Out really means out – why Britain should reject the “WTO option” even under Hard Brexit

brexit-trade-barriers-810x521

The sheer amount of ignorance in British public discourse about how trade works is one of the most disappointing lessons from the whole sorry Brexit drama. As a Remainer I have no qualms in picking out the likes of Dan Hannan as an example of this, whose comprehension of the subject (and of economics in general) seems to have been plucked from half-remembered A-level text books, or, at a stretch, incidental discussion from reading History at Oxford. Amongst his favourite refrains is that which tells us that “at least we will still have WTO to fall back on”. Yet of all the options, this is probably the very worst. In the event of Hard Brexit, Britain should actually reject the WTO too.

This is not the place to get into the minutiae of what the WTO actually is or how it works. There are plenty of people who have written in easier detail that I can about this. Instead there are two common misconceptions about the WTO which need to be digested before we even get onto whether it is good for Britain or not. The first is that the WTO is not actually about regulating tariffs; its core notion is that of making sure that everyone abides by the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) principle, meaning that however you structure your trade (higher tariffs, lower tariffs, no tariffs) you must at least treat everyone the same. Clearly, this is a starting point on lowering tariffs but it does not actually reduce tariffs in and of themselves. Secondly, the WTO is not a single set of regulations, but rather applies to each country differently depending on their schedules of entry. In other words, upon joining the WTO, each country basically agrees to its own unique set of tariffs and commitments.

The blog referred to above gives the helpful example of shoes – a sector in which the UK happens to be an exporter:

8% is charged by the EU on shoes imported from all other WTO members (except under a free trade agreement, such as EU-Japan, or preferences on shoes from developing countries). The import duty rate in other countries will be different. The US’s import duties on shoes vary from duty-free to around 10% or higher. Japan charges 20%–30% duty on many shoe imports.

In other words, the WTO does not set monolithic rules, even at a lowest common denominator, as many casual observers seem to believe. The reason I highlight this is to emphasise that the WTO is not some magic bullet for providing a minimum level of trade freedom. It is merely a mechanism for getting countries to discuss ways to lower tariffs. How much each country has to commit to upon entry to the WTO is, much like any other trade deal or indeed any other non-deal trading relationship (which is how most trade is done), dependent on their economic strengths. A larger economy, offering both greater consumption power and usually some irreplicable exports, will always get a better “deal” out of the WTO as a whole (or any other trade negotiation such as an FTA) than a smaller economy. With or without the WTO, with or without an FTA. That is just the way life works.

Moreover, the WTO largely does not cover services, which matters for Britain. After all according to the ONS, British services exports constituted 44% of total exports in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, representing a trade surplus of +£107bn (+€124bn) compared to the trade deficit of -£139bn (-€161bn) in goods. Contrast this with Germany, France and Italy for instance who have a trade surplus in goods and deficit in services. Yet if you delve into the WTO’s website to look at something like architectural services, something Britain has had some success at, you will find the following wording:

Currently, architectural and engineering services, like all services are included in the new services negotiations, which began January 2000. Principles of trade in architectural and engineering services are contained, like for all services, in the GATS.

In other words, nothing has been agreed. The same wording applies to everything else including finance, law, advertising and so on. GATS itself, the precursor to the services agreement, is essentially toothless. As a result, you might have noticed that prior to the Brexit referendum in 2016 nobody anywhere had been talking about the WTO for almost a decade. Instead, partly in order to cover services, most countries have gone on to think about regionally integrated trade deals like ASEAN, the TPP, APEC, the East African Union, Mercosur and, er, the EU.

The problem for Britain is that the WTO is an unfinished project. People seem to forget that the intention for global “free trade” was supposed to be a multi-step process, starting with the trade in goods before moving onto the trade in services, tackling non-tariff barriers and eventually encompassing freedom of labour and capital. The trade in goods came first, naturally, because in the era in which the GATT discussions commenced, most economies including the OECD were still ones that made stuff. There was no real asymmetry in economic structure at that time and if anything, GATT and WTO were forecast to open up emerging markets to developed nation goods such as industrial equipment whilst the latter continued to develop their basic industries such as agriculture and natural resources.

However over the course of time this changed. The OECD became notably more services-based, including in their export mix. On the other hand the emerging markets, led by China, came to dominate the manufacturing industry not just at the low end but increasingly at the higher ends too – Korean autos for instance, Chinese industrial equipment and so on. It was therefore imperative that the next phase of global “free trade”, that of services, was completed – but it never was. The Doha Round, in the back of everyone’s memories, collapsed ignominiously. China’s accession to the WTO in 2001 on these ossified terms has probably contributed significantly to its rise and America’s comparative decline. It certainly led to Trump. If you are a modern economy, the WTO is probably bad for you.

