U.S.-Mexico: Trump’s Misguided Approach to NAFTA Renegotiation

By Robert A. Blecker*

Three people stand at podiums with flags behind them

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and Mexican Minister of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo (L to R) participate in the fourth round of NAFTA negotiations in Washington, DC in October 2017. / State Department / Flickr / Creative Commons

President Trump has characterized NAFTA as a “win” for Mexico and a “loss” for the United States; his administration is currently working on a renegotiated “deal” that would allegedly reduce the U.S. trade deficit and recapture lost manufacturing employment, but his nationalistic approach fails to recognize the fundamental causes of both U.S. and Mexican economic problems.  In fact, NAFTA was a huge success for President George H.W. Bush and his administration, as it achieved their fundamental goal of enabling U.S. corporations to make products in Mexico with low-cost labor – without fear of expropriation, regulation, or other loss of property rights – and export them to the United States duty-free.  The Mexican government went along because it thought NAFTA would bring in desperately needed foreign investment and provide a growth stimulus, while U.S. and Canadian workers rightly feared that they would lose jobs as a result.  While much discussion has focused on which country “won” or “lost” in NAFTA, that is the wrong way to evaluate a trade agreement.  The two key criteria for judging the accord are which sectors, groups, or interests won and lost in each country, and how it, in conjunction with other policies, has affected long-term growth, development, and inequality in each.

  • Under NAFTA, U.S.-Mexican trade in goods and services has grown exponentially, reaching $623 billion (with a U.S. deficit of $69 billion) last year. However, NAFTA (along with other causes and policies) has contributed to worsening inequality in both the United States and Mexico.  Less-skilled U.S. workers definitely lost, with wage losses up to 17 percent in local areas most exposed to NAFTA tariff reductions.  In Mexico, although consumer gains from trade liberalization were widespread, upper-income groups and the northern region benefited the most.  Real wages for Mexican manufacturing workers have stagnated since 1994.  Labor shares of national income have fallen in both countries since the late 1990s.
  • Domestic policies, exchange rates, financial crises, and the impact of China can make the impact of NAFTA difficult to identify, but effects in some sectors are clear. Mexico gained jobs in automobiles and parts, appliances, electrical and electronic equipment, and seasonal produce.  The United States gained in basic grains, soybeans, animal feed, and paper products.  Although about a half million jobs in automobiles and related industries have “moved” to Mexico, total U.S. job losses in manufacturing (5 million since 2000) have been much more affected by China and technology than by Mexico.  What Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric ignores is that U.S. companies capitalized on these dislocations to raise their profit margins and increase their bargaining leverage over workers and governments both within North America and globally.

Trump’s aggressive posture about NAFTA exploits political discontent with these sectoral effects and the overall worsening of inequality, but the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)’s key demands in the renegotiation appear unlikely to remedy either problem.  USTR Lighthizer is focused on protection for the auto sector, by requiring higher U.S. content (or higher wages for Mexican auto workers), and on changes to dispute resolution procedures that would favor investment in the United States instead of in Mexico.  At best, these measures could bring back a small number of U.S. jobs; at worst, they could make some U.S. industries less competitive (if costs increase).

All of this debate in the United States ignores the fact that NAFTA has been a huge disappointment for Mexico.  Although export industries like automobiles have prospered, the gains to domestic sectors of the Mexican economy have been limited, resulting in sluggish growth (only 2.5 percent per year since 1994, far below the 7.6 percent achieved in East Asia) and leaving millions in poverty while millions more emigrated to the United States.  Of course, other policies and events (including Chinese competition) played into these outcomes, but NAFTA (and related liberalization policies) didn’t turn out to be the panacea for the Mexican economy that then-President Carlos Salinas promised in 1993.  Yet, in the short run the Mexican economy remains highly dependent on foreign investment and exports to the U.S. market, so Trump’s demands for a revised NAFTA and his threats to withdraw are undermining Mexico’s current economic prospects.  Instead of following Trump’s nationalistic approach, the three NAFTA members should focus on making all of North America into a more competitive region with rising living standards for workers in all three countries.  This would start with policies at home, such as public investment in infrastructure, education, and R&D, that could foster industrial growth, along with redistributive measures like higher minimum wages consistent with each country’s economic conditions.

May 11, 2018

* Robert A. Blecker is a Professor of Economics at American University.

