International trade agreements have played a significant role in the reduction of trade barriers that has taken place since the end of World War II. One objective of the theoretical literature on trade agreements is to address the question of why bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, rather than simple unilateral actions by individual countries, have been required to reduce trade barriers. The predominant explanation has been the terms of trade theory, which argues that unilateral tariff policies lead to a prisoner’s dilemma due to the negative effect of a country’s tariffs on its trading partners. Reciprocal tariff reductions through a trade agreement are required to obtain tariff reductions that improve on the noncooperative equilibrium. An alternative explanation, the commitment theory of trade agreements, focuses on the use of external enforcement under a trade agreement to discipline domestic politics. A second objective of the theoretical literature has been to understand the design of trade agreements. Insights from contract theory are used to study various flexibility mechanisms that are embodied in trade agreements. These mechanisms include contingent protection measures such as safeguards and antidumping, and unilateral flexibility through tariff overhang. The literature also addresses the enforcement of agreements in the absence of an external enforcement mechanism. The theories of the dispute settlement process of the WTO portray it as an institution with an informational role that facilitates the coordination among parties with incomplete information about the states of the world and the nature of the actions taken by each signatory. Finally, the literature examines whether the ability to form preferential trade agreements serves as a stumbling block or a building block to multilateral liberalization.
Mostafa Beshkar and Eric Bond
Trade policy is one determining factor of 19th-century globalization, alongside transport and communication innovations and broader institutional changes that made worldwide commodity and factor flows possible. Four broad periods, or trade policy regimes, can be discerned at the European level. The first starts at the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars that had led to many disruptions in trade relations. Governments tried to recover from the financial impact of the wars and to mitigate the adjustment shocks to domestic producers that came with the end of the wars. Very restrictive trade policies were thus adopted in most places and only slowly dismantled over the following decades as some of the welfare costs of, for example, agricultural protection became evident. The second period dated from the mid-1840s, which saw the liberalization of protective grain tariffs in many European countries, to the mid-1870s, when trade liberalization reached its maximum. This period witnessed unilateral trade liberalizations, but is most famous for the spread of a network of bilateral trade agreements across Europe in the wake of the Cobden–Chevalier treaty between France and the United Kingdom in 1860. From the 1870s, industrial and commercial crises and falling prices in agriculture due to global market integration led governments to search for solutions to these policy challenges. Many European countries thus increased protection for agriculture and manufactured goods in which domestic import-competing producers struggled. At the same time, demands for renegotiations threatened the treaty network, and lapsing agreements were only provisionally prolonged. From the late 1880s, the struggle between protection for import-competing producers and market access abroad for export-oriented producers led to internal and external conflicts over trade policy in many countries, including trade (or tariff) “wars.” A renewed network of less ambitious trade treaties than those of the 1860s restored a fragile equilibrium from the early 1890s, to be renewed and renegotiated roughly every 12 years as treaties approached their expiration date. When looking at the country and commodity level it can easily be appreciated that the more or less common shifts during these periods at the European level were more pronounced in some countries than in others. For example, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Belgium shifted more decisively to free trade and remained there, while liberalization was much less pronounced and more decisively undone in Portugal, Spain, Russia, and the Habsburg monarchy. The experiences of the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and France lie somewhere in between. Turkey and the countries that gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century started as (forced) free traders and from the 1880s increased their duties, in part to meet growing fiscal demands. At the commodity level, tariffs on raw materials remained generally low and did not follow the protectionist backlash that affected foodstuffs. One exception was (initially) “tropical” goods such as sugar, coffee, tea, and tobacco, where many countries levied high tariffs to extract fiscal revenue. For manufactured goods, liberalization and protectionist backlash were milder than in agriculture, although there are many exceptions to this rule.
