Libya

Global vaccinations for COVID-19 — continued supply chain and production issues and a new wave of infections in many countries delay greater ramp up for some until late in the second quarter of 2021

The world has witnessed the unprecedented development of a number of vaccines in record time to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The development has been the result of widespread cooperation in sharing information and the funding in part by governments and early orders for hundreds of millions of doses if vaccines proved efficacious and safe. In roughly one year since the virus was declared a pandemic by the WHO, individual vaccines have been produced and authorized by one or more governments (some by as many as 70 along with WHO approval).

According to the Financial Times COVID-19 vaccine tracker, as of March 25, nearly 490 million vaccine shots have been administered around the world (based on data from 166 locations). See Financial Times, Covid-19 vaccine tracker: the global race to vaccinate, 25 March 2021, https://ig.ft.com/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker/?areas=gbr&areas=isr&areas=usa&areas=eue&cumulative=1&populationAdjusted=1. The companies with approved vaccines have been ramping up production at their own and at licensed facilities in other countries. Because companies are racing to put in place 3-4 times the global capacity for all vaccines (3.5 billion doses) to produce COVID-19 vaccines (10-14 billion doses by the end of 2021) and because there are complex supply chains and production processes for the new vaccines, there have been various delays which have occurred both at manufacturers and at suppliers. This has been true in the U.S., in the EU, in India and other producing countries. While countries and producers are working on solutions, shortages of certain materials exist and can reduce production of finished vaccines globally.

While the WHO, GAVI, CEPI and UNICEF have set up COVAX to get vaccines to a total of 192 countries, including 92 low- and middle-income countries where materials will be supplied at discounted prices or for free and have a target of two billion doses to participating countries in 2021, there is an early reliance on AstraZeneca’s vaccine whether produced by AstraZeneca or through license by the Serum Institute (SII) in India, the world’s largest vaccine producer.

Unfortunately, many countries are going through a new wave of COVID-19 infections which puts pressure on governments to secure sufficient supplies to address domestic demand. See, e.g., European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, COVID-19 situation update worldwide, as of week 11, updated 25 March 2021, https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases (shows total new reported infections going up globally for the fourth week after a sharp decline after New Year’s). Countries showing large numbers of cases over the last two weeks (whether increases or decreases) include Ethiopia (21,227), Kenya (12,083), Libya (12,852), South Africa (17,646), Argentina (91,023), Brazil (995,861), Canada (48,021), Chile (77,561), Colombia (63,417), Ecuador (18,223), Mexico (66,683), Paraguay (26,252), Peru (98,323), United States (830,346), Uruguay (19,512), Bangladesh (19,938), India (416,683), Indonesia (80,522), Iran (119,383), Iraq (67,344), Jordan (109,594), Lebanon (43,964), Pakistan (38,371), Philippines 969,382), United Arab Emirates (29,506), Austria (39,842), Belgium (50,670), Bulgaria (43,115), Czechia (142,042), Estonia (20211), France (378,370), Germany (162,032), Greece (32,005), Hungary (111,929), Italy (308,890), Moldova (19,82), Netherlands (83,797), Poland (272,046), Romania (70,295), Russian Federation (133,24), Serbia (65,689), Spain (67,833), Sweden (61,666), Turkey (232,705), Ukraine (147,456), United Kingdom (78,063). While many countries do not produce COVID-19 vaccines, the list of countries includes many in the EU as well as Brazil, the United States and India. Brazil’s production of COVID-19 vaccines is not expected to start until May. Below I review developments on vaccination roll-outs in the United States, the European Union and India.

Vaccination roll-out in the U.S., EU and India — three important COVID-19 vaccination production areas

Under the Biden Administration, the United States has drastically improved its performance on COVID-19 vaccinations with 129.3 million vaccinations given by March 24 and with the President announcing his Administration’s revised goal of 200 million shots in arms in his first 100 days in office (April 29). See Financial Times, Biden doubles vaccine goal to 200m in first 100 days, 25 March 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/a1accbdf-0010-426c-9442-feb73b5c8a1d. While the U.S. focus is on getting the U.S. population vaccinated as the first priority, the U.S. has agreed to “loan” 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to Canada and 2.5 million doses to Mexico. The U.S., following a leader’s remote meeting of the Quad (U.S., Japan, India, Australia), agreed to work with the other Quad partners to produce one billion doses in India of a vaccine by the end of 2022 from a U.S. company that would be paid for by Japan and the U.S. and would receive distribution support from Australia for countries in the Indo-Pacific region. See March 12, 2021, COVID-19 vaccines – U.S., Japan, India and Australia agree to one billion doses for Indo-Pacific countries, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/12/covid-19-vaccines-u-s-japan-india-and-australia-agree-to-one-billion-doses-for-indo-pacific-countries/.