U.S.-Latin America: Lack of Vision from Washington Didn’t Start with Trump

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

A group of representatives from Latin America and China stand in a group

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) hosted representatives from China in late January 2018. / Cancillería del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. leadership in the hemisphere has declined significantly over the past two decades – manifested in Washington’s inability to implement a comprehensive environmental and energy strategy for the Americas; conclude a hemispheric trade accord; revitalize the inter-American system; and stem the rising tide of Chinese influence.  In a recently published book, I argue that Washington under Presidents George W. Bush (2001-2009), Barack Obama (2009-2017), and now Donald Trump has lacked vision in Latin America and the Caribbean, and has allowed a narrow security agenda to dominate.  The most noteworthy accomplishment – the assertion of central government control in Colombia – was largely bankrolled by the Colombians themselves who also devised most of the strategy to achieve that goal.

  • President Obama’s rhetoric was the loftiest, and his opening to Cuba in 2014 changed regional perceptions of Washington. But he got off to a slow start, entering office when the United States was engulfed in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  His ability to devise a bold new policy for the Western Hemisphere was further stymied by an intransigent Republican majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives after the 2010 mid-term legislative elections.

Washington’s inability or unwillingness to act is most obvious in four key areas.

  • The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) represented an opportunity for leadership on environmental issues. The United States proposed many ECPA initiatives but did not fund them, expecting the private sector or other governments to step up to the plate – which failed to happen in any significant manner.  Failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or enact meaningful national climate change legislation also undermined its moral authority on the issue.  Carbon offset programs would have provided an important boost to ECPA.
  • Although the United States played a predominant role in devising the parameters for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, its own positions caused it to fail. It refused to give up the options to re-impose tariffs in response to alleged dumping even if there were alternative means (such as competition policy) to redress the impact of unfair trade practices.  Washington kept discussion of the highly distortive impact of its agricultural subsidies out of the talks.  As a result, the United States was unable to offer meaningful concessions.
  • The Organization of American States (OAS) has also been a victim of U.S. neglect. Washington has pulled back from exerting leadership and, on occasion, has delayed payments of its dues.  The most effective component of the inter-American system relates to the promotion and protection of human rights, but the U.S. Senate has never ratified the American Convention on Human Rights.  The United States also rejects the binding character of decisions from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, opening the way for governments with deplorable human rights records to question its work.  Latin American and Caribbean governments have also shown enthusiasm for forming alternative institutions to the OAS, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which purposefully exclude the United States.
  • China is now the largest trading partner for many South American nations, and it could conceivably replace Washington’s influence and leadership in at least some areas, including models for economic and political reform. The boom in South American commodity exports to China allowed governments to build up their reserves, pay off debts, and liberate themselves from dependence on multilateral lending agencies centered on Washington.  Chinese banks now contribute more money, on an annual basis, to economic development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean than do traditional lenders such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.  Moreover, this lending comes free of the conditionalities often attached to capital provided by Washington based multilateral institutions.  China’s role in building ports and telecommunication systems gives it an intelligence advantage, and arms sales have given China military influence as well.

While broad policies and political commitment behind them have been lacking, Washington has run a number of security programs in the region.  This focus, however, has often turned out to be problematic.  The Mérida Initiative, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) did not resolve the myriad root causes of the drug trade and escalating violence in the beneficiary countries.  They were myopically fixated on a narrow, short-term security agenda with precarious and uncertain funding streams.  While Pathways to Prosperity and 100,000 Strong in the Americas exemplify American liberal idealism at its best, the lack of an overarching sense of purpose and political consensus behind them have led to both being woefully underfunded.  A vision for the Americas doesn’t guarantee Washington will have positive influence, but the lack of one will indeed prolong its decline.

March 16, 2018

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  This article is based on his new book, Bush II, Obama, and the Decline of U.S. Hegemony in the Western Hemisphere (Routledge, 2018).

Brazil in 1999: The Impact of Rigid Labor Regulations

By Jennifer P. Poole and Rita Almeida*

The outside of a building in Brasilia, Brazil

Brazil’s Ministry of Labor and Employment in Brasília. / Grupo Vestcon / Creative Commons

During Brazil’s currency crisis and devaluation in 1999, stringent implementation of labor regulations hindered, rather than enhanced, manufacturing plants’ recovery and workers’ wellbeing – an important lesson to keep in mind in current debates in many countries.  In an article published in the May 2017 Journal of Development Economics (JDE), we examine the implications of global economic integration through international trade on local labor markets during that critical period in 1999.

