WTO Ruling: 'Free Trade' And 'State Capitalism' Needs Broader Discussion

A recent ruling on countervailing duties and anti-dumping duties by the World Trade organisation:
(bolding is mine)

Senior Economist Ian Fletcher for the Coalition for a Prosperous America offers one point of view:

The American position is that we are entitled to apply what are called “countervailing duties” against products that are subsidized by foreign governments.

And on top of that, we are also entitled to apply duties designed to counteract the practice of dumping, or selling a product below cost in order to destroy foreign competitors.

Both these responses on our part have long histories of being accepted as legitimate, both under international trade law and in economics. (This is why the WTO had originally accepted our position; the new ruling is actually the result of an appeal by China.)

In terms of international law, one can trace the legitimacy of our policies at least as far back as the founding of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the WTO’s predecessor, in 1947.

In terms of economics, their justifying logic is very simple.

In the case of subsidies, free trade only makes sense if it really is free, which means that a thumb on the scale at one end of the transaction justifies a tariff, or counter-subsidy, at the other end.

In the case of dumping, free trade is not justified if one side sells below cost in order to wipe out the other and thus eventually grab the market (or most of it) for itself. Even if the attempt fails, the damage done to our industries will be real, and by then it will be too late.

There’s no serious question about whether China engages in subsidies and dumping. That’s why, in this case, we imposed duties of up to 200 per cent to offset their subsidies, plus up to 265 per cent to counteract their dumping.

Enter state capitalism. The flashpoint of the current dispute centres on the vexed question of what price constitutes dumping in a non-free-market economy.

In a free-market economy like our own, dumping is considered to occur when a product is sold abroad for either less than its production cost, or less than what it is sold for domestically.

Unfortunately, in an economy like China’s, which is so tightly controlled by the government that many prices are essentially whatever the government says they are, this logic doesn’t work. There are no normal prices to observe in order to figure out how big the subsidy is. So the U.S. Government has been using various statistical techniques to calculate the relevant prices.

The WTO has ruled that our techniques are not legit. Bottom line? We’re supposed to overlook the vast panoply of subsidies—ranging from free land to cheap loans and a million different tax credits—because state capitalism makes them tricky to calculate.

 

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