Thursday, July 28, 2011

Quick Reminder: FTA Delay Is Far From Painless

It's been pretty common knowledge for a while now that congressional consideration of pending US FTAs with South Korea, Colombia and Panama wouldn't happen before Congress' summer break (woo hoo!) August recess due to the unnecessary impasse between the White House and congressional Republicans about Trade Adjustment Assistance.  Insiders note that several different (Rube-Goldbergian) plans are circulating to secure passage of the trade agreements after the August recess, and most of the big "planners" are confident that the FTAs will be speedily passed in September.

Those of us who have been watching this comedy tragedy of errors unfold since mid-2007, of course, are taking a more cautious approach (read: we'll believe it when we see it).  But for a moment, let's just swallow the Kool-Aid and assume that the FTAs will finally get done in the Fall.  Everything will be cool then, right?  No harm, no foul, right?

Wrong.  Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

As I noted when the EU-Korea FTA entered into force on July 1, the delay of pending US trade agreements is imposing serious, and unnecessary, pain for US exporters and consumers who are facing higher tariffs (and thus higher prices/costs) at home and abroad that they would be if the KORUS (and other FTAs) had been implemented at some point over the last four(!) years.  When I first mentioned this problem, however, I was speaking in hypothetical terms, as the KOREU deal had just entered into force.  Now, after a few weeks of operation, South Korea's JoongAng Daily provides us with real proof of those formerly-hypothetical gains for European and Korean consumers and businesses (and, thus, of the real losses for American consumers and businesses):
Since the free trade agreement between Korea and the European Union took effect on July 1, cheap commodities from Europe are already helping ease consumer price strains here.

Frozen pork belly, known as samgyeopsal in Korean, from the Netherlands now sells at almost half the price of local pork belly, which stands at 2,280 won ($2.17) per 100 grams. Thanks to the imports, the sky-high price of Koreans’ favorite meat dish - which spiked from the mass culling of pigs after the recent foot-and-mouth disease epidemic - has come down considerably. Pork belly products from Belgium and France have also hit the shelves at more accommodating prices of 1,000 won per 100 grams.

The downward price movement does not only apply to produce: luxury European products also have modified their price tags. As a result, Koreans can now buy a BMW 3 Series for as much as 8.5 million won less than pre-FTA prices of 45.3 million won to 51.6 million won.

And the Korea-EU FTA has not only shaved prices of European products. Japanese and American carmakers are also reducing prices to compete with European imports. They are even cutting dealership margins in order to bring down prices.

In Europe, Korean companies are making big strides thanks to the tariff benefits of the FTA. Hyundai Motor, for example, sold 336,000 vehicles in 25 European countries in the first half of the year and is expected to outpace Japanese automaker Toyota by raising its market share in the euro zone by more than 5 percent in the second half. Japanese media have begun worrying that Japan will lose its share in the European market to its Korean counterparts due to a strong yen and the Korea-EU FTA.

It is undisputable that benefits from free trade agreements are immense. During the seven years of the Korea-Chile free trade agreement, bilateral trade has surged by 287 percent. In Chile, Korean motor vehicles and electronics now outperform their Japanese competitors.
Very cool.  For Europeans and Koreans, I mean.  It's totally un-cool for American consumers and exporters who needlessly face (and in some cases have needlessly faced for over four years now) higher prices at home and tougher competition abroad due to their government's embarrassing inability to implement the pending US FTAs.  And some of the Korean (and soon, Colombian) market moves happening right now because of the "rival" FTAs will not be easily reversed if/when American companies gain equal footing with their European (or Canadian or...) competitors.

So, hey, if the US trade deals do finally get finalized in September, it'll certainly be better than if they don't move at all.  But let's please never forget that (i) American families and businesses are paying a steep price for their government's incompetence, and (ii) all of this pain easily could have been avoided if President Obama really cared enough to make that happen.

But he doesn't.  So here we are.

See you in September, I guess.

[P.S.  I've often said that FTAs are the least-good option when it comes to free trade policies (third to unilateral and multilateral liberalization), but the article above really hits the point home that FTAs, while far from perfect, are still a significant improvement over the status quo.]

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