  • Many economic policymakers agree that reforms in the latter half of the 20th century, such as liberalizing trade relations and encouraging foreign investment, have been powerful drivers of efficiency gains, income growth, and consumer choice around the globe. At the same time, however, there is agreement that – as firms adapt to a more competitive global environment – the gains are often accompanied by short-term costs for workers in terms of unemployment and income risk.  Policymakers have to weigh the broad economic benefits from globalization and technological change, on the one hand, against workers’ opportunities and security on the other.

A micro-econometric estimation analysis of detailed, confidential, and proprietary micro-data sets – collected in part while visiting the Brazilian Labor Ministry – reveals a causal impact of trade reform on employment.  Brazil’s policy environment of strict labor market regulations (e.g., hiring and firing costs), coupled with its dramatic trade liberalization and currency devaluation, make it a particularly appropriate setting to study the implications of globalization on employment opportunities in a middle-income country.  As in many countries, much of the de jure labor market framework was established on a national basis in Brazil (in the Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988), but de facto labor regulations – the varying levels of implementation through labor inspections, fines, and other processes in different locales – are heterogeneous.

  • Administrative data on the enforcement of labor regulations during the 1999 currency crisis, a shock to trade openness, show that the way trade affects employment largely depends on the stringency of de facto labor regulations that companies face. The impact of the currency devaluation – widely predicted to expand employment by facilitating access to foreign markets and weakening import competition – was less significant in plants facing strong labor enforcement than in those facing more lax enforcement.  The findings suggest that stringent labor regulations limit job creation and lower productivity gains.
  • Not only was the efficient reallocation of labor in response to shocks inhibited by strict de facto labor market regulations; rigid enforcement also restricted the within-plant potential for productivity gains. The data reveal that regulations, for example, may limit plants’ ability to introduce new goods or investment in more complex production technologies that might have higher value-added.  The burden of having to retain unproductive workers, making plants less able to compete, is another possible explanation for weak productivity gains.

Previous research – arguing that weak enforcement leaves regulations ineffective – ruled out the possibility of labor regulations as an explanation for slow labor adjustment to trade reform.  But our research shows that flexible regulations maximize the gains of reforms such as trade liberalization.  As middle-income countries continue to face a globalizing and technologically advancing world economy, their strict labor market policies, limiting adjustment and reallocation, may have potentially distortive, unintended consequences.  The trade-off between job security, on the one hand, and productivity and growth is already one of the most prominent public policy debates worldwide.  Regulations designed to protect workers may actually further reduce employment as costs increase.  Countries must show flexibility, while enhancing education and training programs, to benefit fully from changes driven by the global economy.  As populist, protectionist policies gain influence in the world, policymakers should know that increasing the flexibility of de jure regulations will allow for increased job creation and thus offer broader access to productivity gains.

March 7, 2018

*Jennifer Poole is Assistant Professor of Economics, School of International Service, and Research Fellow at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics and the CESifo Research Network.  Rita Almeida is a Research Fellow at the World Bank and the IZA Institute of Labor Economics.  Their article is titled “Trade and Labor Reallocation with Heterogeneous Enforcement of Labor Regulations.”

Canada and Mexico Face Uncertainty of NAFTA Renegotiation

By Daniela Stevens*

Two men stand at podiums with Mexican and Canadian flags behind them

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives a presentation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto during an official visit to Mexico in October 2017. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Facing the growing possibility that the Trump Administration is walking away from the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico and Canada are beginning to look for trading partners beyond the United States.  The interdependencies binding the three are strong.  Both Mexico and Canada have deep commercial ties with the United States, which imports about 80 percent of Mexico’s exports and about 70 percent of Canada’s.  Both have significant leverage vis-à-vis the United States as well.  U.S. auto and agriculture industries have a major stake in free trade with Mexico, which also provides important cooperation on security issues and controlling Central American migration.  Liberalization measures within the energy sector by the current Mexican administration make Mexico a strategic partner in terms of energy security.  Canada buys about 19 percent of U.S. exports.

But these ties are fraying as conversations drag on.  Trump Administration proposals are hurting the talks; especially contentious are changes in the “rules of origin” (since the United States proposed increasing the U.S. content of autos to 85 percent from the current 62.5 percent) as well as the inclusion of a “sunset clause” that would make NAFTA expire unless it is renegotiated every five years.  NAFTA’s Article 2205 lets either of the three member countries announce its withdrawal from the accord with six months’ notice.  Canadian and Mexican trade officials have not given such notice yet, but they show signs of heading in that direction.  Both have held high-level meetings with counterparts from South America and Europe, according to official and non-government sources.

