Global Head of Business Management, HSBC’s Trade Finance Business
For the past few years, in many parts of the world, a protectionist mindset has been challenging the continuing trend of globalization. This mindset, if it spreads further, could endanger the many benefits of more open international trade—which include allowing multinational supply chains to become more flexible and versatile, giving consumers throughout the world better selection and lower prices, and helping pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Open trade has also facilitated innovation and economic cooperation. The most recent example is the expansion of international e-commerce, which has given smaller businesses and those in developing economies access to global markets.
The current wave of protectionism, which has seen the imposition of new tariffs and other trade restrictions, is slowing down these positive developments. The COVID-19 pandemic represents a further deep shock to global trade. It is prompting a reconfiguration of value chains around the world, as countries look to reduce their reliance on certain foreign suppliers and increase their self-sufficiency in strategic industries, and as firms seek to reduce their dependence on single sources of supply. There is a real risk that these trends may further fuel a damaging spiral of trade restrictions and retaliation.
New research conducted by BCG and HSBC for the Business Twenty (B20) has analyzed a range of scenarios that quantify the collective economic implications of the choice between rising protectionism and liberal trade policy reform.
Conversely, if increasing protectionism prevails around the world, it will impose a persistent drag on GDP growth in a global economy already struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. In a worst-case scenario in which COVID-19 proves to be more difficult than expected to control and contain, an even greater shortfall in growth would result.
The data and analysis also suggest that every country would benefit from the pursuit of open trade, including countries that are currently heading down a protectionist path or seeking to isolate their industries from outside competition. Of course, a global regime oriented toward open and fair trade would still face many challenges. For example, no matter what happens, the world will have to confront the daunting task of enabling economic recovery, including rebuilding sectors and trade routes that have suffered structural damage as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in an open economic and trade atmosphere, the global economy would have a head start measuring in the trillions of dollars.
Economists have debated the risks and merits of free trade since the 18th and 19th centuries, when Adam Smith and David Ricardo debunked the tenets of mercantilism. So when the B20 Trade and Investment Taskforce asked BCG and HSBC to evaluate the costs of protectionism over a five-year time horizon, we looked for a substantive, analytic approach. As a basis for analysis, we used the BCG Global Trade Model, which has been reliable in predicting global merchandise trade flows. (See the sidebar.)
The most illuminating insights come from a comparison of two extreme scenarios of merchandise trade: a “rising protectionism” future, in which average global tariffs rise, the current tariffs associated with US-China trade tensions remain in place for the medium term, and countries adopt very few new trade-facilitating measures; and an “open and fair trading” future, in which countries support open borders and a rule-based, multilateral system. At first, in both scenarios, trade volume rises in 2021 from its 2020 numbers, as the world economy begins recovering from COVID-19. But in the “rising protectionism” scenario, the value of trade levels off by 2022, and GDP levels off soon after. This creates a vicious cycle, in which diminished business confidence provokes even more protectionist competition, lasting at least through 2025.
The “open and fair trading” scenario has similar momentum, but in the opposite, positive direction, with annual trade and GDP growth continuing through 2025. An effective World Trade Organization (WTO), new trade agreements, tariff reductions, and trade-facilitating measures such as mutual recognition of technical standards and expedited administrative procedures increase market access for companies and enable the growth of international e-commerce. The additional compound growth in trade value (compared to the current baseline) reaches 2 to 2.6 percentage points, followed by further GDP growth of 1.8 to 2.3 percentage points per year.
To assess the consequences of choosing a less ambitious set of trade-opening policies, we have also modeled a more modest scenario reflecting incremental improvements in the trading system. This scenario still delivers modest benefits to trade and GDP over the baseline status quo scenario, but with much less momentum for COVID-19 recovery. Exhibit 1 shows all three scenarios, plus a straightforward projection continuing the current baseline status quo.