We have not even touched on the specifics of how and whether Britain could easily join the WTO and on what conditions. The likelihood is that Britain could join pretty quickly – if it did so exactly on the current EU schedules (ie the 8% tariff for shoes above). But as noted, each set of schedules was designed to suit a specific economy and the existent schedules suit the EU as a whole. With a focus on protecting agricultural exports for instance, they are probably not ideal for Britain. If it wanted to join on a different, bespoke set of schedules, this would require agreement from all WTO members which would almost certainly throw up objections both legitimate (British government subsidy for financial services for instance) and illegitimate (Russia or Argentina purposefully creating trouble). Furthermore this would require time, unlike the replication of the EU schedules – the shortest period of time for a WTO accession has been several years.

This brings us to the central conclusion that if Britain goes through with Hard Brexit, it would be better to reject the WTO altogether and act unilaterally. The WTO as it exists today suits some countries like Germany and China and Japan, but specifically ill-suits the UK given the commitments Britain would have to make on accepting manufactured goods but getting no such commitments on services in return. Neither is Britain a big enough an economy to enter into renegotiations to remake the rules in its own favour, as the Quadrilateral could. Moreover, rushing into the WTO would actually undermine Britain’s ability to strike independent trade deals as most of what it has to offer – a market for consumer goods – would be given up already. Leverage in bilateral negotiations by trading goods access for services access, would be eliminated including with the EU.

Indeed in recognition of Britain’s place as a middle-sized economy, it makes more sense to try and protect certain industries, even at the cost of near-term price increases.  Whilst signing up to the WTO does not restrict Britain’s ability to lower tariffs, it would prevent the country from strategically increasing tariffs where necessary, for instance incubating industries struggling to find their feet after seventy years in the wilderness. The fact is that a vibrant SME sector really only exists in economies that have reached a critical mass in exports such as the US, Germany and Japan. For all other economies, creating national champions is a better guarantee of long-term economic survival (more of this in future posts).

Brexit is a political, not an economic, debate. That political choice should be made on its own merits, but decisions about trading relationships need to be clear-headed afterwards. Relying on the WTO sounds like a short-cut for preserving some stability for British trade, but it is a false friend. The reason why nobody else pays attention to the WTO anymore is the same reason why Britain must abandon it too – if indeed it actually ends up with Hard Brexit come 29 March.

Why Britain could demand asymmetric labour access to the EU – and why it might be best for both sides

Freedom of movement

The disputes over Brexit negotiations have mostly been premised on the idea of reciprocity – or rather, retaliation. If we do not give them rights, they will not give them to us. This has been particularly true when discussion freedom of movement, possibly the single most important driver of Brexit voting in 2016. On the face of it, there seems to be logic in the EU demanding that EU nationals be allowed to freedom of movement into the UK if the UK wants the same thing in return. However this may belie the reality, which is that asymmetric access is perfectly viable and indeed valid.

To give one example of where this makes sense, let us examine Chinese policy with regards Hong Kong. Here, Hong Kong residents have an almost unhindered access to the Mainland and its economy, not only in terms of movement and residency, but also asset ownership including real estate and businesses. Chinese Mainlanders on the other hand face extremely stringent rules on coming to Hong Kong and particularly for settling here. Work visas are required almost exactly as they are of any foreigners. Yet this is essentially just one country with ultimately one government. And yet it suits both sides.

Why? Well there are two main reasons for allow one-way borders. The first is when one area needs skills the other has. This was historically true of Hong Kong and the services it provided to mainland China in terms of capital and skills, although today this is no longer so relevant. In the case of Britain and the EU, there are arguably skills which those across the channel, all things being equal, would prefer to have. Banking and finance might be part of this, but it seems unlikely. Much more relevant is that Britain is far more innovative than the rest of Europe and particularly so compared to the larger countries. In the European Commission’s innovation rankings for instance, Britain comes fifth but well ahead of Germany, as well as France, Italy and Spain. This is something the EU would surely rather not lose: startups and business ideas which could change the world but which need a large market to be tested and improved. For this reason, one-sided migration would be net positive.

European countries ranked by innovation

European innovation

Source: European Innovation Scoreboard 2018 (European Commission)

The second reason is the defensive one and relies on a resource Britain has an abundance of: parochialism. One of the reasons China has no particular fear of opening the border to Hong Kong is that there is very little chance that people will want to cross the border and stay there. Oddly enough, Britain is in the same boat, since Britons have historically been far less likely to move to another European country than many others, especially those of a working age. If we look at northern European migrants to other northern European destinations (in other words, intra-EU migration which strips out the retirement population) Britain figures as one of the least mobile populations behind even France. Only Germany is marginally behind and this is due to its outstanding export economy.

