Spain

Review of the COVID-19 pandemic — continued overall growth in cases and deaths, resurgence in some countries where COVID-19 had receded

This past week saw the release of information on GDP contraction in the U.S. in the second quarter of 2020 (9.5% (annualized at 32.9%)) and in the European Union (11.9%). See U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis, News Release BEA 20-37, Gross Domestic Product, Second Quarter 2020 (Advance Estimate) and Annual Update, https://www.bea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-07/gdp2q20_adv_0.pdf; Eurostat newsrelease 121/2020 – 31 July 2020, Preliminary flash estimate for the second quarter of 2020, GD down by 12.1% in the euro area and by 11.9% in the EU, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/11156775/2-31072020-BP-EN.pdf/cbe7522c-ebfa-ef08-be60-b1c9d1bd385b#:~:text=The%20next%20estimates%20for%20the,released%20on%2014%20August%202020.&text=Compared%20with%20the%20same%20quarter,respectively%20in%20the%20previous%20quarter. Japan has similarly suffered substantial contraction in its GDP through the second quarter. See https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Japan-GDP-to-shrink-22-in-Q2-in-biggest-postwar-drop-forecast.

These sharp contractions in U.S. and EU GDP reflect the effects of the actions by governments in the U.S. and in the EU to shut down parts of their economies in an effort to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The sharp contractions would have been far worse but for government efforts to provide emergency funding to support companies, workers and local governments. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been far less severe in terms of cases and deaths in Japan and in other countries in Asia, contraction in GDP reflects both declining consumer spending and global effects of trade contraction that are occurring.

China, where COVID-19 infections were first discovered, saw a decline in GDP in the 1st quarter of 2020 with a rebound in the second quarter to a 3.2% increase. See CNBC, China says its economy grew 3.2% in the second quarter this year, rebounding from coronavirus, July 15, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/16/china-economy-beijing-reports-q2-2020-gdp.html.

The sharp contractions in GDP from much of the developed world is consistent with projections by the IMF from June 2020. A summary table from the World Economic Outlook Update is copied below.

The hope was that after a sharp contraction in the second quarter, the world would experience a v-shaped recovery once the pandemic was brought under control in much of the world.

As we start August 2020, expectations are turning to a longer and shallower rebound in the third and fourth quarters of 2020 which will negatively affect billions of people. The world has not yet crested in terms of new COVID-19 cases and countries that had gotten the virus seemingly under control are seeing various levels of resurgence. The United States which never got the virus under control has seen a second surge that has reached levels at least twice as high as earlier levels of new cases and has seen a resurgence in hospitalizations and deaths.

There are a few bright spots. Some countries have managed to drastically reduce the spread of the virus and have been reopening in phases with limited recurrence. Moreover, a number of pharmaceutical companies have entered phase three trials of vaccines, and governments have fronted billions of dollars to build capacity for vaccines should they prove safe and effective. While major countries like the U.S. and the EU block have secured access to potentially hundreds of millions of doses from various companies should vaccines in trial receive approval for distribution, at least a number of these pharmaceutical companies (or consortia) have arrangements for massive production around the world including billions of doses for developing and least developed countries which should enable a more equitable and affordable distribution than may have been true in the past.

COVID-19, the number of new cases in the last fourteen days

Looking at the daily reports put out by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the world saw an additional 3,568,162 cases in the fourteen days ending August 2nd. This was an increase of some 550,000 from the previous fourteen days ending July 19 where new cases were 3,018,993. The July 19 two week figures were again up close to 550,000 from the period ending July 5 when there were 2,469,859 cases. The period ending June 21 has 1,932,024 new cases; the period ending June 7 had seen an additional 1,567,983 new cases. Thus, in less than two months the global number of new cases in a fourteen-day time period increased by 127.56 percent. The COVID-19 situation update worldwide, as of 2 August 2020 is embedded below.