By 2025, the difference in economic vitality is dramatic. In the “open and fair trading” scenario, the G20 economies would enjoy a five-year cumulative positive material impact in trade value of $4.7 trillion to $6.3 trillion over the baseline projection scenario. (The range depends on the pace of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.) That is an increase of almost 30% in the global trade value of goods exported, compared to today. In the “rising protectionism” scenario, the G20 countries endure a cumulative five-year lost opportunity in trade value ranging from $3.4 trillion to $4.9 trillion.
It is noteworthy that service industries represent a large portion of GDP, especially in developed markets. If we were to include them in the preceding figures, the value of easing trade restrictiveness would be even more substantial. But trade in services is harder to liberalize because it is challenging to measure and generally subject to national regulation, such as in transportation, telecommunications, and professional services. This explains in part why the global value of trade in goods remains about three times as high as that of trade in services.
The stated goal of trade protectionism is to protect the economic interests of select domestic industries or companies. But in a world dominated by production along global value chains, trade restrictions may harm the very industries advocating protectionism, as well as hurting end-use consumers.
To be sure, there can be business risks associated with open trade, and some of them have been especially evident during the COVID-19 crisis. Reliance on any single country or source can make private-sector supply chains more brittle. For countries, relying solely on foreign manufacturers for critical supplies (such as personal protective equipment, medical devices, vaccines, or non-pandemic-related supplies such as computer chips or critical materials) can create vulnerability.
But the solution is not to restrict trade. It is to diversify it, developing more flexible, versatile, and therefore resilient supply chains that take into account long-range needs and give every country an opportunity to participate. Fortunately, more and more countries are becoming competitive as manufacturing centers. In addition, emerging production and logistics technologies, such as digital fabrication, provide greater opportunities for diversification and offer trade opportunities for buyers and sellers of intermediary goods.
Business leaders could recommend and advocate several direct measures to move the world toward an open and fair trade scenario. These include the following five:
Naturally, an individual country cannot create an open and fair trade policy environment unilaterally. Like vaccination, fair trade requires critical mass to be effective. Indeed, the history of trade growth over the past 30 years suggests that trade growth and trade policy innovation and openness often influence each other, with powerful benefits to overall prosperity. (See Exhibit 2.) That’s why WTO reform is vital, not as a one-off initiative, but as a continuing series of efforts to reestablish the WTO as a credible ongoing arbiter of disputes and a forum for developing and deepening multilateral agreements. Policymakers also need to move beyond focusing on tariffs; they should aim to facilitate trade by reducing nontariff impediments—such as customs costs and delays, paper-based processes, intellectual property rights, and misalignment between standards and regulations—to trade in goods and services. Liberalized trade in services such as logistics services in ports or telecommunications services for e-commerce is an important complement to increased trade in goods, even though it is difficult to measure and regulate. In this context, services liberalization not only is a positive policy in its own right, but also provides useful leverage on trade in merchandise.
In the current geopolitical environment, trust and collaboration among economies must return to their former levels. We believe that even though trade disputes have grown more contentious, many of the differences are manageable, given the political will and a broad consideration of societal interests. Moreover, many examples of international cooperation during the COVID-19 crisis show that it is still possible to collaborate globally toward collectively beneficial results.
The time to start is now. As the world emerges from the worst pandemic and deepest recession in generations, trade openness can be a powerful engine of economic growth and social development. With appropriate policies and international agreements in place, increases in international merchandise trade value—which had reached a historic peak of $18 trillion in 2018 and 2019—should act as a powerful catalyst for faster economic recovery. Business, government, and social enterprise leaders all have reasons to advocate for prosperity, and ample data indicates that the “open and fair trading” future offers the best path to achieving this objective.
This article would not have been possible without the contributions of Nikhil Dangayach, Iacob Koch-Weser, and Stephanie Resch (BCG), and Douglas Lippoldt, Shanella L. Rajanayagam, and Eugen Taso (HSBC).