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How U.S. Trade Policies are Speeding the Development of a Multi-Polar Global Economy

trade

How U.S. Trade Policies are Speeding the Development of a Multi-Polar Global Economy

Several years in to the multi-front trade conflict led by the current U.S. administration, the world economy teeters on the edge of a possible recession.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that up to $700 billion in global trade could be wiped off the books by the end of next year due to the trade war.  Much of the direct loss, of course, is tied to reduced trade between the U.S. and China, but other trading regions, such as the rest of Asia and Europe, are impacted by this global slowdown.  How is this shaping future trade flows?

Of course, there are some immediate winners in this tussle between the two economic giants.  Countries such as Mexico and Vietnam have seen sharp increase in trade as businesses scramble to find new production sites that would allow them to duck tariffs. Hidden behind these headlines, however, is perhaps a more important story; the rapid development of a multi-polar global economy.

Observers wringing their hands over the U.S.-China trade dispute may have missed what else is going on in the world.  Europe has been negotiating trade agreements at a rapid clip, finalizing deals with Canada, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, several African regions and South America (MERCOSUR) over the last three years.  Africa is launching the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a 54-nation trade block that is hoped will dramatically increase inter-African trade. After a snub from the U.S., the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was retitled the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and is now an active free trade area among 11 partner nations.  Asian countries are considering a 16-nation trade pact called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).  In brief, world leaders are not sitting on their hands waiting for the U.S.-China dispute to get resolved.  They are seizing opportunities to trade elsewhere.

World demographics make this multi-polar trading system inevitable.  Despite the United States’ tremendous economic power, it represents less than five percent of the world population. Although it is a wealthy sliver of the overall market, that means that 95% of the world’s consumers still reside elsewhere.  Over the next few decades, rapid population growth in Asia and Africa will continue to change these market numbers, with 79% of the world’s consumers residing in Africa or Asia by 2050. The global middle class will continue to grow outside of ‘traditional markets’ and by 2030, over half of the world population will be considered middle class.  Some estimates suggesting that over 90% of future middle class growth will come in Asia and Africa. 

This dramatic surge in wealth and consumer spending power outside of Europe, the U.S. and Japan demands more infrastructure to support logistics.  China’s initiatives to help itself carve out a primary role in developing these new markets through the Belt and Road program are well known, but Europe has also jumped into the seize a piece of the action, especially in Africa, and programs to upgrade infrastructure at the state level are fueling building from South America to the Philippines. 

It’s my expectation global trade will become even more fragmented over the next decades,” notes European logistics expert Louis Coenders, owner of the Dutch advising firm De Transportheker, which has been consulting on transportation, warehousing, and global distribution since 2010 and has stressed to clients the growing importance of diversity in logistics as the world becomes multipolar.  “You cannot rely on one single source. From a risk management perspective, it’s never smart to put all your eggs into one basket. That also applies to international trade.”  Coenders further noted that the growing middle class in places like Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa will encourage infrastructure changes to bring products into these markets as consumer spending rises.  For the moment China has an edge into many of these areas, as illustrated by the first train shipments from Alibaba arriving into Liege, Belgium just last week as twice-a-week rail shipments are now sent directly from China to the EU courtesy of the improved rail system.

When the U.S. resolves its trade disputes with China (and potentially the EU, Turkey, Russia and other targets of the current administration), it will find that the unintended consequence of this long-term conflict is that the world has by necessity sped up economic exchanges, and adjusted trading systems and flows to accommodate this new multi-polar world.  While some of the trade may ‘come back’ to the United States, the changes in world population and fast-paced creation of new free trade blocks outside of North America means that other markets will seize this opportunity to deepen their trade relations and the U.S. will find itself in a more competitive and varied trading environment. This change was inevitable, but the recent trade war has sped up its development.  Agile, strategic companies will react to this market change by diversifying and partnering with colleagues in the growing markets of Africa and Asia. Those that are slow to change will find it hard to remain competitive in this brave new trade world.

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Kirk Samson is the owner of Samson Atlantic LLC, a Chicago-based international business consulting company which offers market research, political risk assessment, and international expansion assistance.  Mr. Samson is a former U.S. diplomat and international law advisor who lived and worked in ten different countries.

world trade

Simon Paris, Chair of the World Trade Board & CEO of Finastra, Provides a Snapshot of this year’s World Trade Symposium

Protecting world trade from the current vicious cycle of trade tensions makes it imperative that those in a position to effect change – public and private sectors – work together; quickly and cohesively. Chairman of the World Trade Board and CEO of Finastra, Simon Paris, discusses three ways in which committed organizations can bring about a new pro-trade paradigm, even against the backdrop of today’s protectionist narrative, to lift people out of poverty globally and enable long-term growth and prosperity for all.

