Since early autumn 2018, the issue of reforming the World Trade Organization (WTO) has become an increasingly visible item on the global economic agenda. It was one of the central questions posited in the final communique of the G20 Summit that took place in Buenos Aires on November 30 – December 1, and the parties intend to tackle it again at the next meeting in Tokyo.
The WTO is traditionally considered the third institution of the Bretton Woods system. However, while the first two – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) – started functioning shortly after the end of World War II, it took 47 years of excruciating negotiations to create the third part, a universal trade organization. The establishment of the WTO in April 1994 following the Uruguay Round of negotiations (1986–1993) should rightly be considered the greatest event in economic relations in the 20th century. However, the tremendous success had a certain reverse side: contradictions and issues between member countries remained. This predetermined the future need to reform the WTO.
Trade Wars are a Signal for Action
The problem of the institutional reform of the WTO has been discussed at the level of experts for at least the last 15 years. However, it has never gone beyond the scope of an academic discussion, and for serious reasons too. The older generation of trade diplomats and experts remembers all too well the excruciating negotiations at the Uruguay Round, which were accompanied by crippling crises and contradictions between the parties. Hammering out compromises was a Herculean task, and the agreement on establishing the WTO crowned those compromises.
It is precisely because of these features of the WTO’s protracted birth that representatives of various countries, recognizing the need to reform the organization, were fully cognizant of how difficult and risky such a reform will be in practice. That is why each and every time discussions ended the same way: the GATT/WTO system has been functioning for 70 years, and even though it has its problems, no one can guarantee that a reform will not make things worse. Nowadays, the situation has been noticeably radicalized due to the new U.S. protectionist policies and the trade wars it started “with the entire world.”
The Administration of the 45th US President has embarked upon a course of open criticism and attacks on universal trade rules. In late February 2017, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) delivered the Trade Policy Agenda and Annual Report to Congress. The document emphasized that given the “unfair trade practices” of other countries, the United States can disregard the WTO rules and conduct a more “aggressive” trade policy in protecting its national interests.
On June 1, 2018, Washington imposed increased import tariffs on metals from the European Union, Canada and some other countries to 25 per cent for steel and 10 per cent for aluminium. The current U.S. administration believes that domestic steel production has fallen sharply in the recent years, and this threatens national security. However, Europe and Canada see the legal justification for Washington to increase tariffs as being completely unacceptable.
Partners Reject U.S. Protectionist Measures
Within the WTO, each country has its commitments based on the rules developed during the Uruguay Round. These rules allow import restrictions in three very specific situations: in cases of dumping; the use of illegal subsidies; and if there is a threat to national industries due to a sharp increase in imports. In each case, the damage from the above-stated actions of a supplier country must be substantiated. The damage is assessed in the course of an appropriate transparent investigation that involves all the parties. The current U.S. measures do not fit into any of these scenarios, and instead it is being justified by “reasons of national security.” This, however, gives the matter an entirely different legal twist.
The WTO legal framework does stipulate restricting market access for reasons of national security: appropriate measures are possible in cases of illegal trade in weapons and nuclear materials, the danger of armed conflicts, a terrorist threat, etc. Therefore, in such cases, every state itself determines the measures for restricting access to its market under Article XXI of GATT, which is devoted entirely to “reasons of national security.” The difficulty with applying Article XXI of GATT is that its application mechanism is still not quite specific; a state that introduces restrictions under this article acts as the ultimate judge in the dispute.
The United States offers a very subjective formulation of “reasons of national security” that is clearly detached from the current international rules. Washington sees a threat to national security in the sharp drop in domestic metal production, even though such a situation is essentially a consequence of regular international competition.
European countries and Canada were shocked by the fact that the United States imposes tariffs against them out of “reasons of national security.” As the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker emphasized, “these unilateral U.S. tariffs are unjustified and at odds with World Trade Organization rules. This is protectionism, pure and simple.” President of France Emmanuel Macron called the U.S. administration’s decision illegal and mistaken. Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau spoke rather sharply at the June 2018 G7 Summit in Quebec calling Washington’s measures “punitive,” “unacceptable” and “insulting.”
Following repeated attempts to convince Washington that its protectionist measures were unfounded, in late November 2018, the European Union, along with China, Canada, Norway, Mexico, Russia and Turkey, and then India and Switzerland filed a complaint against the United States with the WTO’s Appellate Body concerning the illegality of the steel and aluminium tariffs imposed by the United States. In the complaint, the plaintiffs intend to challenge the U.S. tariffs as protective and simultaneously prove that the United States cannot invoke reasons of national security. This demarche against the United States by nine countries at once is a rather convincing proof that the WTO’s leading members are resisting Washington’s attempts to revise the existing rules of international trade.