While economists overwhelmingly favor free trade, even unilateral free trade, because of the gains realizable from specialization and the exploitation of comparative advantage, in fact international trading relations are structured by a complex body of multilateral and preferential trade agreements. The article outlines the case for multilateral trade agreements and the non-discrimination principle that they embody, in the form of both the Most Favored Nation principle and the National Treatment principle, where non-discrimination has been widely advocated as supporting both geopolitical goals (reducing economic factionalism) and economic goals (ensuring the full play of theories of comparative advantage undistorted by discriminatory trade treatment). Despite the virtues of multilateral trade agreements, preferential trade agreements (PTAs), authorized from the outset under GATT, have proliferated in recent years, even though they are inherently discriminatory between members and non-members, provoking vigorous debates as to whether (a) PTAs are trade-creating or trade-diverting; (b) whether they increase transaction costs in international trade; and (c) whether they undermine the future course of multilateral trade liberalization. A further and similarly contentious derogation from the principle of non-discrimination under the multilateral system is Special and Differential Treatment for developing countries, where since the mid-1950s developing countries have been given much greater latitude than developed countries to engage in trade protectionism on the import side in order to promote infant industries, and since the mid-1960s on the export side have benefited from non-reciprocal trade concessions by developed countries on products of actual or potential export interest to developing countries. Beyond debates over the strengths and weaknesses of multilateral trade agreements and the two major derogations therefrom, further debates surround the appropriate scope of trade agreements, and in particular the expansion of their scope in recent decades to address divergences or incompatibilities across a wide range of domestic regulatory and related policies that arguably create frictions in cross-border trade and investment and hence constitute an impediment to it. The article goes on to consider contemporary fair trade versus free trade debates, including concerns over trade deficits, currency manipulation, export subsidies, misappropriation of intellectual property rights, and lax labor or environmental standards. The article concludes with a consideration of the case for a larger scope for plurilateral trade agreements internationally, and for a larger scope for active labor market policies domestically to mitigate transition costs from trade.
James Lake and Pravin Krishna
In recent decades, there has been a dramatic proliferation of preferential trade agreements (PTAs) between countries that, while legal, contradict the non-discrimination principle of the world trade system. This raises various issues, both theoretical and empirical, regarding the evolution of trade policy within the world trade system and the welfare implications for PTA members and non-members. The survey starts with the Kemp-Wan-Ohyama and Panagariya-Krishna analyses in the literature that theoretically show PTAs can always be constructed so that they (weakly) increase the welfare of members and non-members. Considerable attention is then devoted to recent developments on the interaction between PTAs and multilateral trade liberalization, focusing on two key incentives: an “exclusion incentive” of PTA members and a “free riding incentive” of PTA non-members. While the baseline presumption one should have in mind is that these incentives lead PTAs to inhibit the ultimate degree of global trade liberalization, this presumption can be overturned when dynamic considerations are taken into account or when countries can negotiate the degree of multilateral liberalization rather than facing a binary choice over global free trade. Promising areas for pushing this theoretical literature forward include the growing use of quantitative trade models, incorporating rules of origin and global value chains, modeling the issues surrounding “mega-regional” agreements, and modelling the possibility of exit from PTAs. Empirical evidence in the literature is mixed regarding whether PTAs lead to trade diversion or trade creation, whether PTAs have significant adverse effects on non-member terms-of-trade, whether PTAs lead members to lower external tariffs on non-members, and the role of PTAs in facilitating deep integration among members.
The rise in obesity and other food-related chronic diseases has prompted public-health officials of local communities, national governments, and international institutions to pay attention to the regulation of food supply and consumer behavior. A wide range of policy interventions has been proposed and tested since the early 21st century in various countries. The most prominent are food taxation, health education, nutritional labeling, behavioral interventions at point-of-decision, advertising, and regulations of food quality and trade. While the standard neoclassical approach to consumer rationality provides limited arguments in favor of public regulations, the recent development of behavioral economics research extends the scope of regulation to many marketing practices of the food industry. In addition, behavioral economics provides arguments in favor of taxation, easy-to-use front-of-pack labels, and the use of nudges for altering consumer choices. A selective but careful review of the empirical literature on taxation, labeling, and nudges suggests that a policy mixing these tools may produce some health benefits. More specifically, soft-drink taxation, front-of-pack labeling policies, regulations of marketing practices, and eating nudges based on affect or behavior manipulations are often effective methods for reducing unhealthy eating. The economic research faces important challenges. First, the lack of a proper control group and exogenous sources of variations in policy variables make evaluation very difficult. Identification is challenging as well, with data covering short time periods over which markets are observed around slowly moving equilibria. In addition, truly exogenous supply or demand shocks are rare events. Second, structural models of consumer choices cannot provide accurate assessment of the welfare benefits of public policies because they consider perfectly rational agents and often ignore the dynamic aspects of food decisions, especially consumer concerns over health. Being able to obtain better welfare evaluation of policies is a priority. Third, there is a lack of research on the food industry response to public policies. Some studies implement empirical industrial organization models to infer the industry strategic reactions from market data. A fruitful avenue is to extend this approach to analyze other key dimensions of industrial strategies, especially decisions regarding the nutritional quality of food. Finally, the implementation of nutritional policies yields systemic consequences that may be underestimated. They give rise to conflicts between public health and trade objectives and alter the business models of the food sector. This may greatly limit the external validity of ex-ante empirical approaches. Future works may benefit from household-, firm-, and product-level data collected in rapidly developing economies where food markets are characterized by rapid transitions, the supply is often more volatile, and exogenous shocks occur more frequently.