Total intra-Northern European emigrants as a percentage of total population

Intra-European migration

Source: People on the Move (Bruegel Jan 2018)

This reflects only “rich” Europe; if eastern and southern Europe were included the numbers would be even more stark. This peculiarly British parochialism can be seen in everything from the lack of language learning in British schools through to the reluctance of British footballers to move to European leagues which are better for their career. In other words, the British are much more disinclined to move and settle in the EU than the other way around, so that offering asymmetric access will only help business without causing any employment displacement.

This is a classic and enjoyable case of hidden asymmetry, the defining theme of this blog. The simple fact is that just because access is unequal does not mean that it is imbalanced or not beneficial to both sides. Reciprocity may seem “fair” on the face of it but may not actually be relevant – when there are cultural asymmetries as in this case, there is a good case to argue that reciprocity is not needed. Unless indeed retaliation is the core objective.

How all politics really works – in one simple chart

Introducing the General Theory of Government 

The events of 2016 were curious because of their dichotomy: on the one hand, they were such a shock to the political classes, on the other hand they were also entirely predictable. Yet the commentariat both then and since appeared to miss (or simply forget) the most basic and obvious premise of how all politics works: namely that the ruler has to offer the ruled a mixture of both material and psychological well-being. The desire for identity is as legitimate a concern as any amount of wealth, and any government that fails to provide one or the other over a long period of time will suffer the occasional revolt. Understanding this explains Brexit, Trump and any other examples one might care to mention.

I do not claim this to be revolutionary, but given its lack of profile and given the impending elections in the US which will doubtless cause another round of soul-searching, I think it is useful to visualize this concept in a simple, easy to comprehend model. With no further ado therefore, all politics can be represented in this single chart:

General Theory - basic model

The Wealth-Identity Trade-off Model

It should be easy to see where I am going with this. Into the x-axis goes all those things which politicians want to focus on: taxes, welfare spending, the cost of living. Into the y-axis are all those things politicians seem not to think exist anymore such as ethnicity, religion and language. And, in a democracy at least, any government which consistently offers too little of one or other of these parameters, will find themselves cast out. We have for perhaps too long been living in a world where the governing classes have not only mistaken how to deliver W (Sanders, &c), but completely ignored i (Trump, Farage &c). Political parties across the spectrum have spent the last few decades obsessing over the x-axis whilst assuming that the y-axis will tend to itself. Rectifying this will be, as I have alluded to before, the dominant theme of the next two decades at least in the West.

I would hope this is all intuitive enough not to need vast amounts of explanation, but in a series of posts I intend to outline the basic premise of the General Theory and specifically its core idea, the Wealth-Identity Trade-off Model (WITM™). I will go on to examine how and when a society ceases to function properly; what a society really comprises within the model (“Median Man”, or “MM“); and lastly look at some applied examples in the world today and perhaps yesterday.

What I am proposing is not in itself, I think novel; however like all good things I believe this theory synthesizes simple, intuitive ideas which have at best not been expressed before in such a manner, or perhaps may not have been coherently identified. To anyone who disagrees with this, or who have contrary opinions, I look forward to hearing them. Additionally, since these are blog posts which may one day find their way into a book, I will not footnote everything in detail. However I trust that enough is articulated to allow the reader to comprehend what I intend.

The End of Entrepôts – why the future is big, not small

Lugard

Photo: Lord Lugard with the Legco in 1909

It is one of the most oft-repeated fallacies in modern politics that the future is destined to be ever smaller and fragmented. One only has observe the fetishization of breakaway movements such as Scotland or Catalonia and hear the accompanying, knowing murmurs telling us that in political terms at least, atomization is the way of the future – small is beautiful. Some still reach further back, summoning up the collapse of the Soviet Union as proof that all large entities must collapse.

This is completely at odds with reality, on a number of levels. First, recent history has, far from being driven by a narrative of devolution, instead been dominated by the rise of “big countries” which in turn are resurrecting their own brand of Great Power relations. The corresponding decline in relevance of smaller entities is pronounced – most noticeably in the shape of individual European nations which have seen their weight fall off considerably. The 2010 Copenhagen agreement, where Obama sidelined the Europeans to reach straight for emerging giants, was an early sign of this; the gradual extinction of the Quadrilateral in determining trade policy was another.

Indeed in my 2013 paper on China and multilateralism, I noted that the world is if anything heading towards a new “community of empires”, with both the foreign and domestic policies of China, Brazil and India joining the US and Russia in pursuing an unrelentingly imperial logic. In response, those outside of their orbit are banding together to form what are prima facie trade blocs, but which are in reality the beginnings of something much more. Whether the European Union, ASEAN or Mercosur, nation-states are ceding sovereignty slowly but surely for the express purpose of aggregating their power in the world beyond. Even in unexpected corners of functioning humanity such as East Africa, union is the name of the game. Status and size do not have a linear correlation; as one reaches critical mass, the relationship becomes exponential. A power ten times as large as its neighbours is far more than ten times as important.