COVID-19-situation-update-worldwide-as-of-2-August-2020

Fourteen of the forty-two countries or customs territories that I have been tracking who account for more than 90% of total cases and total deaths from the pandemic continue to not have peaked in terms of two week number of new cases. See July 21, 2020, COVID-19 – the United States continues to spin out of control with increasing shortages of medical goods; sharp increases in developing countries in the Americas and parts of Asia, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/07/21/covid-19-the-united-states-continues-to-spin-out-of-control-with-increasing-shortages-of-medical-goods-sharp-increases-in-developing-countries-in-the-americas-and-parts-of-asia/. Japan, which had peaked a number of months ago, has a resurgence of cases, so much so that the last two weeks (11,439 new cases) exceed any other two week period for the country. Other countries which have not peaked include the United States (908,980 new cases), India (673,105 new cases) Brazil (633,017 new cases), Colombia (115,481 new cases), Mexico (95,280 new cases), Argentina (72,001 new cases) and these additional countries — Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Indonesia, Iraq, and the Philippines). South Africa peaked in the prior two week period but still had an additional 152,411 new cases (93.56% of its peak).

Many developed countries have seen sharp increases in the last two weeks, albeit from much lower levels than in the spring. These include Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Australia and Japan.

Many developing and least-developed countries in Central and South America, Africa and parts of Asia are seeing growing numbers of cases. While some of these countries have seen a peak in the number of new cases, for others that is not true. India and Brazil are continuing to struggle to contain the spread as are the Latin and Asian countries reviewed above.

In the last two weeks, the United States had more new cases per 100,000 population than all of the other 41 countries being monitored other than Brazil and Panama. The U.S. number of new cases per 100,000 population was 5.88 times the number for all countries (including the U.S) and 4-50 times as high as major EU countries. And on deaths in the last fourteen days, the U.S. has more deaths per 100,000 population than all of the other 41 countries other than Brazil, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia and Panama. The U.S. death rate in the last fourteen days is 3.95 times the rate/100,000 population for the entire world and 25-87 times the rate for major EU countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain).

WTO Members have the opportunity to adopt rules to minimize trade disruptions and expedite economic recovery

Many Members of the WTO have submitted proposals for action by the Membership to minimize the harm to global economies and trade flows from addressing trade restrictions, trade liberalization possibilities and other matters within the WTO’s wheelhouse.

In a previous post, I reviewed the July 25 APEC trade ministers joint statement and annex which in my view could provide the platform for WTO Members coming together to adopt a group of principles that have been endorsed not only by the APEC countries but also by G-20 members (in various G-20 releases). See July 28, 2020, APEC trade ministers’ virtual meeting on July 25 – Declaration on Facilitating the Movement of Essential Goods during COVID-19, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/07/28/apec-trade-ministers-virtual-meeting-on-july-25-declaration-on-facilitating-the-movement-of-essential-goods-during-covid-19/.

The WTO, being a member-driven organization, requires the WTO Members to come together for the common good if progress is to be made. While recent actions on seemingly non-substantive issues, like selecting an acting Director-General (largely an administrative function pending selection of a new Director-General), lay bare the lack of trust and widely divergent views among WTO Members, adopting basic principles for getting through the pandemic should be a win-win for all Members.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to wreak havoc across the globe with new cases and new deaths continuing to mount. The health consequences are severe and are increasingly shifting to developing and least-developed countries. However, some developed countries, like the U.S., have not gotten the virus under control. Moreover, a number of countries who have had success controlling the spread of COVID-19 are seeing a resurgence as reopening of economies continues. This has led some countries to slow or even reverse some of the reopening steps.

As the sharp economic contractions in major developed economies attest, there are huge economic costs to dealing with the pandemic. The economic rebound is unlikely to be as strong or as quick as many have hoped. While much of what is needed is focus by each country and its citizenry to follow the science and get the pandemic under control, there is also an important role for multilateral organizations to play in keeping markets open, providing financing for those in need and more. The WTO has a potentially important role on the trade front. It is unclear that WTO Members will embrace the opportunities presented, but if Members would it would reduce the depth of the trade contraction and help speed economic recovery.

Candidates for the Next Director-General of the WTO — four and counting, an update

Two weeks after the WTO opened the nomination process for candidates to fill the Director-General post which becomes vacant on September 1, 2020, four countries have put forward candidates — Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt and Moldova. The period for nominations will come to a close on July 8 (COB Geneva time), so there are still sixteen days for additional candidates to be put forward.

