Educational: International Economic Transactions, Analysis of the GATT 1994

My editorial

In this update, I am mostly addressing my Graduate Master’s students in their curriculum entitled ‘International Economic Transactions’. Still, I will be delighted to provide meaningful insight to any of my readers. We take on analysing the GATT 1994. It is on purpose that I am not starting with GATT 1947. That mother-treaty of the World Trade Organization was signed in very special circumstances, when the Western world was shaking off after World War II. The political and economic climate was somehow unique. The GATT 1994 is much closer to the present reality, and the road covered between its signature and that of the Trade Facilitation Agreement (2013 – 2017) is easier to trace than if we were starting in 1947. And so we start with GATT 1994. I am starting with decrypting the acronym: GATT means ‘General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade’. Nothing to write home about, basically, and still one thing is interesting. If there is a general agreement, it logically implies the existence of specific agreements. This is very much the reality of international trade: wherever you look, you see complicated, multi-level, intricate structures made of bilateral agreements, multilateral ones, letters of understanding, memoranda and whatnot (e.g. protocols).

If now, you care to read GATT 1994, there is not much reading to do, indeed: it is just two pages. It is a strange logical structure. On those two pages, you have just two sections. Section 1 says what specific documents does the GATT 1994 cover, and section 2 provides ‘Explanatory Notes’. The questions pops up: why the hell should anyone put any effort in negotiating that looks like two pages of minutes from a management meeting? As you read through section 1, you notice that the member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have hatched quite a lot of various documents concerning trade, between 1947 (some of them even before the entry into force of the GATT 1947) and 1994. The most cryptic category is to be found under section 1(a)(iv), namely ‘Other decisions of the Contracting Parties’. Thus, many governments had had signed the GATT 1947, and then they had been doing things that stretched the original agreement in so dire a way that a new agreement had to be signed, recognizing the legal validity of those things that governments had been doing.

This is a good moment to exemplify the relation between an international agreement pertaining to trade, and its economic context. The GATT 1947 had been signed with a general purpose of avoiding so-called ‘trade wars’, i.e. a spiral of aggressive pro-export policies in individual countries, when a government deliberately depreciates its own currency in order to make its exported goods more price-competitive in foreign markets. Thus, the GATT 1947 had been originally combined with an international financial architecture, where the currencies of major economies had been tied nominally to the price of gold, and de facto to the price of the US dollar. On the other hand, the general principle of free trade, in GATT 1947, was strongly supported by economic sciences, either on the grounds of the so-called Ricardian paradigm – countries benefit from free trade by the development of their most competitive categories of businesses – as well as based on the the Heckscher – Ohlin model , which, in turn, stated that free trade compensates the negative effects of the otherwise imperfect geographical distribution of production factors. Still, since 1947, things kept happening, and they did so in a way which very much contradicted the fundamental principles of free trade. The biggest economies in the world, led by the biggest of the biggest, the United States of America, kept enforcing protectionist policies regarding trade. The clause of domestic components has been really the fashion since 1947. It says that you can import any goods inside a given country, but if you do not include in those goods a given percentage of components made domestically in this country, you pay additional tariffs, or, for example, your goods are excluded from public procurement (i.e. the government cannot buy them). In the 1970ies, most economies started departing from the gold standard, and even the United States detached their dollar from the price of the gold. As the system of tied monetary exchange rates faded progressively, the idea of free trade supporting said system became obsolete as well. New economic research showed that whilst the Ricardian paradigm, and the Heckscher – Ohlin one generally hold, other forces are at work, which can actually increase economic inequalities . The idea of aggressive depreciation in domestic currencies returned, with the energetic showing around from the part of Asian economies (Japan, China etc.), and with the governments of developed countries rediscovering an old truth that manipulating their own currencies could help in alleviating the burden of public debt. Regional zones of free trade, like the European communities or the ASEAN in the Asia and Pacific region, made the provisions of GATT 1947 look a bit pale. All in all, by the beginning of the 1990ies, it became obvious that the GATT 1947 has to be changed somehow, only in the meantime, i.e. since 1947, a whole bureaucratic structure had emerged under the label of World Trade Organization, and this structure was not keen to give up their position. It is funny how an otherwise quite substantial bureaucratic structure can call for ‘minimizing bureaucracy in trade’.

Now, here is the first big lesson in understanding international economic transactions. When countries transact ‘economically’, it means they do so in a way that affects whole economic orders. In fact, countries do not transact at this level: governments do. In international economic exchanges, there is a business level, and a government level. The latter expresses itself in policies, and some of these policies find an expression in international agreements and treaties. Second lesson: those international agreements and treaties are usually at least one step behind the business level of economic exchange. When governments claim they ‘signed a forward looking agreement’, it is to be understood as ‘we sincerely hope that no bloody business people will think about something new and unexpected, which would force us to renegotiate this document’. Trade has been going on for millennia, and it will keep going on. When governments claim they ‘stimulate’ trade with their policies, it means that at best they don’t get in the way.

The third lesson in more complex: if you want to understand how a given regulation works, trade agreements included, try and build various antithetic alternatives for it, i.e. regulations built with provisions logically opposing those actually studied ones. Section 1 of the GATT 1994 starts with a general provision that “The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 (“GATT 1994”) shall consist of: […]’, and the […] takes the remaining of the A4 first page of the document, listing all those things that governments had done since 1947. Imagine an agreement starting with “This agreement SHALL NOT consist of […]’, with the […] being rigorously the same as in the original. The first option means that the agreement being signed explicitly incorporates all those past, particular polices. It is usually practiced when the agreement being signed has to deal with, and de facto recognize, deep disagreement between the contracting parties. This is the type of agreement we sign just in order to give some flesh to further negotiations that we know inevitable. The second, antithetic a version means a sharp divide: we do not recognize the validity of those policies. It is being used when a real agreement has been reached, and the new regulations can safely supplant the old ones.

Thus, when a new agreement is being signed in the place of an old one, two big strategies can be followed: the new one can build on the predecessor, or it can completely supplant it. The GATT 1994 is an example of the former, but, for example, consecutive treaties of the European Union bend more towards the latter.

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