Subsidy Or Welfare Spending?

In an economy such as China’s, standing somewhere uncertain in the transition from being centrally planned to a market economy, is everything a subsidy? The question is raised again both by the World Trade Organization’s surprise ruling that the U.S. had introduced illegal anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties on some steel exports and by a new World Bank research working paper looking at the effects of a countervailing duties case brought by the United States in 2007 against Chinese imports of coated free sheet paper which were alleged to be being sold at below fair market value because of government subsidies to the Chinese manufacturers.

That case petered out after the U.S.’s International Trade Commission eventually found that no injury had been done to American paper producers. Its significance lies in that it reversed a long-standing American policy of not imposing countervailing and their sister anti-dumping duties on exports from non-market economies (into which category China falls until 2016 under the terms of its joining the WTO), thus opening the door for at least eight such trade actions from a wide range of industries.

Wonk warning: The paper will put any trade policy wonk in pig heaven. You will be neck deep in WTO rules and regs and the arcane arts of diving fair market value and identifying subsidies. If that is what fascinates you, you will find it a fascinating case study. If that’s not you, read on here.

The broader question is how does China, or any other transitioning economy for that matter, implement social and economic development policies it legitimately wants to pursue, as set forth, for example, in the new five-year plan, without distorting trade? What counts as an export subsidy and what is fair game for a countervailing or anti-dumping duty? For example, does the VAT rebate that Chinese farmers get (they effectively pay 5.8%, not the full 13% as part of the push to narrow urban-rural income disparities) count as an export subsidy, as some at the U.S. agriculture department argue? Or discounted land or energy supplies given by central or local governments as an inducement to attract new industry to desired regions, as some in the U.S. steel industry promote. What about a bank loan; the U.S. commerce department has determined that the domestic banking sector doesn’t operate on a commercial basis? Or China’s managed currency, which some in the U.S. Congress want made subject to trade remedies? Even censorship is starting to come under the microscope to examine if it, too, is a trade issue.

China has made great progress in reducing its overt subsidies (tariffs, subsidies and export taxes/rebates), down from 8% of GDP in 1985 to 0.7% by 2005 according to one 2007 study. But there are still a lot of subsidies designed to promote economic and social welfare goals, particularly poverty reduction and environmental protection, some of which are reported to the WTO but which need to be made trade neutral and applied according to universal principles not discriminatorily in line with WTO rules.

It is now a reasonable argument to make that U.S. trade remedy laws have strayed far from their original purpose, and are now being used by special interests to shield themselves from competition. Greg Mankiw, the Harvard University economist who is a former chair of the U.S. President’s Council of Economic Advisers, has said, “Anti-dumping is the ‘third rail’ of U.S. trade politics, with few politicians of either party willing to point out its broadly negative impact.” The World Bank paper quotes recent research that found that each job saved by steel tariffs cam e at the cost of three jobs in steel-using industries and caused economic distortion equal to some $450,000.

The paper suggests three remedies: contesting these cases in the courts or via the WTO disputes mechanism, as in the case of the steel duties–China and its companies now have hordes of trade lawyers in Geneva, Washington and Brussels on retainer; changing the rules on countervailing and anti-dumping duties via the Doha round of trade negotiations, but which would depend on the chimera of the Doha round actually being concluded; and China advancing the date of its recognition as a market economy from 2016, which would come with its own baggage. That, though, would be the idealists’ solution as it would let China provide a model for developing economies designing industrial and development policies intended to achieve social objectives that don’t simultaneously distort trade.

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