There are many rumors and a few facts on possible candidates not yet announced. Press have indicated that Benin, which had had a candidate identified for consideration by the African Union, has withdrawn H.E. Mr. Eloi Laourou (Benin’s current Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the WTO) from consideration and will be supporting Nigeria’s candidate, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. See The Africa Report, Benin drops its WTO candidate in support of Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala (15 June 2020), https://www.theafricareport.com/29941/benin-drops-its-wto-candidate-in-support-of-nigerias-okonjo-iweala/.

The other African name floated as a possible candidate has been Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, current sport and culture minister and former Kenyan Ambassador to the WTO who was the first woman to chair the WTO’s General Counsel. She was also a candidate for the Director-General position in 2012-2103 when Roberto Azevedo of Brazil was selected. While mentioned early, there has been little in the press indicating Kenya will be nominating her, but there is obviously still time if Kenya so chooses. See Financial Times, Contenders Set Out Stalls to Succeed Azevedo at Helm of WTO, May 17, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/fc5fda8e-56cb-4866-b477-f4c3af603b5c.

Possible Developed Country Candidate(s)?

It has been rumored that there would be one or more developed country candidates and some WTO Members or their trade ministers, like the EU, have articulated a belief that the next Director-General should be from a developed country, consistent with the recent rotation between developed and developing country having the post of Director-General. Since DG Azevedo is from Brazil, a developing country, developed countries should take the next turn, according to this logic.

An article in the New York Times indicates that the European Trade Commissioner, Phil Hogan (Ireland) has confirmed he is considering a bid. See New York Times, Who’s Bidding to Be Next World Trade Organization Chief?, June 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/06/22/business/22reuters-trade-wto-factbox.html.

Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya has also been repeatedly identified as a potential candidate. She was chef de cabinet for Director-General Pascal Lamy who served from 2005-2013.

Other developed countries could decide to nominate one or more candidates, though press accounts indicate that Australia is not planning on submitting a candidate (at least not at present) and the U.S. has historically not put forward a candidate from the U.S. See Financial Review, No Australian candidate for WTO boss, Birmingham says, June 22, 2020, https://www.afr.com/world/europe/no-australian-candidate-for-wto-boss-birmingham-says-20200619-p554gf

Rumors have suggested that the Republic of Korea may submit a candidate. Japan has been very active in recent years through their ambassadors to the WTO but is not believed to be likely to put forward a candidate.

New Zealand had a Director-General two decades ago, Michael Moore, and its Trade Minister and former Ambassador to the WTO, Tim Groser, ran in 2012-2013. It is unclear whether New Zealand will put forward a candidate, whether former Minister Groser or someone else.

There is a rumor in Geneva that more nominations are likely and that at least one more may materialize later this week. If such an event materializes, I would suspect someone from an EU country or from Korea will become the fifth candidate.

Outreach by existing candidates and legal wrangling between African countries

The advantage of being an early announced candidate in the current process is that candidates can get their views out through the media ahead of the General Council meeting, and there is more time for their governments to court support from other WTO Members. Particularly when there is interest in expediting the selection process because of the near-term departure of existing Director-General Azevedo, such opportunities for pre-General Council wooing of other Members and media outreach will be more limited for candidates joining closer to the end of the nominating time period. The General Council meeting to meet and hear from the candidates is understood to likely be sometime in the week of July 12. If there is actually an effort to expedite the selection process after July 8, time will be very limited for candidates after the General Council meeting.

It is clear that at least the first three candidates are taking advantage of media to articulate their vision for the WTO and their role if selected as the next DG. Nominating governments are also doing outreach to trading partners seeking to build up support for their candidate.

For example, Jesus Seade Kuri, the Mexican candidate, provided an interview to the South China Morning Post which was published on June 18, 2020, Mexico’s nominee for top WTO job, Jesus Seade, vows to ‘bring US and China back to the table’, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3089452/mexicos-nominee-top-wto-job-jesus-seade-vows-bring-us-and.

Similarly, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had her views on the WTO DG job published in various publications including the Pulse, ‘I’m a strong negotiator, reformer,’ Okonjo-Iweala makes her case for ‘challenging’ WTO job, June 17, 2020, https://www.pulse.ng/business/okonjo-iweala-former-minister-makes-case-for-wto-job/y123dsb.