The European Union, a major producing location for COVID-19 vaccines and various inputs and a major exporter, has had rollout problems flowing from production problems at AstraZeneca’s EU facilities, concerns by many EU members on whether the vaccine from AstraZeneca was safe (small number of blot clot problems in those vaccinated) and other issues. See New York Times, Where Europe Went Wrong in Its Vaccine Rollout, and Why, March 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/20/world/europe/europe-vaccine-rollout-astrazeneca.html; Financial Times, Nordic nations hold off on AstraZeneca jab as scientists probe safety, 21 March 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/0ef3a623-f3a2-4e76-afbd-94a915b24ad5. With vaccination rates in the EU far behind the U.K. and the U.S. and a number of other countries, this has led to significant internal pressures to ensure that manufacturers were honoring contracts with the EU and has led to two temporary regulations (and an extension) giving EU members authority to stop exports outside of the EU (and excluding the shipments to COVAX low-and middle-income countries). See March 5, 2021, COVID-19 vaccines — France supports Italy’s blockage of a shipment to Australia; while Australia has asked the EU to permit the shipment, Australia will have its own production of AstraZeneca product by the end of March, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/05/covid-19-vaccines-france-supports-italys-blockage-of-a-shipment-to-australia-while-australia-has-asked-the-eu-to-permit-the-shipment-australia-will-have-its-own-production-of-astrazeneca-produc/; European Commission, Commission strengthens transparency and authorisation mechanism for exports of COVID-19 vaccines, 24 March 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_1352; European Commission, 24.3.2021 C(2021) 2081 final COMMISSION IMPLEMENTING REGULATION (EU) …/… of 24.3.2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_1352; European Commission, Commission extends transparency and authorisation mechanism for exports of COVID-19 vaccines, 11 March 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_21_1121. Australia had a shipment stopped by Italy and the EC has been raising concerns in the United Kingdom.

In recent days, Indian producer Serum Institute has notified a number of customers that their orders would be delayed several months. GAVI COVAX has been notified as well, with 40 million doses in April and 50 million in May apparently unlikely to ship. Press articles attribute the delays to the needs within India, though SII has suggested delays are also due to availability issues on certain inputs. The Indian government claims it is simply adjusting schedules in light of internal needs and is not imposing an export ban per se. See, e.g., BBC News, India coronavirus: Why have vaccine exports been suspended?, 25 March 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-55571793; Wall Street Journal, India Suspends Covid-19 Vaccine Exports to Focus on Domestic Immunization, March 25, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/india-suspends-covid-19-vaccine-exports-to-focus-on-domestic-immunization-11616690859#:~:text=An%20Indian%20government%20official%20said,of%20the%20government’s%20vaccine%20program.&text=On%20Tuesday%2C%20the%20government%20said,to%20those%20older%20than%2045; Times of India, India has not banned Covid-19 vaccine exports, 25 March 2021, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-has-not-banned-covid-19-vaccine-exports-sources/articleshow/81693010.cms.

Conclusion

Much of the anticipated ramp up of COVID-19 vaccine production will be happening over the coming months, such that there should be dramatically greater vaccine availability in the coming months. That doesn’t help governments or populations waiting for vaccines. or that are going through a significant ramp up in infections. The pharmaceutical industry and major groups got together earlier this month to explore where the bottlenecks are in ramping up production. See March 12, 2021, The 8-9 March  “Global C19 Vaccine Supply Chain and Manufacturing Summit”, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/12/the-8-9-march-global-c19-vaccine-supply-chain-and-manufacturing-summit-efforts-to-ramp-up-production/ It is unclear the extent to which governments and industry are working together to solve bottlenecks in supply, to facilitate production ramp up, share experiences in reusing safely some critical materials that are in short supply, etc. During these critical months, greater cooperation in solving problems and facilitating expansion of production is needed and hopefully is occurring. Export restrictions have and will occur under various guises, reflecting internal political pressures. In the coming months and certainly by the third quarter of 2021, there should be large volumes of vaccine doses above and beyond what has been contracted by COVAX that will be available for use around the world. Time is obviously of the essence. Cooperation to solve supply chain bottlenecks and speed ramp-ups is the best short term option for speeding getting past the pandemic globally.

