The Other Half: Dealing with U.S.-Japan Auto Disputes

My last post covered one of the most difficult topics in trade negotiations—the problems with agriculture.  This issue is partially confounding a solution to the ongoing U.S.-Japan bilateral negotiations related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.

But agriculture (specifically the fight over Japan’s five “sacred” items) is only half the battle.  In exchange for receiving more access to Japan’s important and protected agricultural markets, the United States is supposed to allow improved access to its auto market.   However, since the auto market barriers into the United States are not seen as sufficiently problematic to match the barriers in agriculture, the Americans are also asking for a number of changes to let more cars and auto parts flow into Japan.

This fight over autos between the United States and Japan has been underway for decades.  Literally.  Equally astonishing, there appear to have been very few changes along the way in the tone or tenor of the argument despite a radically different market environment over the same period.

My Ph.D. dissertation was partially about auto fights of the late 1980s and mid-1990s.  Sometimes, listening to the arguments made now around the topic, I could swear that nothing has changed in the past 25 years.  Many of the very same people who were present all those years ago are the same folks driving these negotiations.

The United States has two clear barriers to trade in autos.  For passenger cars, the tariff is currently 2.5%.  For trucks, the tariff rises to 25%.  Japan would like to see both removed.

What makes this whole argument rather surreal is that Japan exports almost no finished autos from Japan into the United States.  Instead, in the wake of NAFTA provisions on car manufacturing, Japanese auto manufacturers largely moved their production networks into NAFTA countries. 

About 85% of all Nissan autos sold in the United States are domestically produced.  For Toyota, the number is about 70%, with mainly just Lexus models built outside NAFTA.  Honda’s figures are higher at 95% production inside the United States, Canada and Mexico. 

Even if the auto tariff of 2.5% were eliminated tomorrow, it is unlikely to drive dramatically different trade patterns.  In spite of this, the Americans are apparently insisting on extraordinarily long phase out periods of up to 25 years. 

Think about that for a moment—a quarter century to phase out a 2.5% tariff on products that are largely domestically produced.

I would hate to think about the sheer number of hours spent arguing over this point across the decades.  Even in the past year, officials have invested hundreds of hours in conference rooms around the world hashing out how to make this tiny tariff go away.

Of course, the other piece of the equation is figuring out how to get more finished American cars into Japan.  This is an equally nonsensical fight.  

Take the specific case of General Motors.  After complaining about limited opportunities to sell cars in Japan for more than 3 decades, how many models does GM make with right-hand drive that could be sold in Japan?  Answer:  two

So the Americans are fighting vigorously to get more cars into the Japanese market that are just as unsuitable as they were decades ago. 

The company, I am sure, would argue that the math does not justify the tremendous investment in creating suitable products.  GM has 34 outlets in Japan.  (For comparison, Toyota has more than 4,700 dealerships in the United States.)  If GM sold 1400 cars in Japan, it would mean only 41 sales per outlet in an entire year. 

GM and Ford didn’t even bother to show up at the Toyota Motor Show for four consecutive years.  

Because the volume is so small, it is hard to justify the investment of a full garage to service the cars.  Without a garage, consumers that might take the plunge and buy a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the vehicle, also have to factor in very high prices for parts and servicing. 

In the last heated battles over autos, the American insisted that they could not sell more cars into Japan because of various barriers to entry, including an inspection system that favored local producers.  While many of these issues remain, it is worth noting that European car manufacturers have continued to experience market growth.

European brands made the decision decades ago to invest in their own dealerships and not rely on Japanese-brand outlets to hawk their goods like the Americans.  European brands brought in garages and auto parts.  And, critically, they built cars that were suitable for, and adapted to, the local market.

Now, European sales still fall short of what might be expected in a different type of market setting.  Total foreign auto sales still account for less than 5% of all autos sold in Japan.  But European sales leave American brands in the dust. 

BMW regularly alters models to meet customer needs, including introducing a range of diesel and hybrid autos that are in demand from consumers.  Volkswagen sells the largest number of foreign-branded cars in Japan, with a strong focus on economy to mid-range models.