  • Mexican President Peña Nieto’s administration has expressed a preference for leaving the negotiations over accepting “a free trade agreement that ceases to promote free trade.” President Trump has said that his administration would be willing to negotiate a free trade agreement with Canada alone if the NAFTA talks fail.  However, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s government has stated a preference for keeping the trilateral alive rather than resorting to bilateral agreement, since the terms of the U.S.-Canada deal were more outdated than the NAFTA’s.  The two presidents have been reluctant to take these actions because they apparently believe, as do many experts, that dismantling NAFTA would inevitably create uncertainty and inefficiencies for the three economies.  For example, the auto sector relies on three-way product flows that move several times across borders to be assembled into finished products.  Canadian and Mexican auto parts makers have a direct stake in each other’s dealings with the United States.  Even small duties would add up.
  • Nonetheless, some increased trade and a bilateral free trade agreement between just Mexico and Canada is possible. The two countries originally joined NAFTA to protect their access to the U.S. market, not to obtain access to each other’s.  Canadian public opinion and media reflect continued disinterest in Mexico, which is viewed as unstable due to drug-related criminality and corruption.  However, as the completion of a satisfactory NAFTA renegotiation is unlikely, Canadians are exploring deepening the bilateral link.  Mexican interest in Canada is also growing, according to some specialists.  Beyond North America, moreover, Canadians and Mexicans are exploring trade and investment diversification.  Canada is looking for increased cooperation with Latin America, in particular within the Pacific Alliance, a free trade partnership that includes Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia, and of which Canada is already Associate Member.  Mexico started a renegotiation last January of its free trade agreement with the European Union, which parties hope to finalize in the next few days.  It has begun warming up neglected ties with the Southern Cone and has already pledged to deepen ties with China.

Trade experts convened recently within the framework of American University’s Robert A. Pastor North America Research Initiative (NARI) were unanimous that that a trilateral agreement that protects the interests of all three partners would be the optimal outcome, but few observers of the NAFTA talks are confident that the Trump Administration will soften its position.  Canada’s commitment to a trilateral renegotiation should exert more pressure on the U.S. to compromise while strengthening both Canada and Mexico’s negotiating positions.  In the event of U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA, however, the two can expand their trade and investment relationship by lowering barriers further through modernization and e-commerce.  In addition, trade can potentially expand between the two since they have similar approaches to achieving various commitments of the Paris Accord involving energy projects and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  Pastor Scholars concluded that both countries will have to carry out public campaigns to explain to their constituencies the benefits of continued cooperation, either trilateral or bilateral, if the United States significantly alters or abandons NAFTA.  Mexico and Canada have options outside North America in the quest for trade and investment diversification – even though their preferred scenario is a stronger NAFTA.  China, South America, and the European Union arise as the most readily available partners.

December 21, 2017

*Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. Candidate in the American University School of Public Affairs and a Pastor Scholar.  Her research focuses on national and subnational policies that put a price on carbon emissions.

U.S.-Mexico Trade: The Numbers and the Real Issues

By Robert A. Blecker*

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Two maquiladoras in Tijuana, Mexico. The low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA. / Anthony Albright / Flickr / Creative Commons

Officials in the Trump administration are proposing a new way of measuring the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit that, by making the deficit look larger than it currently appears, will likely be spun to support efforts to impose high tariffs or dismantle NAFTA.  According to press reports, the President’s senior advisors, including the head of his new trade council, Peter Navarro, are proposing to include only “domestic exports” (exports of U.S.-produced goods) in calculating bilateral trade balances with Mexico and other countries.  This would exclude “re-exports” – goods that are imported into the United States from other countries (such as Canada or China) and transshipped into Mexico – which are currently counted in total U.S. exports.

  • In spite of its political motivation, the proposed new accounting would render a more accurate measure of U.S. exports. In fact, it would make the U.S. deficit with Mexico look closer to what Mexico reports as its surplus with the U.S.  For 2016, the U.S. reports a deficit of $63.2 billion with Mexico, while Mexico reports almost twice as big a surplus of $123.1 billion with the U.S.  If the U.S. excluded re-exports, its trade deficit with Mexico for 2016 would be $115.4 billion, which is much closer to the Mexican number.