Outreach has also been made by Egypt’s Abdel Hamid Mamdouh as he laid out what he considered to be important aspects of his candidacy in an article that appeared in The Africa Report on June 11. See Egypt’s Abdel Hamid Mamdouh bid for the WTO – Five things to know, June 11, 2020, https://www.theafricareport.com/29730/egypts-abdel-hamid-mamdouh-bid-for-the-wto-five-things-to-know/.

All candidates have recognized the challenges with the tensions between the United States and China, the need to be an honest broker, how their background gives them strengths needed to address the role of Director-General amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and need for reform at the WTO.

While Mexico is working on shoring up support for Mr. Seade amongst WTO Members in the Americas (and elsewhere), the two African candidates are working to gain support from their African colleagues (and others). Little has been in the press as yet as to what actions Moldova or its candidate are taking in the early days after Tudor Ulianovschi’s nomination.

Egypt has attempted to have Nigeria’s candidate disqualified on the grounds that Nigeria had another proposed candidate submitted to the African Union but withdrew that candidate and put forward Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala past the deadline for such nominations. The African Union’s counsel concurred but that position has been challenged by Nigeria. In any event, WTO procedures limit who may nominate candidates to WTO Members. Nigeria is a member while the African Union is not. Therefore, whatever is relevant for African Union member consideration, it is not relevant to whether Nigeria or any other AU member can propose a candidate to the WTO by July 8. See The Cable, Okonjo-Iweala still eligible to run for office of DG, says, WTO, June 20, 2020, https://www.thecable.ng/exclusive-okonjo-iweala-still-eligible-to-run-for-office-of-dg-says-wto. This type of public discord will not be helpful to obtaining solidarity around a single African candidate which has been the presumed purpose of the African Union’s process.

Conclusion

With roughly half of the nomination time period having run, it is clear that there will be a significant number of candidates. It is unclear how many developed country candidates will end up running and to what extent members will focus more on geographical area, development status, or gender of the candidates in their considerations.

With the U.S., the EU and China having very different views of what needs to be done to return the WTO to relevance and with the recent USTR statement that any candidate to receive U.S. backing must “understand the need for reform and the problems of free economies in dealing with China” (New York Times, U.S. Wants WTO Head Who Understands Problems Dealing with China: Lighthizer, June 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/06/17/world/asia/17reuters-usa-trade-wto.html), the road ahead will be challenging for all candidates with no guarantee that the process will succeed in either an expedited or normal time period.

Hopefully, the Chairman of the General Council (Amb. David Walker) and the WTO Secretariat have the four Deputy Directors-General warming up in case one of them is needed to serve as the Acting Director-General beginning September 1st.

Selecting a new WTO Director-General — “the game is afoot”; Mexico’s Jesus Seade Kuri is the first nominee

June 8, 2020 is the start of the one month process for WTO Members to put forward a nomination of a national to be considered for the position of the next Director-General. All nominations must be submitted to the Chair of the General Council by the close of business (Geneva time) on July 8. Using a term first expressed by Shakespeare in King Henry IV Part I but probably better known as uttered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, “the game is afoot”.

There is little doubt that the selection of the next Director-General of the WTO will be important for an organization struggling from major divisions within its membership on direction, need for reform, and ensuring continued relevance while looking for collective action during the COVID-19 pandemic to facilitate trade and minimize the damage to Member and global economies.

In prior posts, I reviewed the general procedures that the WTO will follow in conducting the selection process and thoughts on how to expedite the selection process if WTO Members want to find a replacement before the current Director-General departs at the end of August. See World Trade Organization – Search for a new Director-General, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/05/15/world-trade-organization-search-for-a-new-director-general/; WTO selection of a new Director-General – one individual from a developed country previously reviewed could shorten the process, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/05/19/wto-selection-of-a-new-director-general-one-individual-from-a-developed-country-previously-reviewed-could-shorten-the-process/.

