Trade is global game

By Country News on March 17, 2017
  • Trade is global game

    While everyone is ‘‘shocked and horrified’’ by President Trump’s protectionist approach, Mr Every questions whether the US would go back to completely free trade.

Phrases such as ‘do not pass go’ and ‘get out of jail free’ bring back memories of a bygone childhood.

An economist has used the revival of board games, like Monopoly, to unravel the dilemma now facing global trade from the growing threat of protectionism.

Michael Every, head of Rabobank financial markets research for the Asia Pacific, used his amusing yet worrying ‘‘great game of global trade’’ line at a conference in Canberra last week.

Mr Every said Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly, Risk (the game of world domination) and Solitaire could explain the world trade outlook under a Donald Trump United States presidency.

He said contemporary politics centred around the economic rule of ‘‘comparative advantage’’, the equivalent of Snakes and Ladders when it came to trade because some countries climbed the ladder while others slipped down.

For example, 50 years ago Thailand had a strong agricultural base, but today it is a huge exporter of cars, which has seen it shift up the ladder.

‘‘If we all specialise, output is maximised ... we are all better off playing Snakes and Ladders,’’ he told the annual Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Sciences Outlook conference.

However, populists and protectionists liken free trade to Monopoly or a market dominated by a single entity.

They believe it is better playing Solitaire and just trading internally.

‘‘If the US steps back and starts to play Solitaire, and politically that is what we are starting to see ... global trade is going to come under stress and strain,’’ Mr Every said.

Other countries will move from playing Snakes and Ladders to saying the only way to get ahead is through Monopoly.

‘‘If too many countries play Monopoly at the same time then we are all going ... to start playing Risk, which is where things start to get pretty worrying,’’ he warned of the game of conflict and conquest.

Those type of political pressures were seen in the lead-up to World War I when free trade across Europe completely disappeared and only got back into full swing after World War II.

The US had been firmly protectionist until after World War II, but now the US dollar is key to world trade.

While everyone is ‘‘shocked and horrified’’ by President Trump’s protectionist approach, Mr Every questions whether the US would go back to completely free trade under the next president, and return to importing more than the country exports.

He said it was fine for emerging economies to import capital goods because they were investing in their future.

But if you are importing consumer goods, every dollar you spend is a dollar you could be spending at home and arguably trade deficits can reduce jobs and income.

‘‘Even if he is saying it in a very angry, inarticulate way, there is some logic to what Trump is saying and I don’t think politically it is going to be very easy for people to push back against that,’’ Mr Every said.

So what’s next?

Mr Every said the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal of 12 countries was dead and the new China-centric Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership would not work either.

That’s because China is the only one with a large surplus in this potential grouping that includes Australia.

Mr Every said everyone else had small surpluses or small deficits, so the group would not balance out.

At the same time China’s ‘‘one belt, one road’’ trade ambition, which spreads beyond Asia to the West if mapped out on a Risk board would make the Asian giant the winner.

But what currency is going to be used when the US dollar-denominated world economy is no more?

Mr Every said the Chinese renminbi was ‘‘irrelevant’’ as globally traded currency.

‘‘Global trade will really start to get very gummed up, financial markets will become extremely volatile.

But there is another giant game being played. ‘‘It’s above all of our heads and it’s poker, very high states poker between the US and China.’’

It certainly isn’t Tiddlywinks.

By Country News on March 17, 2017

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