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Karina's Column

An insider’s view on the City of London and beyond

The lightweight vs the heavyweight


A few simple truths on world trade

Getting to be a heavyweight boxing champion takes many years of training, a top coach and clear rules of engagement. Talent may well be the least of it.

The UK is sadly bereft of all of these as it bravely makes its way in a world where the boxing ring is riven with cracks and the ropes are frayed and broken. Trade giants of the likes of Peter Sutherland and Pascal Lamy built the global trade structure brick by brick, compromise by comprise, backed most notably and most crucially by the US.

But President Donald Trump’s disdain for traditional allies and alliances extends to the World Trade Organisation and its carefully wrought rules, which are in any case due for modernisation in a services and digital centred world. The application of unilateral tariffs on China, leading to an exchange of tit-for-tat, is not the worst of it. Rather, it is taking the fight outside the ring, as Mr Trump did by pressuring Canada to arrest the CFO of Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, or blackmailing Mexico with a progressive 5% tariff on exports if it did not do more to curb illegal immigrants from Central America.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week held out the exciting prospect of a trade deal with the US in 2020. Here are five home truths on global trade which he might wish to share with the nation.

  • Number 1. Protectionism extends across both American political parties. It has been a recurrent theme in US politics since the founding of the country . The only time it has been superseded in the last few decades is when the sitting President was given Fast Track Authority by Congress, unshackling him from Congressional approval. Trump doesn’t hold it now, nor will he even if he wins a second term. Additionally, Democratic House of Representatives leader Nancy Pelosi has made it very clear that a bipartisan group in Congress will block any US/UK trade pact if Brexit imperils peace in Northern Ireland due to the removal of the Irish border backstop.

  • Number 2. Countries closest to you are those you are most likely to trade with. Thus the UK’s largest trading partner is the EU – it may be growing slowly, compared to markets like China, but it is affluent, with trade and commercial trust well established. It also shares a world view which underpins domestic legislation in all EU countries on the environment, food safety and digital privacy. The US has what both the UK and the EU would call lower standards on these issues. Tales of US chlorinated chicken making its way into British supermarkets are not far off the mark.

  • Number 3. The UK’s exports to China are not going to take off like a rocket when and if the UK leaves the EU. Former Prime Minister Theresa May may have spoken of “ambitious future trade arrangements” with China last year. From within the EU, Germany’s exports to China have been far superior to the UK’s at $110 billion compared to $22 billion. The simple truth is that they produce goods and services which the Chinese want more. Nor will the depreciation of sterling help. Despite a 29% fall in the pound’s value since 2000, the UK’s export market share of world trade has fallen, according to a recent Schroders report.

  • Number 4. The EU signed a trade deal with South America’s Mercosur trade block earlier this year. It took two decades of on and off talks. This is not unusual for trade deals. And it may not see the light of day as approval is needed by the Parliaments of countries involved. President Trump’s tweet suggesting a trade deal between the US and the UK within a year was ludicrous.

  • Number 5. Earlier this week Mr Johnson said he wanted trade liberalisation between the UK and the US in products including pillows, cauliflowers, wallpaper and railway carriages – odd that he failed to mention services, 80% of the economy versus 18% for manufacturing. He complained about “some kind of bureaucratic obstacle” stopping the sale of British-made shower trays and “some sort of food and drug administration restriction” stopping the sale of Melton Mowbray pies. These are exactly what trade negotiations are about. Regulatory agencies, like the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), are among the most powerful players at the table.

When it comes to the services sector, it is worth noting what happened at a friendlier time a few years ago when the EU and the US were negotiating a trade deal. The US Treasury adamantly rejected any market opening to the UK’s stellar financial and professional services sector. That won’t change in the more hostile and nationalistic “America First” that now prevails.

In a world of heavyweights, the UK (population 60 million) is a lightweight. As part of the EU (population 450 million), it is a heavyweight that could take on other heavyweights, like the US (population 327 million) and China (population 1.4 billion). On its own, I fear it will be KO’d.