Certainly, there are still obstacles to selling vehicles in Japan.  For example, Japan has a preferential tax system that rewards domestic vehicles with tiny motors.  Nearly a third of the market consists of autos with engines of less than 660 cc.  Neither the Americans nor the Europeans have models that fit this profile.

Japan also has its own safety standards that do not match either the EU or the United States.  (Although frankly, this could also be turned around--the EU and the U.S. do not have standards matching Japanese auto regulations making it difficult for Japanese brands to thrive in both markets without potentially extensive modifications.) Getting a new model certified in Japan can be extremely expensive.

They say that generals usually prepare to fight the last war.  This adage appears to be equally true in the auto debates.  Instead of focusing on competitive challenges, the Big 3 blame Japan’s supposed manipulation of currency as a key impediment to selling more cars.  Again—this is an incredible flashback to the fights of the 1980s and 1990s when the exact same arguments were used by the Big 3.

If currency values could somehow be adjusted only for autos and not for the economy as a whole, perhaps currency misalignments might be a genuine complaint.  However, it is certainly difficult to argue that currency stops American sales and not European sales.  Or that it somehow affects cars more than other goods.

In short, the United States auto industry has been making the same arguments about the closed car and parts markets in Japan, about currency manipulation, and about the necessity for tariffs to protect the domestic market for decades.  It is time to close the debate, sign the bilateral deal on the table for autos and move on to new, 21st century issues in the TPP.

***Talking Trade is a blog post written by Deborah Elms, Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***

Defending the Indefensible in TPP

As the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations head towards conclusion, I am increasingly fielding questions from people about the challenging final issues that remain.  This post covers a range of topics that stem largely from officials trying to defend policies that appear indefensible to outsiders.  Most are rooted in specific local politics or interpretations of domestic conditions that may be under threat in the TPP.

Why is Japan fighting so hard for rice protections?  My interviewer on CNBC this week asked again why Japan’s government is ready to fight to the finish over issues of rice.  After all, the agricultural sector in Japan contributes a tiny sliver to overall economic output.  The average age of Japan’s farmers is heading towards 70 and very few farm full-time.  In exchange for historical protections that include a rice tariff of 777 percent to keep out foreign polished rice, Japanese consumers pay extraordinarily high prices for rice and agricultural products of all sorts.

This situation is not unique to Japan.  Like many countries, the political system has been stacked in favor of rural voters, who are overweighted in the parliament relative to their population size. 

Mansur Olsen, the Nobel-prize winning economist, highlighted problems of collective action several decades ago.  While it is true that consumers as a whole would benefit from lower rice and agricultural prices, the problems of collective action mean that these diffuse interests rarely result in activity by large groups that would receive modest benefits.  By contrast, Japanese rice farmers clearly grasp the competitive challenges that they will face from the removal of barriers to trade.  They have every incentive to make their unhappiness known in loud and clear terms to political leaders.

In Japan, these concentrated agricultural producer interests can be further funneled to politicians and bureaucrats through a strong and entrenched bureaucracy of their own.  Japanese farmers are also brought together by JA Zenchu, an agricultural cooperative that (for the moment) comes with large numbers of staff and considerable economic strength.  They can mobilize significant numbers of voters and ensure that their supporters make it to the polls on election day.

Why are the Americans fighting so hard on auto tariff reductions?  The United States currently levies a 2.5% tariff on imported passenger cars.  In the TPP, Japan is pushing hard to get this tariff eliminated as soon as possible.  Like all TPP rules, it would apply to TPP member firms only and would not be extended (through the TPP) to other country companies.

What makes American opposition to tariff reductions so puzzling is that much of Japan’s auto production now takes place inside the United States and the rest of North America.  As a result of the rules set down more than 20 years ago in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), auto producers that want to take advantage of the agreement must produce a substantial percentage of the final vehicles in NAFTA countries.  Hence, few Japanese autos are likely to benefit from a lowering of tariffs on autos in the TPP since most are already created inside the American domestic marketplace where they have never paid tariffs on the final products.

For more than 30 years, the U.S. auto industry has been uncomfortable with Japan’s access to the American market.  Maintaining a minor tariff for a substantial length of time is one way to help encourage wavering members of Congress to avoid blocking the TPP agreement on behalf of the domestic auto industry. 