Potential nominees

The WTO Secretariat will be posting the names of nominees and their CVs as they are received. As of 5:15 p.m. Geneva time on June 8th, the WTO had listed the first nomination to be received, Jesus Seade Kuri nominated by Mexico. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_mex_08jun20_e.htm.

Jesus Seade is a former Ambassador to the GATT, a former Deputy Director-General at the WTO and recently involved in concluding the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement as Deputy Secretary for North America. Press from earlier today noted his nomination.https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-08/mexico-to-nominate-seade-as-its-wto-candidate-el-universal; https://business.financialpost.com/pmn/business-pmn/mexico-to-nominate-seade-as-its-wto-candidate-el-universal. The WTO news contains his CV which is embedded below.

bio_mex_e

Information on other potential nominees is from press or other sources and doesn’t reflect information on actual nominations received by the WTO by the afternoon of June 8.

Press accounts over the weekend indicate that Nigeria has changed their desired candidate from Yonov Frederick Agah (currently one of the WTO’s Deputy Director-Generals) to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister and former World Bank official. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-05/nigeria-nominates-okonjo-iweala-as-wto-director-general.

At least two other African officials are being considered by the African Union, a candidate from Egypt, Hamid Mamdouh, and a candidate from Benin, Eloi Laourou. Mr. Mamdouh is a former WTO Secretariat Director of the Trade in Services and Investment Division and now working for a law firm. https://www.kslaw.com/people/abdelhamid-mamdouh. He also has a webpage being developed for any run for Director-General with a media kit. https://hamid-mamdouh.com/. H.E. Mr. Eloi Laourou is the current Benin Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the WTO (and to UN entities in Geneva).

It appears that the African Union will be holding a meeting by video- conference this week in an effort to see if there is agreement on one candidate for the African Union countries.

European countries are also considering potential candidates including possibly European Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan (Ireland) and Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez (she previously served as Chef de Cabinet for Director-General Pascal Lamy). See, e.g., https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/phil-hogan-exploring-idea-of-wto-director-general-role-1.4266073; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-23/spain-foreign-minister-gonzalez-favorite-to-lead-wto-wiwo-says.

And there will undoubtedly be more Members considering whether to nominate an individual to be considered in the selection process.

The process is intended to focus first on qualifications, and then if there are equally qualified individuals, “Members … shall take into consideration as one of the factors the desirability of reflecting the diversity of the WTO’s membership in successive appointments to the post of Director-General”. WT/L/509 para. 13. For example, no individual from Africa has previously served as the Director-General (“DG”) of the WTO.

Other factors besides geographical location of the nominee could be whether the nominee is from a developed or developing country and whether the candidate is male or female.

Press has indicated that the EU is seeking a developed country DG in light of the fact that the last DG is from a developing country (Brazil). Indeed, the last four DGs have rotated between developed and developing country nominees. Other developed countries (besides EU members) would include the United Kingdom, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Canada, United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and possibly a few others. The United States has never put up a candidate and is unlikely to do so this time either, but has apparently communicated with Australia a desire to broaden the group of candidates.

As all WTO DGs up to the present have been male, if there are equally qualified male and female candidates, this may be a factor considered by Members.

Expediting the process?

Press accounts indicate an expressed desire to find a replacement for DG Azevedo by the end of August. This seems a nearly impossible objective in light of travel limitations from efforts to control the pandemic, the likely number of candidates and the normal closure of the WTO to most business during the month of August.

But the agreed procedures do permit expedition of the process if agreed by the Members. WT/L/509 para. 23.

It is understood that the General Council meeting with all candidates may be held the week immediately after the close of the receipt of nominations, i.e., the week of July 13. If correct, this approach would have this step occur three weeks earlier than the comparable timing during the 2012-2013 DG selection process when the General Council meeting happened January 29-31 after the nomination process concluded on December 31.

Whether other steps to expedite the process are possible will depend on the will of the Members, limited by the obligation “to be guided by the best interests of the Organization, respect for the dignity of the candidates and the Members nominating them, and by full transparency and inclusiveness at all stages.” Appointment of the Next Director-General, Communication from the Chairman of the General Council to Members, JOB/GC/230 (20 May 2020).