Thus, the U.S. administration believes that it can protect its domestic market and ensure its foreign trade interests on the basis of its domestic trade legislation. Over the course of 2018, Washington primarily invoked two legislative acts. Under the Trade Act of 1974, the United States can impose penalty tariffs on countries that discriminate against American goods. The second is the 1962 Trade Expansion Act that allows the United States to restrict import of goods that would “threaten to impair the national security.” This act served as a legal justification for Washington to increase import tariffs on steel and aluminium starting June 1, 2018.
Europe, Canada and Japan believe that using legal acts that are over 50 years old is odd at the very least, since in the intervening decades, international economic regulations have changed drastically, the principal change being the emergence of a full-fledged multilateral regulation institution, i.e. the WTO, which was to a great degree promoted by the United States. Strictly speaking, the moment the WTO became operative in January 1995, the United States did not invoke the provisions of those domestic acts since it believed itself to be bound, like other WTO members, by the WTO’s commitments.
Every Side has its Arguments on Reforming the WTO
In March 2018, the United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer presented the latest version of the U.S. administration’s annual agenda in trade policies. The agenda concerns such issues as reforming the WTO, trade agreements with other countries and the application of U.S trade laws. The document is critical of the trade policies of previous administrations and simultaneously claims to reach a qualitatively new level in trade policies under the Trump administration.
Lighthizer’s report states that the U.S. administration is dissatisfied with the existing rules and their application in such areas as labour conditions, competition policies and the medical equipment market. It notes the investigations of U.S. officials into China’s violations of U.S. intellectual property rights. In essence, the report justifies instances of applying U.S. trade laws from the 1960s–1970s in order to protect national security interests, which cannot but cause concerns, since these laws are applied separately from the WTO rules and the commitments that the United States has undertaken as part of the organization.
As for the current multilateral negotiations at the Doha Round, Washington has specific grievances in that area, which may be considered justified to a certain extent. For instance, the United States is not satisfied with their highly stilted character, the impossibility of achieving new agreements other than at the biennial WTO ministerial conferences, and what the United States views as the outdated agenda of the Doha Round.
What is more, in recent years, the United States has not hidden its displeasure with the position of a large group of countries within the WTO which, having joined the organization as developing countries, continue to see themselves as such today, despite the fact that they have made significant progress in a number of economic sectors and even outstripped certain developed countries. In addition to this, many developing countries have non-transparent trade policies. Consequently, those WTO members de facto use privileges that Washington deems to be unjustified, which blocks progress in developing new WTO rules and also impedes further liberalization. This is the essence of Washington’s approach to reforming the WTO: eliminate unjustified and unfair privileges held by a group of developing countries that today essentially paralyse the multilateral trade system.
As for the other major player in international trade – the European Union – it has assumed a highly proactive stance on the issue of reforming the WTO. The European Union was the first to publish a list of specific proposals (a concept) on reforming the WTO. Analysing the entire list is rather a task for trade policy experts. It would therefore be appropriate to single out the key points. Even though the European Union’s stance was originally a direct consequence of the wrongfully protectionist measures of the United States towards European manufacturers, the document contains no direct or indirect complaints against Washington, which is largely reasonable, since reforming one of the key institutions of global economic management is too grave an issue to start it by settling scores with an old trade partner.
Essentially, Brussels shares Washington’s position on the matter, as well as its grievances against that group of developing countries that has reached a rather high level of economic development, but has no wish to part with their previously gained privileges
The EU proposals also note that today’s discussions are frequently dominated by the opinion that global trade rules somehow impede trade and, therefore, developing countries need to be exempted from both current and future rules. In fact, today, the differences between developed and many developing countries are not quite as pronounced as they were 25 years ago, when the WTO was established, meaning that the above-mentioned opinion is fundamentally wrong. Obviously, some flexibility in enforcing the compliance of developing countries with the WTO rules should be preserved, but only in those cases where it is necessary. The proposals put forward by Brussels contain specific mechanisms for tackling this task.
The EU concept focuses heavily on modernizing the WTO’s Appellate Body, a crucial organ in the mechanism of resolving disputes within the WTO. The European Union’s stance on the matter was supported in November by Canada, India, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, South Korea, Iceland, Singapore, Mexico and China.
In its proposals on the Appellate Body, Brussels largely takes Washington’s grievances against its current functioning into account. In particular, the European Union proposes limiting the appeals term to 90 days, which had been stipulated earlier, yet the parties often failed to comply with the requirement.