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WTO Accessions — perhaps the most valuable benefit for Members in the first 25 years of the WTO’s existence

Much has been written about the challenges facing the World Trade Organization twenty-five years after its birth at the beginning of 1995.

The Appellate Body (“AB”) has ceased functioning with the United States blocking the appointment of new AB members based on longstanding problems with the Dispute Settlement system that have not been addressed. There are fundamental differences among major Members in what the proper role of the dispute settlement system is. Because the AB’s view of its role has differed from that of at least some of the Members, many delegations have opted to litigate instead of negotiate on issues which are not covered by the actual language of existing agreements.

The negotiating function of the WTO has had limited success in the first 25 years of the WTO reflecting deep differences among Members in priorities and the core function of the WTO. The inability to update rules or develop new rules to address 21st century commercial realities has called into question the ongoing relevance of the organization Members have failed to honor agreement directions for periodic liberalization updates in agriculture and services trade. Members have also taken decades to tackle issues of pressing time sensitivity, such as fisheries subsidies.

And there are problems in the timeliness and completeness of notifications required by many agreements and the quality of the work of many of the Committees.

A bright spot for an organization in trouble has been the success of bringing additional countries and territories into the organization. Of the 164 members at present, 36 have joined since the WTO opened in 1995 and some 23 countries or territories are in the accession process at the moment. Some 98% of global trade is now covered by WTO Members. While there are many reasons for countries or territories to join the WTO, including integrating into the global economy and improving the competitiveness of the economy (Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff describes the benefits of accession as being a catalyst for domestic reform and economic growth), there is no doubt that accessions are of benefit to the global trading system and bring the benefits of liberalization in the acceding country or territory to the existing WTO membership. Indeed, commitments of acceding Members in terms of tariff liberalization and other obligations typically are far higher than the commitments of existing Members at the same economic stage of development. Yet, accession is of great benefit to acceding countries. See WTO press release, 8 November 2020, DDG Wolff: WTO accession is a catalyst for domestic reform and economic growth, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_06nov20_e.htm. DDG Wolff, in speaking to Arab countries in the accession process made the following comments:

“Furthermore, during the last eight months, the world has experienced unprecedented levels of disruptions in people’s daily lives and their economic activities due to Covid-19. The world is not near the end of this crisis. Despite these challenging times, trade has played a key role in addressing local shortages of food, medical supplies and other essentials during the pandemic.

“Trade will have to play an even greater role in supporting recovery of the global economy going forward. In this context, we should recognise the important role played by Saudi Arabia in steering the G20 during this difficult year, urging collective and multilateral cooperation. The Riyadh Initiative is a praiseworthy effort endorsed by the G20 nations.

“The Arab region has not escaped the dire economic consequences of this pandemic. For some, the steep fall in oil prices has aggravated existing problems. A crisis, however, also presents opportunities for closer international cooperation to limit the harm from the pandemic and to spur the recovery.

“These issues demonstrate that more, not less, global and regional trade integration is required. Integration into the world economy goes hand in hand with necessary domestic reforms. This is where WTO accession makes particularly valuable contributions. Those engaged in the reform-driven accession process are likely to experience a quicker recovery and greater resilience in the future.

“Based on evidence from the 36 accessions which have been successfully completed, the WTO accession process has served as an effective external anchor for domestic reforms, acting as a catalyst in realizing the potential of their economies. According to the last WTO Director-General’s Annual Report on WTO Accessions, Article XII Members have registered higher growth rates of GDP and trade (exports and imports), as well as increased flows of inward FDI stocks, in the years following their accession compared to the rest of the world. These results indicate that integrated, open economies tend to grow faster. In addition, by signalling a government’s commitment to international rules, WTO membership appears to also encourage the inflow of foreign investment.

