By Antoni Estevadeordal and Joaquim Tres*
Latin American and Caribbean countries were major players in global trade liberalization in the 1990s but have since been held back by complex rules, infrastructural obstacles, and the poor flow of information. The successful conclusion in 1994 of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) fueled growth and optimism in the region, but the slow progress of the Doha Round drove the region into the silent tide of regional trade agreements (RTAs), which now govern about half of world trade. Latin American and Caribbean countries have concluded some 70 RTAs – a far cry from the handful of sub-regional customs unions and free trade areas in place in 1994. As a result, tariffs applied by Latin American countries have dropped from an average of 40 percent to 10 percent during this period.
Despite these policy advances, Latin America and the Caribbean’s participation in international trade is still limited. Whereas the region and the developing nations of Asia had a similar share of world trade in 1962 (around 6 percent), Latin America’s global trade share has remained relatively unchanged – and that of Developing Asia has grown to nearly three times its previous size. Latin America registers lower levels of intra-regional trade – 18 percent – compared to 37% in Developing Asia and 61% in the European Union. Our research indicates that Latin America and the Caribbean could close this gap through a series of measures:
- Harmonizing the different rules of origin in the RTAs and the wide array of sanitary, phytosanitary, and technical standards that qualify market access.
- Improving infrastructure and reducing inefficiencies at border crossings to reduce transportation and logistics costs, which amount to three times more than existing tariffs.
- Harnessing the power of information and communications technology to reduce costs through one-stop shops and process automatization, such as the trade single windows being introduced in several countries in the region. The cost of information about consumer preferences, market demand, and foreign regulations is the first barrier that potential exporters face.
- Simplifying and reducing administrative burdens through expedited and secure customs and other trade facilitation measures. Some experts estimate that, worldwide, some 75 percent of delays are due to inefficient processes (compared to 25 percent due to inadequate infrastructure).
The main lesson for Latin America and the Caribbean is that trade agreements are a necessary – but not sufficient – condition to achieve economic development potential. Increasing companies’ participation in international value chains is key to unleashing trade as an engine for economic growth and poverty reduction. Trade-driven growth in the region, much of it from South American commodities, enabled a reduction of poverty from 22 percent in 2002 to 12 percent by creating new employment opportunities and the fiscal capacity to fund poverty reduction initiatives such as conditional cash transfers (Mexico’s Programa Oportunidades, for example). By our calculation, trade facilitation measures such as customs and border simplifications can increase Latin American and Caribbean exports by as much as 15 percent, translating into a 5 percent increase in export-supported jobs that pay almost 20 percent more than jobs at non-exporting firms. It is within policymakers’ grasp to create the enabling environment for firms to export, especially for the small and medium-sized enterprises that may represent the next generation of exporters.
May 9, 2016
*Antoni Estevadeordal and Joaquim Tres are, respectively, the manager and principal specialist of the Integration and Trade Sector of the Inter-American Development Bank. Click here to access the IDB’s new course on trade agreements, and here and here for related studies.