Across the globe, protectionist rhetoric and policy initiatives have become increasingly normalized. Tensions and tariffs continue to escalate with the World Trade Organization estimating that $339.5bn1 in trade is now at risk from import restrictions – the second highest level ever recorded. Amidst this trend, we as business leaders, policy makers, and engaged thinkers must deepen our commitment to free and open trade benefiting communities and workers.

The path to open trade and ensuing economic growth is under shadow. The global economic uncertainty2 risk index hit an all-time high this year. Ongoing friction between the United States and China has not only caused a tangible 12% drop in US imports from China, but triggered aftershocks across other Asian economies as a result of closely integrated supply chains3. Japan and Korea have made headlines with their own trade war that risks their trade relationship worth about $85 billion a year4 and the future economic relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union amidst Brexit is uncertain.

In response free traders should commit to three acts of solidarity, with the aim of reversing – or as an absolute minimum, reducing – the pervasive change that continues to threaten trade as we know it.

Three commitments that will drive change

Firstly, we must be persistent in our reinforcement of the pro-trade narrative; uniting to protect and promote open trade as the unequivocal foundation for global prosperity and economic inclusion. Secondly, we must continue to investigate ways in which we can reduce the SME funding gap, currently estimated at $1.5 trillion5, which is precluding both innovation and financial independence on a global scale. It is imperative that we seek out new ways to free up finance or neutralize the perceived risk of lending to small firms. At a time where the least developed countries represent less than 1% of world exports6, we must find solutions that unlock the latent value within SMEs to stimulate competition, innovation and economic growth, and reduce the disparity of wealth in a sustainable way.

Finally, we must examine how open technology can act as the enabler for inclusive, sustainable trade. As global supply chains become increasingly complex, our goal should not be measured on a binary figure of turnover or profit, but on the ethical and sustainable impact of our technological innovation; our technological social responsibility (TSR). How can we use technology, collectively, to ascertain the provenance of materials, improve the health and wellbeing of workers in remote locations, reduce the cause and effects on environment pollution of long-distance transportation or minimize the impact of waste and disposal? How can we use open finance technologies – and by this, I include open systems, open software, open APIs, open standards and open partner networks – to transform supply chains and encourage the formulation of more relevant and inclusive trade models, in support of ethical trade?

Protecting against threats, known and unknown

A global marketplace helps ensure a sustainable model of financial inclusion that protects future generations against wealth disparity and isolation. I believe that it is only through a powerful combination of forward-thinking policies, collaborative mindsets and funding, underpinned by open finance technology, that we can deliver the change so desperately required, that promotes equality and opportunity, and reverses the trend of poverty and protectionism. It is time to find solutions to today’s threats to open trade and together protect against further polarization and the unseen threats of tomorrow.

Simon Paris will be opening the third World Trade Symposium, held in the Grand Hyatt, New York on 6-7 November. The event brings together policy-makers, trade finance luminaries and thought leaders to openly collaborate and effect change. Register Today!


1. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/trdev_22jul19_e.htm

2. http://policyuncertainty.com/

3. https://www.oecd.org/newsroom/international-trade-statistics-trends-in-first-quarter-2019.htm

4. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/28/business/japan-south-korea-trade.html

5. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/spra_e/spra241_e.htm

6. https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/wts2019_e/wts2019_e.pdf

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Simon takes responsibility for Finastra’s strategic direction and growth. His leadership steers the company as it realizes its open platform vision, encouraging industry-wide collaboration to spark innovation and transform the next generation of financial services.

A firm believer in the principles of doing well by doing good, Simon chairs the World Trade Board and is passionate about how technology and open trade can drive financial inclusion and improve people’s lives.

An inspiring and trusted Fintech thought leader, Simon speaks regularly at large-scale events including the annual World Trade Symposium, Paris FinTech Forum and The Milken Asia Summit. He is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion, with refreshing and candid views on equality in the workplace. He was also named in Bank Innovation’s ‘Innovators to Watch’ list for 2018.

Simon joined Finastra (formerly Misys) as President in 2015, was appointed Deputy Chief Executive Officer in 2017 and became Chief Executive Officer in June 2018. He brings more than 20 years of sales, management and global leadership expertise to the company, having previously held the role of President, Industry Cloud, at SAP. Prior to that he was a senior consultant with McKinsey & Company.

He holds a degree in Business Administration (MBA) from the INSEAD Business School in France and a Bachelor’s degree in Business & European languages from the European Business School.

Vietnam

Why Washington Shouldn’t see Vietnam as the Next China

In a recent Senate Finance Committee report, U.S. Trade Czar Robert Lighthizer opined that Vietnam must take action to curb its growing trade surplus with the U.S., including removing barriers to market access for U.S. companies.

While it is true that Vietnam’s trade surplus has grown significantly in 2019, much of it is the result of the trade war between the U.S. and China that has prompted importers to source from Vietnam as an alternative to China.

Rather than attempt to stunt Vietnam’s trade surplus through tariffs or other trade actions, Washington should be establishing alliances with countries in Southeast Asia as part of its quest to ensure balanced trade and market stability.

