International Trade: A New Chapter in History

I
nternational political observers were shocked by Brexit and then Donald Trump‘s US Presidential victory. These two events are potent enough to unnerve the contemporary global order: first, in matters relating to security and, second as to trade. By the end of next March, Theresa May will likely invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and the complex process of Britain’s divorce from the European Union (EU) begins.

Also, it now has been a more than a month into Trump’s administration; and his flurry of Executive Orders have rocked the Washington, DC establishment.

This article examines the future of Multinational Corporations (MNCs) under this new Trump era and – with Brexit clearly on track - how MNCs will respond.  Some global firms may arguably be in retreat given the political uncertainty introduced by these changes.

During the 20th century, China was lowering its bulwarks to trade and other exchange and started opening up to the world and the Soviet Union collapsing.   The age of ‘Consumerism,’ had begun as Francis Fukuyama wrote in his seminal essay “The End of History.” At that time the idea of a global firm seemed quite attractive and lucrative. There was a vacuum, a space to be filled and the idea of the global firm was to fill this space.   Companies grew, businesses sprawled begetting supply chains and creating jobs, trade relationships, luring stakeholders.   Their businesses entail supply chains that cover 50% of world trade.   Nevertheless, the global arbitrage that international trade has created is starting to shrink.   Global business have become so large that it is, at times, difficult to manage the perplex, legal and logistical tapestry of carrying them out. Recalling the recent tax case of Apple Inc., Governments are now cracking on companies accused of tax evasion and as a result MNCs are stashing earnings in off-shore tax havens.

To give the above scenario some perspective, consider these facts: according to the UK Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE), the profits of the top 700-odd multinational firms have dropped by 25% and the ROE (return on equity) ratio is down by 7%- from “18% a decade ago to 11%”.   The Economist magazine reported research “examining record of 500 large firms which shows “in eight out of ten sectors multinational firms have expanded their aggregate sales more slowly than their domestic peers”.   We can see local firms, in some places, over taking or at least starting to take in some cases substantial market share from the MNCs. Take for example Uber’s surrender to the Sino giant Didi, in India and where Reliance mobile competing aggressively against Vodafone.   Nevertheless this doesn’t means that global firms are totally in retreat but that their earlier dominance is now facing some heat from the local firms.

However, in some case global firms may have started to sense a change in hospitality by host countries to investment.   This may provoke US and EU leaders such as Mr. Trump, Marine La Pen and other rightists and nationalists who are arguably perceived to be eager in targeting a scapegoat with their protectionist agendas.   So, we see Mr. Trump’s success in exploiting the sentiments of the US people by peppering his slogans with rightest promises. His policies at face value may appear productive - that is, reducing taxes (now taking the shape of Border Adjustment tax), less regulations and bringing jobs back but they have caused an unnecessary and unwanted surge in the US dollar.   This has led Janet Yellen to hint at an interest rate hike when the US Federal Reserve Bank’s FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) meets next month in its policy setting meeting.   It may be argued that a strong US dollar is not good for the US and its trading partners. Donald’s Trump’s proposed “twenty-percent tariff” (against Mexican imports), if implemented, will make the dollar appreciate further causing inflation.   Economists will ask how?   An article in The Atlantic explains by suggesting that “higher tax on imports paired with lower taxes on exports will theoretically cancel each other out, as demand increases for U.S. exports (such exports would be cheaper) and the U.S. will demand fewer foreign goods (since they’ll be more expensive).   Economists assert that this will result in a shift in exchange rates that will offset taxes: in theory, the dollar will strengthen as a result of increased demand for cheaper American-made products.   As a result of a stronger dollar, American-made products will be more expensive and foreign goods will become cheaper as a stronger dollar increases purchasing power thus, offsetting the import tax”.

Brexit is another complex facet where uncertainty is growing. Theresa May triggers article 50 by the end of next month financial and equity markets embrace for a long stretch of unpredictable negotiations that may take more than two years.   According to many political analysts another key issue remains: immigration.   In any case the EU is not going to allow the UK to enjoy preferential treatment without it (UK) allowing the free movement of people. We are going to see new trade deals between UK and other countries. But the UK is going to lose a huge export market in the form of the EU.

While we read through the tale of the slowdown of global businesses as a whole there exists a business, risk solution to this rise in populism and inclination for protectionism: Political Risk Insurance (or PRI).   Lloyd’s of London, the oldest insurance market in the world, decided to move its subsidiary in Continental Europe after Brexit eventuated. Inga Beale, CEO of Lloyd’s of London, says “. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing much more political-risk insurance being bought all over the place,” in an interview.   Daniel Wagner, a Managing Director of Risk Solutions at Risk Cooperative, describes in an article for the Huffington Post how he predicted in the 1990’s that the PRI industry will grow in the years to come.   He holds the same view today: “The PRI industry stands at a similar precipice today. With the looming possibility of trade wars, deterioration in investment climates, and ever tightening lending standards, there is every reason to believe that, as much as the industry has grown - and that growth has been dramatic over the past 25 years - it also stands to grow dramatically in the coming 5-10 years.”

Certainly, the world is in the midst of a change. On political and as well as economic front. The global firms, as aforementioned, are already in for a correction. But Mr. Trump’s protectionism, his tweet-tantrums and talks of trade wars and the uncertainty of the British divorce from the EU, which, according to some, bodes ill for the bloc’s future, may accelerate the process of natural adjustment. Such an acceleration is detrimental to the international trade as a whole. We are standing on what seems the first page of this new chapter, let’s hope that there’s a pleasant quirk somewhere ahead.

Osama Rizvi

Independent economic analyst, Writer and Editor

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