The EU concept also contains a series of initiatives on bolstering the multilateral trade system and improving the efficiency of the WTO.
China, which has been striving to form a united front with other countries that condemn Washington’s protectionism, has also called for a reform of the WTO.
While supporting WTO reform, China has thus far limited its actions to fairly general statements, stressing that the importance and inviolability of the WTO’s basic principles and rules. It would seem that Beijing is unlikely to be unconditionally receptive of Washington’s demands that current privileges for developing countries in the WTO be abolished. In contrast, China will rather put forward the need to fight protectionism, which is a threat to free trade.
As for Russia, it wholeheartedly supports the idea of reforming the WTO. President Vladimir Putin and Minister of Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin recently declared this stance. Russia’s trade diplomacy has quite good positions to take an active part in the process.
In conclusion, we need to emphasize that the nascent process of reforming of the WTO cannot be simple and quick, since the list of problems is too variegated. Above, we have outlined only some of these problems. At a certain stage, the most difficult problem will likely be that of transforming the decision-making system. The consensus mechanism that has been in effect in the GATT/WTO for over 70 years clearly hampers decision-making today, as the organization boasts 164 member countries. However, abolishing this mechanism will not be easy either. This is probably the main challenge to the incipient WTO reform.
First published in our partner RIAC
How to build your entrepreneurial mindset today
An entrepreneurial mindset is a way of life. Even if you aren’t starting your own business, an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that no problem is insurmountable: you can overcome challenges through perseverance and resilience.
Here are five things you can remember to build an entrepreneurial mindset today. If you’re aged between 18-30, why not start by applying to be a Young Champion of the Earth in 2019? Stay tuned—the competition is opening soon!
Transform problems into opportunities
There are so many clues in everyday life. Is there anything that you experience daily that frustrates you? Perhaps it is the prominence of unsustainable materials in your local shop and restaurants, such as plastic straws or unnecessary food packaging? Often, alternatives to problems do exist, but no one has thought of connecting them in specific circumstances. A good example is supplying restaurants and bars with paper straws. Entrepreneurial mindsets apply a lens which identifies problems not as negative issues but as opportunities to be solved, towards creating value in our economy.
Dare to dream and believe in yourself
If you can dream it and believe it, you are halfway there. How big you can dream is a component of your potential for success. Everyone has ideas—but daring to dream big, and then believing in yourself to apply an entrepreneurial mindset and bring them to reality, takes effort. This year, why not push yourself to think creatively? You could come up with a problem once a week, and each week, come up with one matching solution, for example. The key is to think outside the box, to think of a problem as a potential solution.
Know yourself and discover what you are passionate about
Solving problems, especially those associated with the environment, can be daunting. You will constantly be faced with challenges in your journey to change the world. Some environmental challenges feel so large—like those brought about by climate change. But helping to break down large issues into smaller ones which everyone can take steps to solve, is part of the entrepreneurial journey. Remember that you are capable. Find problems that you are passionate about solving and connect with others passionate about solving them too. This will help you through the tough times to stay motivated.
Go for it and don’t take no for an answer
We all have the foundations of an entrepreneurial mindset. We can all identify problems and think up ideas about how to solve them. Being an entrepreneur pushes you to go out there and take actions to achieve them. Often, this process forces you to think through a specific problem in more detail. It helps you to truly understand pathways towards a solution which others might not have thought about. An idea does not have application in the real world if it is not hammered out in real situations. Part of being an entrepreneur requires following this process, identifying real experiences which can be made better or more efficient, and talking with other people who experience similar challenges to find solutions. Using the resources you have at your disposal will force you to be creative. Keep improving your solution. As you go on, you will eventually gain traction and interest. From there, the possibilities are endless.
Learn, embrace uncertainty and accept failure
Eric Ries from the lean startup says that entrepreneurship is “management under conditions of extreme uncertainty”. Forging your own path to solve a problem that no one has solved before is scary—things change constantly. There will be many obstacles and there will be failure. But an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that failures are opportunities to learn in disguise. An entrepreneurial mindset embraces uncertainty and learning, to leverage the opportunities that emerge from the space between them.
Iran’s oil market facing the new sanctions era: What to expect
After an expected hiatus in Iran’s oil exports to some of the country’s main customers following the reimposition of the US sanctions, once again the country’s old buyers are coming back to take advantage of the 180-day window which has been presented by the waivers granted in November.
Although it took some of these buyers more than a month to make necessary arrangements or to contemplate on the matter, it seems that finally the convenience of buying oil from Iran has outweighed the skepticism overshadowing Iranian oil industry.