“The accession process has been used by resource-based countries to diversify their economies. Economic diversification is one of the major priorities for the governments in the Arab region. Our 2016 study examined whether countries’ export structures became more diversified after gaining WTO membership. This was true for about half of the recently acceded
Members, which increased the number of exported products, measured in HS chapters, accounting for more than 60% of their exports after accession. This was achieved often through rebranding their economies with WTO membership and attracting increased FDI.”

From 1995-2016, the thirty-six countries or territories that joined the WTO included many of the major economies that were not original Members of the WTO. These included China, Chinese Taipei, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. The other countries or territories who have joined represent a wide cross-section of geographic regions and levels of development: Ecuador, Bulgaria, Mongolia, Panama, Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Estonia, Jordan, Georgia, Albania, Oman, Croatia, Lithuania, Moldova, Armenia, North Macedonia, Nepal, Cambodia, Tonga, Cabo Verde, Montenegro, Samoa, Vanuatu, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Tajikistan, Yemen, Seychelles, Kazakhstan, Liberia, and Afghanistan. No accessions have been completed since 2016.

The twenty-three countries and territories that are in the process of accession often are countries or territories that have suffered from years of conflict. This has led the WTO to host the first “Trade for Peace Week” from November 30-December 4, 2020. See WTO press release, 25 November 2020, WTO to host first Trade for Peace Week, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/acc_25nov20_e.htm.

“In announcing the Trade for Peace Week, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff noted: ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes international trade as an engine for inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction that contributes to the promotion of sustainable development. This in turn can facilitate building and maintaining peace. The connection between trade and peace is the raison d’être for the creation of the rules-based multilateral trading system that led to economic recovery and prosperity after the devastation from World War II.’

“Currently, 23 countries are in the process of joining the WTO, and over a half of them suffer from a fragile situation from years of conflicts. Launched in 2017, the Trade for Peace initiative aims to assist fragile and conflict-affected (FCA) countries through WTO accession, with the emphasis on institution building based on the principles of non-discrimination, predictability, transparency and the rule of law. Based on experiences of former FAC countries, WTO accession can help set the conditions to move out of a state of fragility or conflict into a state of stability, economic well-being and peace.”

There are ten events this week. The public can register to participate in the virtual panels. See WTO Accessions, Trade for Peace Week, https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/acc_e/t4peace2020_e.htm.

DDG Wolff spoke at one of today’s event and his comments are embedded below. See WTO press release, November 30, 2020, DDG Alan Wolff – DDG Wolff calls for more structured WTO cooperation with humanitarian and peace communities, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_30nov20_e.htm.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-Speech-DDG-Alan-Wolff-DDG-Wolff-calls-for-more-s

The twenty-three countries and territories in the process of accession include: Algeria, Andorra, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Belarus, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Comoros, Curacao, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanese Republic, Libya, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Timor-Leste, and Uzbekistan.

Conclusion

The genesis for the GATT and the other Bretton Woods institutions was a desire to provide an infrastructure and global rules to minimize the likelihood of future world wars. Cooperation, collaboration and integration would all reduce the likelihood of global conflict.

The WTO provides the opportunity for countries or territories struggling to escape violence to embark on a path of hope. That is a core mission of the WTO today just as it was for the GATT in the late 1940s.

Moreover, the record over the first twenty-five years of the WTO’s existence has been that those countries and territories who take the challenging steps to become Members of the WTO improve their economies and speed growth, development and foreign direct investment. Accessions also offer real improvements in market access for existing WTO Members. A true win-win situation.

For an organization struggling to maintain relevance amidst deep divisions among Members who seem to have lost the consensus on the core purpose of the organization, the pilgrimage of non-member countries and territories to join the organization is a beacon of hope. Serious reforms and updating of the rule book are desperately needed for a better functioning system where outcomes are based on underlying economic strengths and not the interference of governments. A willingness of Members to refocus on what the purpose of the WTO is in fact and to be supporters of contributing to the maximum of one’s ability will be key to forward movement. Inspiration can be drawn from the efforts of non-members to join.