An obvious area where time could be saved would be the three month time frame that candidates have to get themselves known to Members. With travel limitations, meetings with Members in Geneva and in capitals will presumably have to happen virtually. It is possible that governments could agree to a one month period for such outreach by candidates but would require availability of Missions and of officials in capitals with an interest to meet the candidates. If handled during the first month of the post-nomination process, this would suggest conclusion by August 8 (with possible frontloading of meetings for Members who will not extend general operations into August).

If handled on such an expedited basis, the Chairman of the General Council and his two facilitators could do “confessionals” during August to reduce the field of candidates to the one deemed most likely to achieve consensus by the end of the month with a General Council meeting set for Friday, August 28 to permit confirmation of the candidate (if consensus is achieved). Such an timeline would permit a new DG to be confirmed one business day before the departure of DG Azevedo.

To achieve such an outcome, either WTO Members would need to remain in Geneva during August or permanent representatives would need to be reachable and able to provide input during the month and all would need to be amenable to participating in the GC meeting (possibly remotely for some) at the end of August.

If such expedition is not possible, then Para. 23 of the procedures (WT/L/509) calls for the selection by consensus of an acting Director-General from among the four current Deputy Directors-General.

If the full six months to a decision are needed, this would suggest the General Counsel meeting in early December to meet the December 8 timeline. Nothing in the procedures requires a new Director-General to wait three months after confirmation before taking up the position when there is a vacancy/use of an Acting Director-General.

Of course, the objective for the selection process is consensus. While voting is an option, if there were failure to achieve a consensus through the procedures agreed to in 2002, Members could continue to meet with the Chairman of the General Counsel and his facilitators to attempt to achieve consenus. They could also take the extraordinary step of voting although such an approach on a new Director-General would likely have significant negative effects from the imposition of a DG opposed by some significant part of the membership.

Conclusion

As the game is now afoot for the selection of a new Director-General, one can expect a lot of energy of trade officials to be diverted in coming weeks to examining the candidates and choosing preferred candidates. It is clear that there will be a significant number of candidates put forward in the coming weeks which will complicate the ability to expedite the selection process. WTO Members could significantly expedite the process if willing to telescope meetings with candidates virtually and remaining available for decisions and confessionals during August.

We should know in a few weeks whether Members have agreed to a process to find a new DG before DG Azevedo departs or whether there will be some period of time where an acting DG is needed.

COVID-19 – continued global growth of cases; shift continues to Latin America, parts of Asia and the Middle East

Four months after COVID-19 peaked in China, where the virus started, the world continues to stagger under an expanding case load of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Indeed, in the last two weeks new cases around the world have increased by 1.567 million to reach a current global total since the end of December of 6.835 million as of June 7. These number compare to less than 55,000 global cases (nearly all in China) in early February. During the last two weeks, new confirmed cases increased 22.32% from the prior two weeks and continue a chain of unbroken increases since the beginning of March.

As much of the developed world has seen a peak in the number of cases, the continued growth in new cases reflects shifting centers or hot spots generally to developing countries. In looking at 25 countries that have accounted for more than 80% of all cases through June 7, ten of these countries have not yet reached a peak — Brazil, Chile, Egypt, India, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa — while the other fifteen have peaked and seen declines from peak of between 10% and 99%. These fifteen countries are Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States. Still these 25 countries saw a combined increase in total new cases of 18.7% in the last fourteen days. All other countries saw a much larger increase in new cases, 39.61% from 220,812 cases the previous 14 days to 308,293. Some countries of note in this “all other” grouping include Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Nepal, Oman, Qatar, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. See https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases. June 7th report embedded below.

COVID-19-situation-update-worldwide-as-of-7-June-2020

The shifting focus of cases to developing and least developed countries raises increased concerns about access to medical goods, including personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other goods. The WTO’s list of measures applied by Members dealing with COVID-19 either to restrict exports of medical goods or food products or to improve market access , shows dozens of countries applying export restraints on various medical goods (masks, gloves, etc.) including countries where new cases are well past peak (indeed where new cases may be 90% below peak). The WTO information is current as of May 29, 2020. There are also a large number of countries reducing tariffs or streamlining importation of medical goods. https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/trade_related_goods_measure_e.htm.