With the customers coming back everything was seemed to be, once again, in favor of Iran’s oil industry, however the US government’s disappointing comments last weekend could change all the equations for Iran’s oil market in the months to come.
“The United States is not looking to grant more waivers for Iranian oil imports after the reimposition of US sanctions.” Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, told an industry conference in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi.
Considering this new stand, the immediate question which comes to mind is what would become Iran’s oil market after the 180-day period is over? To answer this question two main aspects should be taken into account, one is the consideration of Iran’s ability to bypass the sanctions and the second is the possibility of Iranian oil customers being pushed away in the wake of difficulties resulted from the sanctions.
Even though at first the markets were almost certain about the severe impact of Trump’s plans on Iranian oil industry, but the surprising decision on granting eight countries waivers to continue buying Iranian oil significantly mitigated the harsh outlook.
Now, nearly three months after the reimpostion of the US sanctions on Iran, the market has witnessed that the Iranian oil exports are not plunged as much as expected.
Although due to the confidentiality of Iran’s crude oil sales data, especially in the sanctions era, there is not an exact report for the level of the country’s oil exports in recent months, however based on the estimations presented by institutes which track Iranian oil vessels, the country’s oil exports stood at near 1.1 to 1.3 million barrels per day in November and December.
Furthermore, considering the exempted countries which are going to resume their oil purchasers from January, and the new approaches which Iran is taking to sell its oil like offering oil at energy exchanges or finding new customers, the country can definitely maintain an even higher level of exports in the months to come.
According to a FGE report, Iran will ship 1.08 million barrels per day in January and exports 1.115 million barrels per day in February.
We should not also forget Iran’s experience in bypassing sanctions to sale its oil. As I mentioned before, Iran has acquired certain ways to bypass sanctions and sell its oil even during the sanctions.
Iranian oil buyers
Nearly two months after the US granted eight countries waivers to continue purchasing oil from Iran, recently some of the Asian buyers have signaled willingness for resuming oil imports from the country.
China, India and South Korea have placed orders for loadings in January or February and Japanese refineries have also expressed hope to resume shipping in Iranian oil as from late January provided that some final clearance and paperwork were made.
As reported by S&P Global, the presidents of Japan’s JXTG Holdings and Cosmo Oil stated that they aim to load Iranian barrels at the end of January upon making some final clearances.
“Cosmo Oil aims to load around 1.8 million barrels of Iranian crude at the end of this month” the report read.
Last week, head of South Korea’s SK Innovation, which owns South Korea’s biggest oil refiner SK Energy also told Reuters that South Korean oil buyers are expected to restart Iranian oil imports in late January or early February.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs has also stated recently that the Asian country will continue importing Iranian oil. According to data provided by FACTS Global Energy Group (FGE), four Indian refineries namely, Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum, HMEL and HPCL have placed orders for 321,000 barrels of Iranian oil in February.
Regarding Greece, Italy, and Taiwan which were exempted from the US sanctions, no news has been officially out since November.
Even though Europe opposed Trump’s actions, and have reassured Iran’s government that they want the nuclear deal to continue, refiners in the green continent have had little choice but to comply with sanctions. The US can cut off access to their financial system for any company judged to be doing business with Iran.
The customer preferences
With all that said, there are still other considerations which should be taken into account to have a rather clear view of what to expect for the future of Iranian oil.
The fact that it took near two months for some of the Asian buyers of Iranian oil to make necessary arrangements to come back to Iran’s market, is an indication of the hardships that the customers of Iranian oil will be facing in trade with Iran.
The heavy bureaucratic process which the exempted countries have to go through in order to buy Iranian oil, could push some of the more cautious customers like Japan and even South Korea away from Iran.
Most Asian customers of Iranian oil are very sensitive and conservative in their relations with the United States, and this is likely to be a barrier in the way of their energy relations with Iran.
Japan is a clear example of this situation; despite being granted sanction waiver the Japanese refineries have conditioned the resumption of their purchases upon “making some final clearances”.
Regarding Iranian oil buyers’ future decisions, yet another fact that should be taken into account is the reality that with Saudi Arabia, Russia and US producing almost at their peak, and with prices hovering near $60 there is currently a lot of cheap oil in the market.
In such a market, it is natural that some of the Iranian oil customers prefer to purchase their oil from other oil suppliers instead of exposing themselves to the consequences of breaching the US sanctions.
So in the end, it all comes to the incentives which Iranian government is willing to provide to make its oil attractive enough to worth the risk.