At the heart of this is a simple thesis: in the long run, the power of any country will be determined by the size of its population (with a shared identity – more of that another time), somewhat adjusted for a country’s natural resource base. In the long run, all else is mere noise. Yes, certain countries or civilisations may exercise disproportionate power for a period of time, even centuries. This can have any number of causes but often it is because of temporary technological disparities – temporary because in the long run, all technology will permeate meaning that we arrive back at where we started: population. Any vision of a world where the largest population blocks are not the most important countries must be premised on a smaller, more nimble country actively and exploitatively keeping larger population blocks subject. This was a kernel of much of European colonialism of the 19th century (which should not be conflated with a general model of imperialism exercised in human history).

Now in the long run, as Keynes says, we are all dead. So does it matter? I would say yes it does, particularly for those living in and around the rising powers of Asia such as China, Indonesia and to a lesser extent, India. Because some of these changes are no longer concerns for the long term, but coming to maturity now.

One lesson is this: the age of entrepôts such as Hong Kong and Singapore is fast coming to an end. In the future, there will be no space for such outposts any longer, at least in their current form. This is because the very existence of such centres is a lingering post-colonial legacy, based on an economic system that is now no longer extant. City-states like Singapore thrive because they are a form of offshoring, and the offshoring they offer is reaching the end of its useful life.

We should be crystal clear that offshoring has two forms: there is offshoring for work a country does not want to do, and offshoring for work it cannot do. On the one hand, there is what we classically understand as “offshoring” where one jurisdiction offers a cheaper way of producing goods and services for a richer one – offshoring from below. Textiles in Bangladesh fall into this, as does the core of China’s economic rise during the 1990s and 2000s. The second form is what hubs such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and even London offer to an extent – offshoring  from above. They provide capabilities that other poorer, less developed countries cannot do themselves.

The problem is that much of the world is catching up. There is precious little that can be done in Hong Kong today that cannot be done in China; yet Hong Kong really only exists to serve the Chinese economy, much as some lament its progress to becoming “just another” Chinese port. Singapore is safer for the moment, but it is still implausible to imagine that Malaysia, much less Indonesia, will allow the island to remain an offshoring hub for high value-added industries such as finance. As with China, they will end up doing everything themselves. The post-colonial legacy of substantially inadequate skills and infrastructure will be bridged, if not today, then tomorrow. At that point, the city-states will have precious little left. This is a problem not faced by Bangladesh – but then no-one wants to be Bangladesh. There is a reason why entrepôts barely exist in the OECD and if they do, they service a tiny, marginal sliver of their neighbours’ economic life as Jersey or the British Virgin Islands do. It is because there is no room at the top.

Britain suffers from many of the same issues. Plenty have lauded the supposed rebirth of the British automotive industry, and in a few instances, this is well justified. But for every Aston Martin or Morgan, where real value-add and R&D is achieved in the UK, there is a far bigger presence of Nissan or Toyota. The latter however, are essentially a little Bangladesh model – investment into the UK occurs not because of any inherent capabilities, but because we are marginally cheaper and have fewer regulatory restrictions (unionization etc) than regional neighbours. This is not much of a national dream.

The other side of the UK is that of the entrepôt. Here I am referring to her services exports – but not the headline-grabbing financial services sector, which will be pretty easily replicable elsewhere, but rather industries such as advertising, publishing, design and architecture which are more genuinely unique. And one can tell that they are unique, since whereas the UK can barely export any financial services to the big empire economies of the US or China, it sells large quantities of stylish design. The problem is, this is nowhere near enough to support an independent UK – the idea of the UK becoming a “Singapore of Europe” is beyond fanciful, as I have noted before.

Singapore has been conspicuous in how strongly it clings to and pushes for ASEAN. And the reason is clear: if ASEAN does not succeed in binding the region together, Singapore will soon have nothing to offer its larger neighbours. Only a union of sorts will allow it to continue holding a position of import. Hong Kong’s commercial residents have long acquiesced to the fact that it will have to be another Chinese city, albeit one offering some special rules and playing a specific role. Hong Kong’s flagship airline’s troubles reflect the decline of hub-and-spoke trade in favour of point-to-point, and are a microcosm of how the whole economy is developing. Dubai will play off the inability of regional giants to pull their weight (Iran, Egypt and Turkey) but if and when they do, it too will face the same problems of reinvention.

But the old model of “Singapore” is a complacent and condescending anachronism – and those pushing the model for countries like Britain are living a sheer fantasy.