Oil and gas sector suffers declining demand, collapsing prices, expanded state involvement — skewed economic results damage much of the global economy

The United States and many other countries view the World Trade Organization as the forum for global trade rules that support market economies. One of the challenges for the WTO going forward is what to do with the important Members whose economic systems are not anchored in market economic principles. While China is the most frequently mentioned WTO Member whose economic system is causing massive disruptions for market economies, there are other countries with important sectors that are state-owned, controlled and directed. The United States, European Union and Japan have been working on proposals for modifications of WTO rules to address distortions flowing from massive industrial subsidies and state controlled sectors that do not operate on market principles.

While WTO reform is not likely to see serious engagement by WTO Members before the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, the sharp contraction of economic activity in many countries is highlighting the importance for WTO Members actually addressing the role of the state in industry and rule changes needed to avoid the massive distortions that state involvement too often created.

Oil and Gas as an Example

Few industrial sectors have as much state ownership and control as the oil and gas sector. While there are countries with privately owned producers, much of the world operates with producers that are state owned or state controlled. Since the 1960s, a number of countries have engaged in cartel-like activity to collectively address production levels to achieve desired price levels. While many of these countries are part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (“OPEC”), OPEC meets with other countries as well in an effort to achieve production and pricing levels. Current OPEC members include Algeria, Angola, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.

The activity has resulted in artificial pricing levels in export markets as compared to prices in home markets of OPEC members and periodic price shocks based on collective action. Large price increases in the 1970s led to high levels of inflation and rapid changes to manufacturing operations in some countries.

  1. Economic contraction as countries struggle to limit spread of the coronavirus

There has been a sharp contraction in demand for petroleum products in 2020 as countries have shut down movement of people in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19. Air travel has been decimated in many parts of the world and there are significant reductions in automobile travel. Manufacturing has also seen significant reductions. The contractions have resulted not only in national reductions in use of petroleum products but also international reductions both directly (reduced air traffic and ship traffic) and because of disruptions to supply chains which have reduced downstream production.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released a staff research report on April 21, 2020 entitled “Cascading Economic Impacts of the COVID-19 Outbreak in China” which reviews information on the wide range of economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic as felt in the U.S. https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-04/Cascading_Economic_Impacts_of_the_Novel_Coronavirus_April_21_2020.pdf. The report includes a section entitled “Turmoil in Energy Markets” which states,

“The standstill in Chinese production and halt in flows of goods and people has drastically depressed Chinese demand for energy products such as crude oil and liquified natural gas (LNG), adding pressure to an oil supply glut that had materialized at the end of 2019.99 In December of 2019, Institute of International Finance economist Garbis Iradian had forecasted a supply glut, pointing to high output from Brazil, Canada, and the United States.100 The COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated this challenging outlook. As the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reported in April 2020: ‘The largest ever monthly decline in petroleum demand in China occurred in February 2020.’101 Chinese oil demand ‘shrank by a massive 3.2 million barrels per day’ over the prior year.102 Research by OPEC forecasted China’s 2020 demand for oil will decrease by 0.83 million barrels per day over 2019.103 As the largest oil importer,104 Chinese oil consumption has a significant impact on global demand. In 2019, China accounted for 14 percent of global oil demand and more than 80 percent of growth in oil demand.105 Following the outbreak in China, the OPEC Joint Technical Committee held a meeting on February 8 to recommend new and continued oil production adjustments in light of “the negative impact on oil demand” due to depressed economic activity, “particularly in the transportation, tourism, and industry sectors, particularly in China.”106 In LNG markets, on February 10, Caixin reported Chinese state-owned oil giant China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) requested a reduction of an unknown quantity in LNG shipments, invoking a “force majeure” clause due to COVID-19.107 S&P Global Platts, an energy and commodities analysis group, stated China’s LNG imports in January and February fell more than 6 percent over the same period in 2019.108

Prices have also dropped in this period. OPEC’s reference price index fell from $66.48 per barrel in December 2019 to $55.49 per barrel in February 2020, a drop of 19.8 percent.109 These price cuts are causing financially strapped* U.S. energy producers to cut back investment in oil and gas projects as profits erode. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that the current drop in oil prices will lead to lower U.S. crude oil production beginning in the third quarter of 2020.110″

The complete report is embedded below (footnotes 99-110 can be found on page 22 of the report).