Nonetheless, this recalculation fails to correct for another bias, which makes the U.S. deficit with Mexico look artificially large.  Imports are measured by the total value of the goods when they enter the country, from the immediate country of origin.  But in today’s global supply chains only part of the value-added in imported goods comes from any one country.  A television, for example, can be assembled in Mexico with components imported from Korea and other East Asian nations.  As a result, the reported U.S. imports from Mexico (especially of manufactured goods) greatly exaggerate the Mexican content of those goods.  Although data limitations do not permit an exact calculation of the Mexican content of U.S. imports from Mexico, it is likely relatively low.  (My own estimates suggest it is on the order of about 30-40 percent for manufactured goods).  Indeed, the low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA.

The Trump Administration’s aggressive rhetoric and action on other issues related to Mexico, including immigration and the wall, suggest a political motivation for the proposal to adopt a new measure of exports, regardless of its merits.  But the real problem is not the “correct” number for the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit; it is why NAFTA has not lived up to its promise of supporting high-value added exports and high-wage job creation in both countries.  This promise was based on the idea that the United States would export capital and intermediate goods to Mexico for assembly into consumer goods, which would then be exported back to the United States.  But especially since China joined the WTO in 2001, Mexico has increasingly become a platform for assembling mostly Asian inputs into goods for export to the United States (and secondarily Canada).  Even if “re-exports” are excluded, Mexico remains the second largest export market for the United States (after Canada) – and U.S. exports to Mexico are 65 percent greater than U.S. exports to China.  Focusing too much on measuring the U.S.-Mexico trade imbalance only distracts attention from the need to reform NAFTA so as to encourage more of the “links” in global supply chains to be produced in North America generally.  If the Trump administration is serious about making the U.S. more competitive vis-à-vis China, it should think about viewing Mexico as a partner instead of as an enemy.  In the larger context of Trump’s many objectionable policies on migration and in other areas, a long-overdue correction of U.S. export statistics is not worth getting upset over.  The real issue is whether Trump’s trade policies – with Mexico and beyond – will bring the promised gains to U.S. workers, or will further enrich corporate billionaires and Wall Street tycoons.

February 23, 2017

* Robert A. Blecker is a Professor of Economics at American University.

What Will Trump Do About NAFTA?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

trump-nafta

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the flag of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). / Flickr and Wikimedia / Creative Commons / Modified

Despite his campaign rhetoric repeatedly attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump probably won’t touch it, except in superficial ways.  He has called NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever,” and promised to pull the U.S. out unless Mexico and Canada agree to renegotiate it.  Last week, he suggested renegotiation of NAFTA will include provisions for Mexico to repay the U.S. government for the wall he wants to build along the border.

Dismantling or even significantly rewriting the accord is unlikely for a couple reasons:

  • First, the billionaires, chief executives, and friends he is choosing for his cabinet are hardly people inclined to dismantle an agreement whose contents largely reflect what American business wanted from the U.S.-Mexico relationship when NAFTA was being negotiated in the early 1990s. Corporate preferences weighed heavily against any big deviation from the status quo after the last political transition in Washington, in 2008.  Barack Obama too said that “NAFTA was a mistake,” though his criticisms were a little different.  He railed against lobbyists’ disproportionate influence over trade policy, and promised big changes to international trade agreements, including better protections for workers and the environment.  Even so, he didn’t touch NAFTA, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) he negotiated included – like NAFTA – shady provisions for investor-state dispute settlement.
  • It would be near-impossible, or least massively expensive, to get what Trump seems to want most: a big drop in imports from Mexico. In his eyes this would make NAFTA a better deal for America, though of course serious economists disagree.  Realistically, reopening the agreement would be very messy, and if he tried to throw up massive new trade barriers business leaders would strongly object.  NAFTA could include some additional measures to make it easier for goods and/or people to get around among the NAFTA countries, but that’s not what Trump has promised.

His economic nationalism makes the Republican Party establishment squirm, but it’s clear it also helped Trump win several Midwestern states, tipping the electoral college in his favor.  Insofar as agreements like NAFTA entrench rules friendly to business, and generate market efficiencies and economies whose benefits accumulate in the hands of the few, voter hostility is no mystery.  But economics is only part of the reason.  The bigger issue is what the backlash against globalization – embodied also by Brexit and the rise of neo-nationalist parties in Europe – means more broadly.  The average Democratic voter has a lower income than the average Republican voter, but Democrats are more supportive of trade agreements because they are more internationalist, more open to other cultures, younger, more educated, and more urban.  Throughout his presidency, Trump will therefore be squeezed between his working class rhetoric – appealing to the distrustful – and his business class milieu.  He is an extreme case of the politicians’ mercantilist thinking on trade, wherein exports are good and imports are bad, and “trade deals” like NAFTA are somehow like deals in the business world, where it’s possible to out-negotiate someone.  The reality is that this thinking – which flies in the face of basic economics – doesn’t point to any clear course of action.  This is why Trump won’t actually do much about NAFTA.

