OECD

COVID-19 – OECD first policy brief on trade issues related to the pandemic

As the world moves towards two million confirmed COVID-19 cases later this week (week of April 13) and global deaths near 125,000, the EU and the United States continue to hold center stage with the largest number of cases and deaths. As of April 11th, the EU represented 39.29% of confirmed cases and 57.9% of deaths. The UK (now not part of the EU) was 4.25% of confirmed cases and 8.77% of deaths. The United States had 30.34% of confirmed cases and 18.39% of deaths. Collectively, the EU, UK and US have had 73.88% of confirmed cases, 85.07% of deaths despite having just 10.86% of the world’s population. See attached table.

Situation-update-worldwide-as-of-11-April-2020

The rate of infection is picking up in a wide range of countries, including in areas with larger populations and often lower per capita incomes. Prior posts have looked at a range of issues surrounding COVID-19 and trade policy responses, including proposals from business groups, intergovernmental organizations and the actual response of countries and territories attempting to deal with the global health pandemic.

On Friday, April 10, the OECD released the first in a series of policy briefs on trade issues related to COVID-19, The title of the policy brief is simply, COVID19 and International Trade: Issues and Actions. https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=128_128542-3ijg8kfswh&title=COVID-19-and-international-trade-issues-and-actions.

The policy brief starts with the statement that “In a challenging and uncertain situation, trade is essential to save lives – and livelihoods”. Going beyond the March 2020 OECD Interim Economic Outlook estimate of the impact of global growth (halved to 1.5%), the policy brief estimates that each month extension of containment measures will further reduce global growth by 2 percentage points. The brief then reviews the wide range of challenges to nations and the world in both coping with the health dimensions of the pandemic and the extraordinary challenges to economies, national and private sector debt, employment and other issues. The estimated “initial impact on activity of partial or complete shutdowns on activity in a range of economies” shows GDP declines of 15-35% (page 2, figure 1).

The policy brief then identifies four actions that can be taken by governments to improve trade flows and reduce the negative effects on economies:

“First boost confidence in trade and global market by improving transparency”

“Second, keep global supply chains going, especially for essentials”

“Third, avoid making things worse”

“Fourth, look beyond the immediate: Policy actions now could have a long life”

Improved transparency

The policy brief supports the need for governments to notify trade-related measures that are taken in response to the pandemic to the WTO. The WTO website contains a page on COVID-19 which lists notices provided to the WTO from governments (both trade restricting and trade liberalizing) in response to COVID-19. As of April 9th, 41 notifications had been received. https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm.

The OECD also shares information it receives with the WTO. In addition, the OECD provides information on agriculture production and trade to the Agricultural Market Information System “to ensure accurate, up-to-date information on market developments and country policies in critical commodities for the global food system.” Page 3.

With more than 60 trade restrictive measures flagged by observers, the efforts at improved transparency are a work in progress obviously dependent upon the actions of WTO Members.

Keeping supply chains going

The OECD policy brief reviews a range of developments since the start of the pandemic which have raised costs and complicated the flow of trade:

  1. Loss of air cargo as part of reduction in passenger flights;

2. Drop in ship traffic and increased procedures and documentation requirements; vs. establishment of some “green lanes” at ports and border crossing points;

3. Location of shipping containers in China at time of pandemic, creating shortages and raising costs;

4. Labor availability at ports reduced in many cases or increased costs from additional protective measures;

5. Limits on mobility of people affecting various trade processes (inspections, etc.);

6. Higher costs throughout supply chains from increased protective measures for workers.

For essential medical supplies, the OECD policy brief calls for removing tariffs, expediting certification procedures and enhancing trade facilitation..

While the policy brief recognizes the need for expanded production in a later section, it doesn’t address the need for increased transparency on or coordination of such efforts to expand production despite the obvious fact that a pandemic which moves around the globe creates temporary acute shortages of medical supplies where trade could minimize harm to populations going through surges in infections.

As reviewed in my post of April 10 on scarcity, a significant part of the health challenge in medical goods in the current COVID-19 pandemic flows from the rapid demand expansion exceeding global supply availability. This contrasts with food security issues in 2020 where there are adequate supplies of key agriculture products but there are concerns because of border closures, mobility issues and the like.

Avoid making things worse

The OECD policy brief has avoiding export restrictions on essential goods as the chief action countries can take to avoid making things worse. The brief reviews the 2007-2008 food price spikes that flowed from large scale export restraints on agriculture products and the harm done to many countries as a result.