USCC-staff-research-Cascading_Economic_Impacts_of_the_Novel_Coronavirus_April_21_2020

2. State-owned or controlled oil companies create further crisis

With a sharp contraction in oil demand, one would expect falling oil prices and reductions in global production over time. OPEC efforts to achieve reductions in production amongst themselves and Russia didn’t work out with Russia walking out of talks to reduce production to prevent further price declines. Russia and Saudi Arabia then engaged in a price war which resulted in further sharp price reductions in March and early April, large surpluses of oil in the market, with dwindling storage capacity for surplus production. See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Russia%E2%80%93Saudi_Arabia_oil_price_war (and sources cited therein). Below is a graph of crude oil prices from 2015 through April 2020.

3. April Agreement to Reduce Production Beginning in May and June 2020

The United States, concerned with the collapse of oil prices and the effects on U.S. producers and oil/gas field companies, engaged in outreach to both Saudi Arabia and Russia to seek a solution. OPEC members, Russia and many others (including the United States) agreed to global production reductions of close to 10 million barrels/day beginning in May and carrying through June, with smaller reductions for later periods, in an effort to bring about balance between supply and demand. See, e.g., April 12, 2020, AP article, “OPEC, oil nations agree to nearly 10M barrel cut amid virus,” https://apnews.com/e9b73ec833e9a5ad304a69e3b9b86914. The U.S. Department of Energy has a webpage that reviews statements by members of Congress and others on the OPEC+ deal.

Because the agreement kicks in at the beginning of May, the continued production and reductions in available storage for oil resulted in further declines in oil prices, with prices on April 20 going negative for the first time in history. Prices have recovered somewhat in the last several days. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/24/oil-prices-could-remain-under-pressure-according-to-satellite-imagery-analysis.html; https://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/OPECs-No3-Already-Started-Cutting-Oil-Supply.html.

WTO Challenges

Joint action during the global COVID-19 pandemic may be understandable and in keeping with the resort to extraordinary measures by governments during the crisis to preserve health and economies. Nonetheless, the extraordinary distortions that flow to global commerce from joint government activity limiting production of oil and gas products or establishing minimum prices for export have been ignored within the GATT and now the WTO for decades. This is unfortunate as the distortions affect both competing producers of the products in question in other countries and also downstream users and consumers more broadly. The overall distortions over time are certainly in the trillions of dollars.

GATT Art. XX(g) permits governments to enforce measures “relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources if such measures are made effective in conjunction with restrictions on domestic production or consumption.” While there have been some cases where Art. XX(g) has been examined, actions by OPEC or OPEC+ countries to limit production (and hence exports) have never been challenged.

While there are national antitrust laws in many countries, such laws (such as those in the United States) don’t make government interference in the economy or government restrictions on export actionable despite the harm to consumers and to downstream manufacturers.

In a consensus based system like the WTO, the likelihood of obtaining improved rules on state-owned or state-invested companies or to restrict governments’ ability to unilaterally or jointly restrict production and exports seems implausible. This is especially true on oil and gas with Saudi Arabia and Russia as WTO Members. The US-EU-Japan initiative hasn’t yet fleshed out possible rule changes for state entities, so one may see some efforts in the coming years that could be useful if accepted by the full membership. But if there is to be meaningful WTO reform, agreeing on rules for the actions of governments that affect production and trade in goods and services is clearly of great importance. Without such rules, the WTO will not actually support market economies in critical ways.

Modifying antitrust laws is the other option, but one which legislators have been unwilling to address over the last fifty years. It is not clear that there are current champions of such modifications in the United States or in other major countries.

Conclusion

There are many sectors of economies that are being seriously adversely affected by efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. Governments are taking extraordinary actions to try to prevent their economies from collapsing under the strains of social distancing.

The oil and gas sector is one where there has been significant negative volume and price effects. Unfortunately the extent of the negative volume and price effects is driven in large part by the actions of governments who are preventing the global market for these products from functioning correctly, just as government actions have interfered in the functioning of these markets for the last fifty-sixty years.

The recent agreement to slash global production by nearly 10 million barrels per day was needed in light of the extensive government interference that has characterized the market and the actions by Russia and Saudi Arabia in March and early April.

More importantly, the long-term government involvement and interference with the functioning of the sector should cause trade negotiators and legislators to be looking at how to reform the WTO and/or modify national laws to prevent government ownership, control or cartel-like actions from distorting trade flows and economies. The need is pressing, but don’t hold your breath for action in the coming years.