Moreover, health care infrastructure is often weaker in many of these countries facing growing COVID-19 cases, and the structure of their economies may complicate the ability of governments to address the pandemic even if medical goods are available. A recent article reviews the challenges in Latin America. See https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/06/americas/latin-america-coronavirus-intl/index.html.

Some major players like the United States, the European Union and its member states, and China are both investing large amounts in research and development and also securing early access to any vaccines developed through early commitments and other actions. https://www.biospace.com/article/eu-using-2-7-million-emergency-fund-to-buy-promising-covid-19-vaccines/. With the number of R&D projects ongoing around the world and the efforts of companies and governments to get manufacturing geared up early on promising products, the likelihood of earlier availability of large quantities of vaccines should there be breakthroughs has improved.

The question of equitable and affordable availability for all peoples is certainly there for a global pandemic where major players are funding research and have the resources to get early commitments for supplies. But greater manufacturing capacity earlier should improve global availability. So too the efforts of many countries, organizations and businesses to ensure both availability of vaccines and the distribution of such products to those in need is a major factor in ensuring greater access at affordable prices. As the news from the June 4 GAVI conference in London demonstrates, many are uniting to ensure that small children who have been unable to receive various immunizations against other diseases are able to do so yet this year as well as meet the needs of the pandemic for many developing and least developed countries. See https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/world-leaders-make-historic-commitments-provide-equal-access-vaccines-all.

Conclusion

The pandemic is continuing to worsen on a global basis even as parts of Asia, Western Europe, Oceania, Canada and the United States are post-peak and starting a process of reopening. The tremendous growth in the number of cases is in developing and least developed countries, those least prepared to handle the health and economic fall out.

The trade news is mixed. Many countries are liberalizing imports of medical goods during the pandemic which is obviously a positive. However, dozens of countries have introduced export restrictions in an environment in which global supply has lagged global demand, and countries have scrambled to protect access to what supplies they can. Many of these restrictions should be removed at this point, at least by countries that are well past peak demand situations.

Ramp up in global production of many medical goods has occurred, though it is unclear if demand/supply balance has been achieved or how/if the world will build the necessary national and regional inventories to handle a second wave or future pandemics. Moreover, without knowing how much larger the number of new cases will become before there is a global peak, it is hard to know if expansion of production of medical goods will be adequate to meet demand in the coming months. Efforts by the G-20 in the trade and investment area are a start but limited in terms of likely actual effect.

Factually, there have substantial declines in global trade flowing from the lock down situation in large parts of the world over the last few months. Trade flows should increase in those parts of the world where reopening is occurring but will likely further decrease in countries where the pandemic is picking up its infection rate. The economic toll on many countries who have come through the worst of the pandemic has been unprecedented and will present challenges to their ability to rebound quickly and to their willingness to increase financial assistance to others.

While success in finding vaccines or therapeutics is never guaranteed (indeed no vaccine for HIV has been found despite efforts for 40 years), there has never been the global focus on R&D and the willingness to risk large amounts of capital to be ready to produce large volumes of doses for any products demonstrating effectiveness. While the global community is not unified in its support of the WHO or in cooperating to achieve equitable and affordable access for all, there has been important support for both which should improve achieving a global solution if vaccines are developed that are effective.

Finally, it is hard to imagine significant forward movement at the WTO on its current negotiations or on WTO reform (including of the dispute settlement system) while Members are struggling to address the fallout from the pandemic. And, of course, with the WTO turning its attention to the selection of a new Director-General in light of DG Azevedo’s departure at the end of August, achieving focus on the normal work of the WTO will be that much harder until a new DG has been selected.

Bottom line – a continued difficult 2020 in the second half of the year.

Digital Services Taxes – New U.S. Section 301 Investigations on Nine Countries and the European Union

In 2019, the United States initiated a section 301 investigation on France’s digital services tax (“DST”), made a finding that France’s DST “is unreasonable or discriminatory and burdens or restricts U.S. Commerce.”  84 Fed. Reg. 66956 (Dec. 6, 2019).  Additional duties of up to 100% were proposed on French goods valued at $2.4 billion.  France agreed to hold up application of its tax until the end of 2020 and the U.S. agreed to hold up tariffs to give the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development time to conclude discussions on a possible agreed international tax structure for digital services.