January 10, 2017

* Malcolm Fairbrother is social science researcher and teacher/mentor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol (UK).  This article is adapted from a recent blog post for the American Sociological Association.

Does Trade Incentivize Educational Achievement?

By Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez, Luis-Felipe López-Calva, and Nora Lustig*

Female student walking by building

A student walks around Preparatoria Vasconcelos Tecate. / Gabriel Flores Romero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico’s experience with free trade has challenged one of the tenets of faith economists know well from reading early in their careers David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation: that “the pursuit of individual advantage is admirably connected with the universal good of the whole” and that “[trade] distributes labor most effectively and most economically.”  Under this principle, “wine shall be made in France and Portugal; corn shall be grown in America and Poland; and hardware and other goods shall be manufactured in England.”  Mexico reminds us that while these benefits exist in the abstract, there are trade-offs to be faced—that there are, potentially, social and individual costs induced by trade liberalization.

In a recently published paper entitled “Endogenous Skill Acquisition and Export Manufacturing in Mexico,” MIT economics professor David Atkin shows the ways in which individual people experience trade and how it affects their decision-making – sometimes in ways that may not necessarily be socially desirable.  It analyzes a time period (1986-2000) during which Mexico underwent major economic transformations, including a rapid process of trade liberalization after 1989 and the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.  Analyzing data for more than 2,300 municipalities in the country, the paper tells us that young Mexicans at the time faced a very basic decision: to stay in school and continue studying or to drop out and look for a job (among the many being created in the export-oriented manufacturing sector), most of which did not require more than a high school education.  Atkin found that, on average, for every 25 new jobs created in the manufacturing sector, one student would drop out after 9th grade.  (The World Development Report 2008 on Agriculture for Development had raised the question about “missing” individuals in this age group, but in relation to migration.)

  • While trade brought positive effects including a higher demand for low skilled workers and an eventual increase in their wages – consistent with David Ricardo’s basic notion – Atkin concluded that in Mexico it had the socially undesirable effect of preventing, or slowing down, the accumulation of human capital. The reduction in human capital investment is a trade-off which can have negative effects on the economy as a whole.
  • Factors other than free trade might explain this effect. First, young students may drop out if the returns to schooling are not high enough to compensate for the additional investment.  Second, a lack of access to credit and insurance for relatively poorer households might make it impossible for aspiring students to finance their investment and obtain higher returns by continuing to tertiary education or to cope with shocks and avoid abandoning school.  Finally, the result could be driven by a lack of availability of information about actual returns to investment in education, which could lead to myopic decision-making.

The movement of capital toward locations with lower labor costs is an expected, and intended, result of an agreement such as NAFTA, pursuing higher export competitiveness at the regional level.  David Ricardo would have said that TVs and automobiles shall be made in Mexico, while software shall be made in Silicon Valley.  What completes the story, however, is that because of distortions like the ones mentioned above – low educational quality, under-developed credit markets, or weak information that skews decision-making – free trade might lead to socially undesirable consequences.  And it did in the case of Mexico, as Atkin convincingly shows in his paper.  It seems that when Ricardo gets to the tropics, the world gets more complex.

November 7, 2016

* Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez teaches at the Centro de Estudios Económicos at el Colegio de México, and is currently conducting research at the University of California, Berkeley.  Luis-Felipe López-Calva is Lead Economist and Co-Director of the World Development Report 2017 on Governance and the Law.  Nora Lustig is Professor of Latin American Economics at Tulane University.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Early Reactions Mixed

By Luciano Melo*

Photo Credit: Bob Nichols, U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Bob Nichols (U.S. Department of Agriculture) / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreed to on October 5 is drawing both praise and criticism, but approval by legislatures in some signatory nations – particularly the United States – is not a foregone conclusion.  Negotiators representing the 12 Pacific-rim countries involved – including Mexico, Chile, and Peru – hailed the agreement as historic.  It is a far-reaching agreement that will expand countries’ access to a combined market that represents about 40 percent of global GDP, with 800 million consumers.  It seeks to reduce tariffs – including 18,000 on U.S. goods alone – and lower non-tariff trade barriers as well.  The negotiators claim the accord also creates a fair compromise framework for protecting intellectual property rights; adopts the strongest-ever labor and environmental protections; and in a novel feature, establishes assistance for small- and medium-sized businesses to navigate the complex regulations and red tape involved in trade.  Communist Vietnam is a party to the agreement.