It seems that the country has taken some steps in this regard, since earlier this month, the Iranian Deputy Oil Minister for International Affairs and Trading Amir-Hossein Zamaninia said despite the US. sanctions more oil buyers have approached the country for negotiations.
“Despite US pressures on Iranian oil market, the number of potential buyers of Iranian oil has significantly increased due to a competitive market, greed and pursuit of more profit.” Zamaninia said.
Mentioning “pursuit of more profit” indicates that Iran is probably going to provide its customers with remarkable discounts or provide them with long-term payment plans which considering the current situation in the market seems to be the best decision at the moment.
First published in our partner MNA
Iran: Currency reconversion not a turning point in economic reformation
One of Iran’s main economic policies, under the framework of the sixth five-year development plan, is modification of banking system and reformation of monetary policies, moving forward toward which the Rouhani administration put forward the plan to shift the national currency from Rial to Toman earlier in December 2016 by eliminating specific number of zeroes.
However, the administration decided to postpone implementation of currency reconversion policy in 2016 due to some reasons including the expressed concerns about the time unfitting economic conditions which would ignite inflation and economic instability.
The policy basically seeks to facilitate monetary transactions among the Iranians and match the currency being transcribed in official documents and banking bills (rial) with the one utilized in real daily lives of Iranians (toman). Rial has practically been replaced by Toman in daily transactions as the result of the cumulative inflation over the recent years.
On Saturday, the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) submitted the bill on lopping off four zeroes of the national currency to the cabinet, the act which drew public attention to the issue again, forming a chorus of criticism and speculations.
Through its proposed bill, the CBI seems primarily able to re-empower the depreciated national currency, tangibly decrease the ever-increasing liquidity volume, and make a nominal reduction in prices of goods and services in the country.
The most remarkable achievements of implementing the bill, however, would be a psychological one among the society. Shifting from rial, the free market exchange rate of which is presently about 110,000 against the U.S. dollar, by cutting four zeroes to toman may cover the psychological aspects of the inflationary impacts of rial devaluation, which has unprecedentedly increased prices in Iran. It is said to be able to recover national currency’s value against U.S. dollar to some extent and cool down the inflated prices, as well.
Omitting zeroes from the national currency would surely facilitate calculations and money transfers in daily transactions and would seemingly retaliate for the sharp recent rial devaluation but it should not be expected to improve Iranians purchasing power at all.
It would not have any specific impact on economic indices, inflation, investments, job creation or demand and supply, either.
As a matter of fact, economic stability and single-digit inflation rate are the most significant prerequisites of implementing currency reconversion while Iran is experiencing none of the named factors.
Currency reconversion per se would have an inflationary effect. To curb its inflationary impact, it must be done simultaneous with taking contractionary measures and modifications in monetary policies.
In addition, printing new banknotes and injecting them to the market would impose an amount of costs on the shoulder of the central bank.
Addressing the issue in an interview with the Tehran Times, the Iranian economist and President of Iran World Trade Center Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour said that “the government aims to hit several targets with one shot.”
“It seeks to control money and liquidity volume in the society i.e. cutting four zeroes would change the present 17 quadrillion rials (about $404 billion) of liquidity down to 1.7 trillion rials (about $40.4 million) overnight,” he explained, “but the zeroes will incrementally come back and liquidity will be increased over time, in case CBI continues printing fiat money.”
“The act would appease the public opinion just for a short time when they see the price numbers of the goods and services are decreased but after a while when their income also comes with lower zeroes, they will find out that what has happened has not improved their commonwealth,” he added.
“There is no reason for us to consider a national currency with less zeroes a more valuable one,” Sabzalipour said, “having a strong economy is not necessary related to having a national currency with low number of zeroes but to positive trade balance and high quality of the nation’s livelihood.”
“The decided monetary reconversion is mere a political and a psychological move,” he underscored.
What the government is getting prepared to do should not be expected as a revolutionary step in Iran’s economic and banking reformations, that would bring the nation a better livelihood and a more prosperous economy.
It is a postponed measure that has not been implemented in previous years due to lack of proper economic conditions and it is being done under the circumstances that the country is experiencing the toughest economic conditions in its history thanks to the U.S.-led draconian sanctions and when a rampant inflation rate is expected for the upcoming Iranian year.
The costly currency reconversion would, for sure, facilitate money transfer and calculations in daily transactions and also reduce the volume of exchanged paper money and etc., but its effect would be neutralized and the omitted zeroes would snap back one after the other in the long-run, in case of monetary mismanagement or any other unpredicted international, political or economic event which would threaten the economy.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
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