On June 2, 2020, the U.S. Trade Representative announced the initiation of 301 investigations on nine countries and the European Union who have either implemented DSTs or who have such DSTs under development.  https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/june/ustr-initiates-section-301-investigations-digital-services-taxes.  The countries who are subject to the investigations include Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.  The notice of initiation of the investigations will appear in the Federal Register on June 5, 2020 but was posted on the USTR website on June 2.  https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/assets/frn/FRN.pdf.

Because of the COVID-19 situation, written comments are being accepted but it is unclear if there will be a public hearing.  Written comments are due by July 15, 2020.  The Federal Register notice pre-publication is embedded below.

USTR FR notice 301 investigation on digital services

The focus of the investigation will be on the following aspects of DSTs:

“The investigation initially will focus on the following concerns with DSTs: discrimination against U.S. companies; retroactivity; and possibly unreasonable tax policy. With respect to tax policy, the DSTs may diverge from norms reflected in the U.S. tax system and the international tax system in several respects. These departures may include: extraterritoriality; taxing revenue not income; and a purpose of penalizing particular technology companies for their commercial success.”  Page 5.

Based on the prior investigation into the French DST, there is little doubt that all of the programs will be found to violate Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended, in some respect.

For example, in the French case, the USTR made five findings relevant to some or all of the current investigations:

‘First, the evidence collected in this investigation indicates that the French DST is
intended to, and by its structure and operation does, discriminate against U.S. digital companies.”

“Second, the evidence collected in this investigation indicates that the French DST’s
retroactive application is unusual and inconsistent with prevailing tax principles and renders the tax particularly burdensome for covered U.S. companies, which will also affect their customers, including U.S. small businesses and consumers.”

“Third, the evidence collected in this investigation indicates that the French DST’s
application to gross revenue rather than income contravenes prevailing tax principles and imposes significant additional burdens on covered U.S. companies.”

“Fourth, the evidence collected in this investigation indicates that the French DST’s
application to revenues unconnected to a presence in France contravenes prevailing international tax principles and is particularly burdensome for covered U.S. companies.”

“Fifth, the evidence collected in this investigation indicates that the French DST’s
application to a small group of digital companies contravenes international tax principles counseling against targeting the digital economy for special, unfavorable tax treatment.”

USTR, Section 301 Investigation, Report on France’s Digital Services Tax, Dec. 2, 2019, pages 1, 3, 4, 5.  https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/Report_On_France%27s_Digital_Services_Tax.pdf.

The EU and the EU-member states covered have DSTs similar to France’s (without retroactivity) with some DSTs already in effect.  Other countries’ systems appear to be similar as well with many countries already applying their DST.  https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/assets/frn/FRN.pdf.

The full USTR report on France’s DST is embedded below.

Report_On_France’s_Digital_Services_Tax

Where taxes are already in place, action by USTR will be likely even ahead of the end of the year absent agreement with the trading partner to postpone collection.  The start of investigations at this time will enable the U.S. to complete the investigation this summer or early fall, take public comments on possible tariffs to be added if no resolution with individual countries or the EU is possible.  More specifically, the U.S. will have handled domestic legal requirements to act if other DSTs go into effect without an OECD agreement or where the tax imposed is not consistent with the OECD terms.  As stated in the USTR press release yesterday, “’President Trump is concerned that many of our trading partners are adopting tax schemes designed to unfairly target our companies,’ said USTR Robert Lighthizer. ‘We are prepared to take all appropriate action to defend our businesses and workers against any such discrimination.’”  https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/june/ustr-initiates-section-301-investigations-digital-services-taxes.

Conclusion

The OECD efforts to develop an agreed model for taxing digital services are supposed to conclude this year.  The U.S. and its leading digital services companies have been very concerned about the efforts of trading partners to impose taxes that will effectively apply only or disproportionately to them.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has added pressure on governments to find new sources of revenue, and digital services are an inviting target.

Expect this to be a very important issue in the second half of 2020.  Failure to find an acceptable solution to the United States will result in a significant escalation of trade tensions both with the EU and with many other countries going forward.