Reactions in Latin America have been mixed:

  • El Comercio (Peru) wrote that the TPP will help companies to establish better partnerships with the U.S. and Canada, and to create value chains in which Peru will buy commodities from one country, process them, and sell the resulting product to another. How that long-sought and developmentally imperative objective would be achieved through TPP remains vague, however.
  • El Financiero (Mexico) similarly portrayed the agreement as a means to increase production and foster the specialization of economies. Other Mexican commentators, however, reminded readers that NAFTA and other agreements have not brought the expected results; previous accords have undoubtedly boosted Mexican integration into global and regional manufacturing networks but have actually hurt the agricultural sector – accelerating decades-long migration from the countryside to cities and to the U.S.
  • Mexican and Chilean experts on the pharmaceutical industry, along with Australian and Asian counterparts, claim that TPP provisions on intellectual property will hinder the generic medications sector. They are concerned the accord will allow large U.S. multinationals to expand into markets with products that cannot be replicated for extended periods time.  Chile had negotiated aggressively against Washington’s efforts to transplant its laws providing 12-year monopolies to manufacturers of biologic drugs – compromising on a five‑year period extendable under some conditions to eight.  The Fundacion Equidad Chile warned that the agreement could cost its health sector about $540 million year more due to such provisions.

Details of the agreement will be made public in coming weeks.  While criticism of the secrecy surrounding the accord will naturally fade, substantive debate on its provisions will almost certainly increase amid expensive campaigns by policy advocates on both sides pointing out flaws both real and imagined.  But opposition seems relatively weak in the three signatory countries in Latin America, and ratification there appears likely.  Chile has long been the region’s champion of free trade, and Mexican technocrats appear convinced that trade is key to the country’s eventual graduation to high-income status.  With the commodity boom waning, Peru is counting on TPP to open avenues into a broader array of industries.  In the U.S., however, the path seems rockier.  Congress gave Obama “fast-track” authority, which will allow him to submit the agreement to an up or down vote without congressional amendments that would rip it apart, but criticism of TPP persists.  Some argue that it strengthens ties with Asian countries with bad records in environment, human rights, and labor laws.  An odd twist to the domestic landscape came from presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton, who added her voice to the opposition – putting her on the same side, albeit for different reasons, with Republican opponents who have called TPP a “bad deal.”  President Obama will have to work hard to sell this new trade agreement to Capitol Hill and the nation. 

October 14, 2015

* Luciano Melo is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in comparative politics.

Trans-Pacific Partnership: A Political Step Forward

By Fulton Armstrong

In more than 10 cities across the U.S. activists will use guerrilla light projection to illuminate monuments and building facades with slogans like “Don't Let Comcast Choke Your Freedom,” “No Slow Lanes, Open & Equal Internet For All,” and “TPP Dismantles Democracy.

In more than 10 cities across the U.S. activists used guerrilla light projection to illuminate monuments and building facades with slogans like “Don’t Let Comcast Choke Your Freedom,” “No Slow Lanes, Open & Equal Internet For All,” and “TPP Dismantles Democracy.” Photo Credit: Backbone Campaign / Flickr / Creative Commons

The chairmen of key U.S. Congressional committees agreed on legislation allowing President Obama to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord, but major political and substantive obstacles to an agreement remain. The leaders of the Senate and House tax-writing committees announced the move, with the key Democratic senator involved claiming that the Obama Administration had addressed his deep concerns about the secrecy of the talks. If passed, their bill would give the President “fast-track” trade authority – power to negotiate an accord that the Senate would eventually vote on but without the power to amend it, which would significantly increase chances of passage. Obama’s advisors have called TPP the “cornerstone” of his Asia policy, and the President said last week that it would help “make sure that we, and not countries like China, are writing the rules for the global economy.” Supporters estimate that TPP would stimulate growth by eliminating tariffs and non-tariff barriers affecting $2 trillion of goods and services (about one-third of global trade) each year among its 12 members.*

