growth and development hopes around the world.

Now, here we are again, at the beginning of what some commentators call the "Great Depression II." And according to the World Trade Organization, we are seeing a sharp uptick in protectionist measures around the world. Are we risking another wave of trade destruction that closes the world's doors? And could a new wave crush China and the rest of the emerging world?

The short answer is no. We do not worry much about the protectionism issue. We think these fears are vastly overstated for four reasons.

First, conditions in the global economy are not that bad. If we look back at the Great Depression in the 1930s, we find the United States economy contracted nearly 30 percent in real terms, and more than a quarter of the entire workforce was unemployed. Up to one-third of the economy simply disappeared. In many European economies, the impact was greater still.
How do things look today? At last count, the United States, euro zone countries, and Japan had seen a cumulative GDP contraction of 6 percent or so, with average unemployment nearing 9 percent. And this is probably as bad as it will get; the world economy is now expected to stabilize and recover in the second half of 2009. Of course, the recovery may be extremely weak. But even if developed countries don't grow at all over the next 18 months, the situation still compares favorably with the events of 75 years ago.

In other words, there's just no reason to look for the same kind of protectionist reaction today. We should add that we're not seeing it. The WTO has reported a sharp increase in various protectionist actions, claims and cases, but the overall economic impact of these measures is still small by any standard. This is likely to be the worst it will get.

Second, the effects of "plain vanilla" protectionism are highly exaggerated. Although Smoot-Hawley passed in 1930, raising tariffs on thousands of products, most economists agree the real attack on global trade didn't come until the breakup of the international monetary and exchange rate arrangements in 1931, and a corresponding collapse of global finance.

Of course, many pundits now worry about the fall of the U.S. dollar as a global invoicing and reserve currency, and that this could have a similarly negative impact on trade and financing. However, we should stress that as bad as the U.S. economy looks at present, it's still the best thing we have. The European Union is beset by crushing regional disparities and political pressures, with significant basket cases hiding inside its borders. Japan simply doesn't have the necessary dynamism or commitment to globalization. And as far as fiscal balance sheets are concerned, all three major regions have equally significant problems.

The United States stands alone in terms of how fast the Federal Reserve has expanded its monetary balance sheet, raising specific concerns about U.S. inflation and its impact on the dollar. But as one can see by looking at U.S. economic data, we are still falling into a deflation cycle for the time being, with nary a hint of inflationary pressure yet. We fully expect the Fed to be able to rein in the monetary expansion quickly if these pressures arise.

We should add that, although it's fashionable to look at China and the yuan as a rising competitor to the dollar, this is simply not a realistic theme for the next 10 years – and perhaps for much longer. China doesn't have an open capital account, which means there is little opportunity or interest in holding the yuan as a serious asset. If anything, the impact of the current global crisis is likely to convince mainland authorities to be slow in opening their borders. China also doesn't have the kind of deep, domestic financial markets required of a global reserve currency; the bond market in particular is still in its infancy. As a result, it will be a long time indeed before the yuan starts playing a real role on the global stage.

Third, even if we do see an unexpected wave of protectionism, emerging countries have less to lose than the developed world. Let's start by asking this question: When we talk about "protectionism," what exactly are we trying to protect? The answer is, of course, domestic workers and domestic jobs.

In what areas do the labor forces of the United States, Europe and Japan work? The vast majority are in services and construction, sectors that don't compete much directly on the international arena. Only 10 to 15 percent are manufacturing jobs, and these are mostly in capital intensive, high-tech industries such as autos, precision machinery and high-end electronics.

By contrast, manufactured goods that China and other emerging markets sell – toys, textiles, running shoes, sporting goods, light electronics, etc. – are barely made at all in the G3 countries. Rich countries outsourced most of these low-end, labor-intensive jobs a long time ago. A related point holds for commodities and raw materials, which make up much of the rest of the exports from the low-income world. All three major, developed regions are heavily dependent on imported resources, and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

The bottom line here is that even if we do get a big wave of protectionism in developed countries, it unlikely to be aimed specifically at low-end goods from the developed world. Rather, it makes more sense to protect the auto industry along with high-end equipment and chemical manufacturers. Moreover, any tariffs and barriers placed on toys and textiles are much more likely to raise consumer prices than crush volumes, given the absence of competitive domestic industries that could take advantage of protection to grab local market shares.

The final point concerns financial leverage. There has never been a time in recent global economic history when the developed world was so dependent on low-income countries for financial resources. For the first time, the emerging world is a net financial creditor. Given the rapid expansion of public debts, the major developed countries are extremely interested in seeing China and other low-income countries continue to buy U.S. Treasuries, Japanese Government Bonds and various European debt instruments. The impact of a big, potential pullout from global bond markets actually could be much more negative than positive in terms of protecting domestic industries. So emerging markets now are in a much better bargaining position than at any time in the past.

Protectionist fears are likely to continue to bother investors over the next year or two, and perhaps longer. But we don't think the real situation supports these fears.

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