Lighthizer’scomments were in response to queries from the Committee and echoed previous statements made by White House administration officials who have identified Vietnam as one of several countries to watch with respect to trade activity. And while there hasn’t been a direct threat of imposing tariffs on Vietnamese imports, the recent implementation of a 400% duty on Vietnamese steel imports and the recent rhetoric in Washington regarding transshipment has many businesses nervous that their new safe haven may be the President’s next target for trade action.

Troublesome to United State Trade Representative (USTR) is that the surplus thus far in 2019 is already more than 30% higher than it was at this time last year, making Vietnam the leading nation in terms of percentage increase of import value in 2019.

Hastening trade imbalance

Washington has been at least somewhat complicit in hastening Vietnam’s growing trade surplus. Since the U.S. began imposing tariffs on China-origin goods, many U.S. companies (and some Chinese companies) have been looking to shift production to neighboring markets in Asia. A recent poll of U.S. companies by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in China showed that more than 40% of American companies with production in China were looking to move to a neighboring country if they hadn’t already done so. These include the likes of Dell, HP, Steve Madden, Brooks and others. Even non-U.S. companies, like Japan’s Nintendo and China’s own electronics giant TCL are looking to shift production out of China and into Vietnam.

Vietnam was an obvious choice for many of these manufacturers looking to circumvent Washington’s onerous tariffs. For years, Vietnam has been investing heavily in improving its roadway and port infrastructure, as well as augmenting its pool of high-skilled laborers so that it can attract large hi-tech giants. The advancements were well-timed to coincide with increasing wages and regulatory restrictions in China that were driving up costs and forcing foreign producers to look elsewhere for low-cost manufacturing alternatives. This was taking place well before the current administration in Washington began cracking down on China’s questionable trade practices.

To be fair, Washington does have some cause for complaint. It’s one of Asia’s worst kept secrets that Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand have become convenient transshipment hubs for Chinese companies looking to circumvent quotas and, more recently, tariffs by making minor tweaks in neighboring countries to products almost wholly manufactured in China and sending them along to the U.S. as “Vietnamese” or “Malaysian” exports. In the end, there is little monetary gain for Vietnam and much opportunity for reputational damage. Hanoi’s incentive for playing along is purely political; it wants to placate China, its much larger neighbor and regional hegemon.

Hanoi has already said it will crackdown on Chinese transshipments labeled as being of Vietnamese origin. Nikkei Asian Review is reporting the Vietnamese government is considering new rules that would require 30% of a good’s price to be comprised of Vietnamese manufacturing for it to be considered as being of Vietnamese origin. Whether or not this will pacify the USTR remains to be seen.

Yet while Chinese transshipments may have been a catalyst to Vietnam’s soaring trade surplus, the ongoing U.S-China trade war has unquestionably accelerated the development of a trend that was only in its infancy a few short years ago.

If Washington is looking to penalize Vietnam for a trade surplus born out of Washington’s trade war with Beijing, where will the cycle of tariffs end?

Options for low-cost sourcing plentiful

Let’s assume Washington succeeds in quelling the growth of Vietnam’s trade surplus by imposing tariffs in the same manner it has with China, the EU and other entities. The likely outcome will be that U.S. companies then look to Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh or Cambodia (as many have already) to replace or supplement their production in China.

Let’s assume that Washington then imposes similar tariffs on imports from those countries. The likely outcome will be that U.S. companies then shift their attention to India, Mexico or any other country that offer lower cost labor and limited regulatory burden. And on and on it goes.

Washington wants to see production repatriated back to the United States, but only six percent of American companies moving production out of China are looking at reshoring their manufacturing facilities. One of the key reasons is that the facilities currently in China are intended to support regional exports and reshoring production to the U.S. would result in unnecessary transport costs and time in transit. In other cases, the cost of moving production to the U.S. could be too onerous to allow companies to compete globally.

A battle worth waging – along with friends and allies

This is not to suggest Washington’s war on China’s unsavory trade practices is unjust or futile. On the contrary, China’s history of misappropriating intellectual property through technology transfer, cybersecurity incidents and other trade violations requires America to act. But tariffs only punish American companies that will continue to shift their production as necessary to reduce their landed costs.

Instead of reprimanding and punishing countries like Vietnam with tariffs in response to growing trade surpluses, Washington should be working with them to forge alliances that will ensure China is forced to play by the rules.

If the U.S. truly wants to stave off bad actors such as China from continuing to abuse the global trade’s rule-based system, it will need the support of friends and allies in the eastern and western hemispheres. Acting alone and imposing unilateral restrictions only throws Washington into a battle of wills for which collateral damage is certain, but the outcome remains unknown.

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Cora Di Pietro is vice president of Global Trade Consulting at trade-services firm Livingston International. She is a frequent speaker and lecturer at industry and academic events and is an active member of numerous industry groups and associations. She can be reached at cdipietro@livingstonintl.com.