Opposition in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere remains intense, however. The Senate Democratic whip, charged with tallying support and opposition, stated that only one-quarter of Senate Democrats support the measure – and those opponents have made clear their concerns about the implications for U.S. workers and consumers. Although tariffs are on the table, most observers say the focus of the negotiations is on “harmonizing” regulations, which big multinational corporations – which have access to the talks that citizens’ groups lack – systematically seek to eliminate. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are pushing hard for extending patents and trademarks so that cheaper generic medications cannot be sold. Critics say revisions to copyright and trademark provisions would also have implications for public information and the internet. Industry is seeking to roll back environmental protections in place since the early 1970s. The negotiations have been secret, but a leaked chapter of the draft agreement revealed that companies were gaining the right to sue governments if any regulatory action ever caused their profits to fall short of target – a massive burden on budgets.

The lack of transparency, which the leading Senate Democrat claims has been addressed, may have stoked opponents’ concerns. But the differences between U.S. backers and opponents appear significant and unlikely to fade without some serious political horse-trading, which the Obama Administration has been unwilling to do. In his statement last week, Obama admitted that “it’s no secret that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise” – particularly regarding job creation – but neither he nor the Congressional chairmen have provided hard data showing that dismantling a host of regulations to accommodate corporate agendas will help consumers and un- or under-employed U.S. workers. If history is any guide, the Latin American signatories – Mexico, Chile and Peru – may see a favorable impact regarding employment in certain sectors, and others may see it as the only game in trade right now and thus worth trying to join, but Washington’s vision of TPP as primarily an Asia policy – to counter Chinese influence – suggests that they too see the advantages of participation accruing across the Pacific rather than to the north.

* Currently envisioned as members are the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam: Korea last week expressed interest in joining the talks, but the United States told it to wait. Colombia is interested, and Panama and Costa Rica seek membership in the “Pacific Alliance,” which is related to TPP.

April 20, 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership: A Framework for U.S.-Latin America Relations?

By Eric Hershberg

President Obama’s desire to move forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appears likely to founder amidst Congressional resistance to granting him “fast-track” authority, but it does signal a noteworthy initiative by an administration eager to grow trade relations with some Latin American countries.  Originally formed by Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore in 2006, TPP is currently negotiating the accession of five new members, including the United States and Peru.  Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Canada, and Japan are also considering joining.  U.S. Undersecretary for International Trade Francisco Sanchez said last year that agreement on a framework for the United States to join TPP represents “a landmark accomplishment because it contains all of the elements of a modern trade accord.”  It eliminates all tariff and non-tariff trade barriers; takes a regional approach to promote development of production and supply chains; and eases regulatory red tape.  The White House’s senior official responsible for Latin America has also emphasized the importance of the Partnership.

The Administration for the most part has tried to sell the pact as a domestic economic issue – the argument being that more trade and harmonized regulations translate into more jobs – or as integral to a strategic focus on strengthening economic ties to the dynamic economies of Asia, rather than as a policy that has the potential to redefine economic relations with Latin America.  But lobbying on Capitol Hill has so far been ineffective, and Obama’s own Democratic Party has denied him the “fast-track authority” needed for an effective negotiation.  The Administration’s diplomatic strategy has not progressed smoothly either.  During Obama’s recent four-nation swing through Asia, he and Japanese Prime Minister Abe failed to sign an agreement widely seen as crucial for moving ahead with TPP.  Negotiators from all 12 TPP countries met in Vietnam last week, and – despite claims of progress – press reports generally suggest a gloomy prognosis for progress soon.

President Obama has made much of his “pivot” to Asia, and the push for TPP situates Latin America relations in Washington’s wider foreign policy agenda.  The emphasis on the TPP signals that liberalizing trade remains the core principle guiding U.S. thinking about economic relations in the hemisphere, in effect continuing a paradigm that has reigned for decades and that is embodied by proposals such as the now-abandoned Free Trade Area of the Americas.  Unable to secure broad South American buy-in for that U.S.-minted vision for economic cooperation, the administration seems to have settled on trying to work with a “coalition of the willing” comprised of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.  For governments elsewhere in the region, however, the not-so-particularly-new approach has elicited scant enthusiasm.  One could imagine ambitious proposals from Washington for hemispheric cooperation around energy, climate, infrastructure, technological innovation or even, eventually, labor market integration. But that would require visionary leadership, a commodity that is in strikingly short supply nowadays in the U.S. capital.  Rather than leading the articulation of a novel, shared agenda for a 21st century economic transformation of the Americas, Washington has chosen for now to repackage the last century’s prioritization of trade.