Why can’t Canada change the supply management system for dairy and poultry?  The TPP is supposed to be a high quality, 21st century trade agreement that includes all products with no exceptions and a goal of lowering tariffs to zero.  In this context, the myriad system of supports that Canada uses to protect domestic dairy and poultry farmers from competition (primarily from the Americans) ought to be phased out over time.

But Canada faces the same sort of collective action problems on agricultural reform that Japan confronts.  Although Canada’s consumers would clearly benefit from lower prices on a wider range of dairy and egg products, the industry is much better organized and can mobilize significant resources to fight change.  So far, the industry has been impressively successful in keeping supply management off the negotiating table, including (so far) in the TPP talks.

Why won’t the Americans open up the domestic sugar market to Australian sugar?  This question stems from an odd quirk in the current negotiating environment in the TPP.  Although officials are aiming for a high quality result, negotiators have to operate in a world of existing, overlapping trade agreements from the past.  These previous deals will not go away once the TPP is signed.

In an existing bilateral trade agreement between the United States and Australia, sugar was carved out or excluded from the deal.  At the time, it was part of a “grand bargain” of sorts that let Australia carve out investor-state dispute settlement while the Americans protected their sugar industry.  If Australia gets better access to the American sugar market in the TPP, it will undermine the provisions of the past deal.

The sugar industry in the United States has been amazingly well protected since WWII.  Production of sugar cane is highly concentrated in a handful of farmers.  But production of sugar beets is spread much more widely.  Large numbers of members of the U.S. Congress represent states or districts that grow sugar across diverse and politically important parts of the country.   These representatives have always responded to the money and influence of the domestic sugar lobby and the TPP is no exception.  Sugar changes in the TPP that would allow greater imports of Australian sugar have been vigorously fought off.

Why don’t American union groups support the TPP?  This question came to me with great puzzlement at a meeting of ASEAN trade union leaders this week in Kuala Lumpur.  From their perspective, any agreement that raises economic growth is likely to result in additional jobs.  With new markets opening up that were previously closed or difficult and expensive to penetrate, firms have new opportunities for expansion and job creation.

Yet American labor leaders have come out loudly and vocally against the TPP.  Union membership in the United States has been falling for some time.   Labor leaders fear that TPP changes will exacerbate the loss of union jobs in the United States, since many union members are blue-collar workers. 

What is especially strange about the objection to the TPP by labor leaders is that most union members are actually government employees of all stripes, including teachers or public health care employees, who are unlikely to be affected by this trade agreement.  The fastest growing segment of unionization is taking place among services employees.  If the TPP leads to economic growth, the service sector is also likely to expand.  Many of these jobs, like hotel and restaurant workers, are not going to be outsourced.  In fact, it could certainly be argued that easier movement of people across the TPP for business travel and tourism should bring additional jobs to American services union workers. 

We can argue about the quality of such jobs and the appropriate pay scales for workers, but the TPP should not affect either of these elements of service sector union jobs.

Why are some TPP members fighting over specific rules changes for one class of medicines?  One of the most hotly contested arguments in the entire TPP agreement has been about appropriate patent length protections for a class of pharmaceutical medicines.  Should biologic drugs receive 5, 8 or 12 years of coverage before going off patent and becoming available to generic drug manufacturers? 

What is strange about this fight is that biologic drugs like the flu vaccines are extremely hard to manufacture.  They cannot be easily reverse engineered.  Each dose can be unique, as biologic drugs are not simple copies of one another. 

Most TPP members do not have (and may never have) the capabilities to manufacturing pharmaceutical products.  Even fewer will be able to create biologic medicines.  Thus, the fight over patent length protection does not make sense for most members.  However, many countries appear to have seized on this issue as a tool for achieving their negotiating objectives elsewhere in the agreement.  It is more of a bargaining chip than a serious point of disagreement.

Closing a deal is hard.  Given the nature of trade negotiations, the most difficult, politically sensitive issues are left to the very end of discussions.  It is only after the broadest balance of interests is largely hammered out that leaders can make a clear-eyed assessment of their total gains and losses throughout a complex negotiation.  Given the determination of benefits and challenges, countries will decide whether they will continue to defend largely economically indefensible policies or whether such programs will be adjusted in the wake of the TPP.  The time for sorting out such decisions and making appropriate calculations is now.

