No one can deny that overall there are net gains from free trade (FT). If the most efficient producers are provided access without artificial restrictions (political or geographical boundaries) obviously it would optimize the costs for a given level of consumption.
But how those gains are distributed is an unsettled question. We can have examples of countries losing out due to FT and others gaining at their expense. It is not even difficult to construct examples of just one country garnering all the gains and all the others losing.
Its also possible that the gainer(s) gain far more than the gains from free trade efficiencies at the expense of others (kind of loss imposition on losers). Unless one is careful about what to negotiate/avoid and does homework properly, one may be a heavy loser. Lets see an illustration.
The illustration seeks to break up the supply curve in the standard demand supply analysis of micro economics. The supplying units are arranged from the most efficient to least efficient from left to right. Efficiency is measured by how low the total variable cost is. The thick ridge line running over the top of various bars representing individual units comprises the supply curve. Those to the left of where the Demand curve meets the Supply curve gets to supply the market. Those to the right will incur a cash loss since the market price is less than their variable cost.
The illustration studies the impact of removal of import duties after FTAs. After removal of import duties, the supply curve accommodates more overseas players to the left and push out some domestic suppliers to the right of equilibrium pricing and hence face closure.
The net impact (difference between before and after scenarios) in the illustration is as follows:
- The Government has lost whatever Import duties it was getting from the Korean (for example) suppliers who were already competitive suppliers in the market. The entire amount would have accrued to the Korean suppliers,
- The domestic consumers have benefitted from a price reduction of less than 1%. This is most likely from better efficiencies of the overseas suppliers.
- There is a net loss in domestic employment (loss of 9% down from 139 to 127 in the illustration).This would have either resulted in better employment overseas or better capacity utilization for them.
This kind of relatively flat demand or supply curves prevail in commodity industries where consumers don’t pay much premiums for brand and supply efficiencies come from factor cost differences, scale economies, cheap labour, patents, etc.
Net loss in employment.
Larger and concentration of capacities enabled by FT does facilitate mechanization and result in net loss of employment as empirically observed. These net losses in employment have also to be distributed and one can end up with a disproportionate share of this unemployment as in the above case where the host country ends up with all the employment loss.
Ineffectiveness of Revealed Comparative Advantage
One of the methods oft-used by trade economists to identify industries with export or import competitiveness is the Revealed Comparative Advantage (RCA) and its variants. Essentially this method calculates the ratio of (i) % of a particular commodity in a country’s exports to (ii) the % of global exports of the commodity in world exports. If the ratio is more than 1, then the country is supposedly export competitive. Instead of global %, one may use specific country %s, regional %s, or host country’s %s, to identify export competitiveness or import vulnerabilities.
But it is terribly reliant on the past like using KL Rahul’s yesteryears averages to play him in todays matches. What is important is the current competitiveness in an ever dynamic world, where the steep price fluctuations in some key inputs like oil, metals, interest rates, etc. can vastly change the fates of several industry players’ competitiveness.
As can be seen from the illustration the units around the equilibrium price – may be 20-30% on either side would largely decide the gains or losses from trade. Units which are highly competitive (leftmost) or least competitive (rightmost ones) will hardly matter. For example, ASEAN units despite a duty reduction do not enter domestic market. There may not be much point in negotiating access in such a commodity if we are in a similar situation.
Likely effects of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)
This kind of analysis should be done for both commodities where we have some basic strengths and where we would like to invite competition. Using elasticities alone may not suffice as so much depends on capacities of individual players around the equilibrium price. ASEAN FTA has not resulted in much gain or loss over the last 5 years it has been in full operation. But China is a different player altogether.
Many Chinese commodity players have huge capacities – in select cases a single unit or player have enough capacities to supply the entire Indian market. If an import facilitating measure or cut in duties make them competitive in domestic industry, then the whole domestic manufacturing can get wiped out resulting in loss of domestic employment.
India’s strength in its low cost labour, but largely untrained and low skilled. In most manufacturing units the wages account for 8-12% and dwindling by the day. Even a 30-40% cheaper labour translates to only a 3-5% overall advantage which is not even sufficient to counter our unreasonably high real interest rates. But where wages constitutes 40-50% like in many services, IT, research, design, etc. a 30-40% cheaper labour can give 10-20% overall advantage. These are also less capital and machine intensive and interest rates are less impactful.
India’s homework so far in negotiating trade agreements has not been stellar. Opening up our manufacturing without proper employment impact assessment might prove disastrous with RCEP. Even if services are negotiated well, it will open up opportunities for higher skilled but the low skilled and labour which are newly transferred from agriculture and rural areas may be left in the lurch.
Illustration: Before and After FTA – impact of duty reduction