In discussing food security, the brief states, “While there is not an immediate threat to global supplies of basic foodstuffs, there is the potential for specific food supply chains to be severely disrupted, including from lack of seasonal workers for planting or harvesting key crops, logistics constraints, and additional SPS and technical measures. Vigilance will be required to ensure that crisis- or policy-induced risk factors do not cause disruptions in supply, in particular if the containment measures related to COVID-19 are long-lived. ” Pages 5-6

For essential medical goods, there is a critical need for expanded production which some governments are pursuing often in connection with their private sectors. Trade challenges on essential medical goods include the use of export restraints, guaranteed purchases and requisitioning of goods. More than 60 countries have imposed export restraints, and, with the US and EU the current centers of COVID-19 infections, many other countries are having great difficulties obtaining adequate or any supplies.

OECD recommendations, such as limiting future export restraints, reducing tariffs and not imposing new tariffs or trade restrictive measures, are similar to those recommended by other groups. However, nothing in the recommendations deals with the very real need for better information on supply availability and expansions vs. current and projected demand, or for the possible role of international organizations or others in coordinating shifting of supplies from countries that have gotten past the worst of the pandemic to others with limited capacities and resources.

Look beyond the immediate: Policy actions now could have a long life

The OECD policy brief examines three sets of issues in terms of future implications — the massive financial assistance being provided, the examination of the shape of global supply chains, and preparing for future pandemics. These are taken up in turn below.

A. Governmental financial assistance

Because of the massive support governments are pumping into their economies to avoid collapse (some $8 trillion based on some recent estimates), there are obvious questions about how such support is structured, how governments will modify their conduct once the pandemic is past or economies have reopened. As the policy brief states,

“The scale of public investments needed during and after the crisis – from health systems and social protection, to access to education and digital networks – underscores the need for support to firms and sectors to be as efficient as possible to maximise available public resources. Well-designed support will also be less market-distorting and give rise to fewer concerns about the impact on international competition. Fairness – in both the national-level distribution of benefits ad in global competition – is essential for maintaining public support for trade and the open markets need to get through and emerge from the crisis.” Page 8.

Key principles for support granted include the following, according to the policy brief:

  1. Support should be transparent (including terms of support);
  2. non-discriminatory and not used to rescue companies that would have failed absent the pandemic;
  3. time limited and reviewed for continued relevance/need;
  4. targeted at consumers vs. tied to consumption of specific goods and services.

B. Global supply chains

An issue important to a number of governments has been the structure of existing supply chains and whether supply chains should be reshored or at least shortened. The OECD policy brief focus on rethinking the “resilience” in global supply chains but cautions against quick answers or simply reshoring.

C. Being ready for the next pandemic

The OECD policy brief also reviews actions the global community should take to be ready for the next pandemic. Five elements of a possible agreement among countries are suggested for consideration:

  1. “Ensuring transparency”;
  2. “Cutting tariffs on essential medical products”;
  3. “Disciplines on export restrictions” (essentially G20 language);
  4. “Upfront investments in co-operative solutions” (including creation of stockpiles at national or regional level);
  5. “addressing the needs of the most vulnerable countries”.

Conclusion

The first OECD policy brief is a useful contribution to the discussion of trade issues that can and should be addressed to reduce the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic both in the short-term and in the recovery phase. The proposals are not surprising and reflect underlying views of the member countries. As is true of other papers and proposals for action, collective action depends on leadership and willingness of like-minded countries to act for the common good. With a serious pandemic with dimensions not experienced in 100 years, large and advanced economies have talked the talk of cooperation and keeping markets open but haven’t always walked the walk of greater global cooperation or avoiding trade restrictive measures.

The actions of major governments are not surprising considering the pressing needs for supplies within countries that have been at the epicenter of the pandemic in the early months of its existence or the reaction of others worried about supplies or about food security. Political leaders obviously respond to the needs of their citizens first, particularly where needs are about life and death.

Unfortunately, such local focus doesn’t help smaller and/or economically weaker countries, many of whom may find themselves part of the epicenter of the pandemic in coming months.

Moreover, governments around the world generally have shown a poor ability to spend the money to prepare for future events which are uncertain as to timing or severity. It seems unlikely that the pandemic of 2020 will result in greater collective action and preparation for the future.

Indeed, the extraordinary sums that are being needed to avoid total collapse of economies in 2020 will create additional challenges for the global trading system going forward and will likely limit actual efforts to avoid a repeat in the future.

End note

The OECD has indicated that they have four additional policy briefs in the series under preparation. The future briefs deal with trade facilitation, government support, global value chains for essential goods and services trade (page 11), in addition to a paper looking at COVID-19 and Food and Agriculture: Issues and Actions.