***Talking Trade is a blog post written by Dr. Deborah Elms, Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***

The TTIP Paper Conundrum: A4 versus US Letter

This week American and European trade negotiators are meeting in Brussels for the 8th round of Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade talks. 

TTIP is, perhaps, the most difficult trade negotiation ever. 

This statement will likely be met with complaints by current and former trade officials who will argue that other agreements were much more challenging.  The early global talks in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) had to operate in a world with no rules at all governing international trade.  Each provision—every sentence and even every word—required careful thought since it was unclear what sort of implications might follow from different commitments. 

The GATT’s successor organization, the World Trade Organization (WTO), has been unable to bridge differences across what are now 160 different members.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) talks were no picnic, as the types of integration imagined in the deal were deeper and broader than most commitments to that point.  European Union (EU) market integration negotiations have also proven difficult since many of the regulations struck deep into domestic territories.

Even the parallel Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations with 12 parties across the Pacific have taken more than 20 rounds across nearly 5 years with conclusion still elusive.

In spite of the difficulties faced by officials in these other megaregional deals, TTIP is still more challenging.  Why?  Largely because the agreement on the table now has more win-lose, binary options than previous trade deals.

Since the EU and the United States have broadly similar approaches to trade and market liberalization, much of the normal “meat and potatoes” of a trade agreement are not so critical for these negotiations.  Tariffs (with some exceptions, especially in agriculture) are relatively low.  Services and investment (again with some exceptions) flow relatively freely.  Even the sorts of non-tariff barriers that confound trade in many places are relatively modest.

The real benefits from TTIP come from harmonized or reduced regulations and closer alignment of standards.  The economic payoff from getting companies to use only one set of standards or to comply with one broad set of regulations would be incredibly significant.  A producer could create one product to be bought and sold in all 28 individual member markets of the European Union and the United States.

Yet the costs of harmonization in TTIP are also potentially enormous.  As the most basic example of this problem, consider the paper conundrum.  When the deal is done, what sort of paper will it be printed on?  A4 or US Letter size?  The former is the European standard for paper and the latter is the American default.

A4 paper is 210 x 297 millimeters or 8.3 x 11.7 inches in size.  US Letter is 216 x 279 mm or 8.5 x 11 inches.  Even the approaches to measurement—metric versus imperial—are different.

To really unlock the economic benefits of TTIP, not having to produce, stock and carry two sets of paper sizes would be very important.  The harmonization of standards around paper size would allow firms to more easily shift from producing for the American market to the European market and vice versa. 

But note that this simple decision—to agree on the paper used for the agreement—also brings significant other changes to the economy.  Printers, printer software and copiers may need alteration.  Binders, three-hole punches, folders of every description would also need to change.  File cabinets would be made redundant if they do not fit the new paper size.

Most notably, however, the burden for this change would fall on only ONE side of the agreement.  There is no way to standardize or harmonize paper sizes in TTIP without putting one side at an advantage and imposing a major financial burden on the other party.

Officials in past deals will quickly argue that similar win-lose outcomes have taken place all the time in such trade negotiations.  But the difference, I think, is that past agreements like the GATT or NAFTA or even the EU itself had the potential to enlarge the pie and to create other types of win-win outcomes.  In other words, trade officials could think creatively about how to balance the benefits more broadly and the upside potential of new markets usually was sufficient to offset the relatively modest number of groups, firms, industries or sectors that suffered (or thought they might suffer) a particular loss from an agreement.

TTIP is wading deep into regulatory and standards territories where win-win outcomes are not likely.  A key point of the whole exercise, in fact, is to eliminate divergence between these powerful markets.  The only way to get to such an outcome is to either agree on one or the other existing standard or create some sort of new standard that imposes costs on both sides (and, presumably tries for equal costs to both parties).

Let me illustrate the problems again with several additional examples. 

In autos, there are clear differences of opinion over regulatory issues.  To take a small example, the very premise of EU and American rules over the safety of auto bumpers is different.  The EU side is primarily concerned about pedestrian safety in crafting bumper standards.  The Americans are worried about crashes between autos and have standards to cover higher speed impacts.  How can these two differences even be reconciled?  It is (as I understand it) not possible to create a bumper that simultaneously takes pedestrian safety and head-on collision safety as equally important in manufacturing.  If the TTIP chooses, it will automatically privilege one side over the other.  Yet, if officials do not make a decision, firms will have to pick one set of manufacturers to work with or the other or continue to manufacture completely different products for both markets.  The whole purpose of harmonization will have been lost.

Similar problems abound in TTIP.  On food safety issues, the regulatory principles behind the rules are often fundamentally different.  The EU side generally approaches food with the understanding that food must be proven safe before it can be sold.  The Americans generally argue that unless food is proven unsafe, it is suitable for distribution. 

In data privacy and protection, both sides approach the issue differently as well.  Again, reconciling the two approaches would have benefits for firms trying to operate in both key markets.  But it is not possible to somehow “split the difference” between the two regulatory approaches because they start from different points.

Officials are not oblivious to these challenges.  They are especially working in this round, it appears, on mutual recognition.  Under this approach, both parties would recognize, for example, that a product that meets safety standards in one market could be viewed as meeting the regulation in the other market.  Chemical products could be tested in one market and automatically approved in the other market. 

But this does not really get around any fundamental differences in the first place.  If I believe that chemicals can only be certified as safe under the rules that my regulators have created, why would I trust the safety of your product using a different set of rules (and ones that I, presumably, trust less or I would have incorporated them into my own rules in the first place)?

Hence, despite the renewed momentum behind the talks and potentially significant economic benefits, the TTIP faces the toughest set of challenges of any trade agreement.  If it somehow succeeds, it will be an entirely new kind of trade deal—closer to an imagined “21st century” agreement than anything else out there.  But the obstacles to closure are deeper and wider than seem to be appreciated thus far on either side.

Updated Update: Pork, Beef and Autos

News continues to flow out from last week's meetings between the United States and Japan over the five "sacred" items and automobiles.  The last post covered this ground in greater detail, but here's a few more pieces of useful information:

After more than a year of vigorously denying the possibility, it finally looks like Japan and the Americans have agreed to handle some or all of the sacred agricultural issues through tariff rate quotas (TRQs).  This is a somewhat complex administrative system that allows a country to import a certain quantitative amount of a good at one, lower, tariff rate.  Imports above that quota are charged a different, higher amount.  Such schemes are possible for agricultural products.

For pork, indications are that the in quota rate on low-value pork will be lowered from 482 yen (or roughly USD$4) a kilo to 50 yen across a ten year time period.  The out of quota rate (for pork in excess of, perhaps, 500,000-600,000 tons) will be charged 100 yen once the agreement is fully phased in.   For some context, Japan currently imports 760,000 tons of pork (with more than half of imports from the United States and Canada).  

However, as noted in my earlier post, the agreement will also have a snapback provision to allow tariffs to revert to 482 yen if imports surge.

Beef will also be subject to the same TRQ schemes, with the in-quota rate falling from 38.5% to just under 10%.

The primary issue with all these quotas now seems to be the specific provisions for the safeguards.  If defined too loosely, they will automatically be applied as imports go up post-TPP.  If defined too tightly, the Japanese are worried that they may never meet the criteria and may face crippling competition from American farmers with no remedy available.

In order to increase the leverage the United States has over these sensitive agricultural issues, the five sacreds were always tied to changes in automobiles.  The Americans now appear to have promised to drop auto tariffs, but to do so on the same schedule as the longest phase-out period permitted for agricultural products.  This keeps the pressure on Japan to implement tariff reductions in the shortest possible time period.

Because Japan was a late entrant into the TPP negotiations, it has been busily conducting bilateral market access talks with the other TPP member countries as well.  It looks like Japan is running into some resistance from Vietnam (also rice and autos), New Zealand (dairy), Canada (also dairy), and Malaysia (plywood and timber products).  Talks with other member countries where Japan already has existing trade agreements may be going more smoothly, although it is always difficult for governments to agree to additional concessions in the TPP negotiations that were not available in the bilateral talks.

Finally, I would like to close with a shout out to the Japanese media.  Although accusations of TPP secrecy have been flowing thick and fast (even from people who ought to know better as I pointed out on January 14), the Japanese media have done a solid job in providing regular updates on the state of the talks.