TPP — can’t get something for nothing

12/02/2014 Comments Off on TPP — can’t get something for nothing

I have avoided discussing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations, because it’s complex and secret and yet to be decided. But a statement from Tariana Turia, Associate Minister of Health, leads me to comment. Turia’s plain packaging for cigarettes bill just passed its first vote. The bill is intended to reduce the sale of cigarettes by making the packaging less attractive. A challenge to a similar Australian law is before the WTO, and the bill raises questions about the TPP.

The question is whether New Zealand will have the latitude to pass such laws should it sign the TPP. Just to stress, until the language is finalised, it’s all speculation. This legal post on investor-state arbitration is an example. But, Turia’s statement suggests a certain naivete about the negotiations. She said:

While the tobacco industry may have laid down a threat that if this legislation is passed [it will be challenged] my message to them is that our country has a sovereign right and a legal right to protect its citizens.

The point of these sorts of negotiations, though, is the give-and-take. New Zealand gives up a bit of its sovereignty to make laws within its own borders in exchange for consistency across borders.

One lesson from the analysis of international trade — the one that gets trumpeted — is that free trade makes countries better off. It lowers prices, increases the amount of products, increases product variety, leads to greater uptake of technology, and promotes innovation. Another lesson from exactly the same analysis is that there are distributional impacts from free trade. Some people within a country can be made worse off. This result arises either from the supply or demand side — either individuals’ resources fall in value or their consumption bundles become more expensive. The now-richer country can moderate the distributional impacts, but it isn’t a requirement of the models.

So back to New Zealand. Let’s stipulate that TPP will lead to economic benefits for the country as a whole. The same analysis would also tell us that there are likely to be winners and losers. Given that much of the negotiation has happened out of sight of the public, and that the Government won’t even let the people’s representatives see the text, one does have to wonder who those winners and losers will be.

Also, the cigarette companies have a very good legal argument on their side. The products are legal and their brand image is valuable. Quoting ACT MP John Banks:

I don’t believe the State should seize property rights from legitimate companies selling legitimate products.

So we have two opposing legal rights — the country’s right to protect its citizens, and the property right of companies. In the future, TPP will end up being a thumb on the scales. Turia may find that the balance has shifted.


Onions — a data point on exports

05/03/2013 Comments Off on Onions — a data point on exports

I’ve been looking at horticultural crops and their export opportunities. It can be a fickle business. You work hard to develop a specific market, and overnight the rules can change or a new competitor comes in. Tastes and preferences are different around the world and change over time, so fruit varieties that sell well this year in Europe might not be suitable in five years or in Asian countries.

Horticulture in New Zealand is an export industry. Wine, onions, potatoes, apples, cherries, etc. — they sell some on the domestic market but lots overseas. Mainly, we aren’t big players on international markets — not like dairy — so there is lots of room to grab niche markets but also the danger of being squashed.

Being an export industry, horticulture is affected by the exchange rate. I was looking at onion exports and thought they looked a bit like the inverse of the exchange rate. Here’s the graph:


The correlation coefficient between the two series is -0.54, which is reasonably strong. Yes correlation is not causation and no I haven’t run any statistical tests and yes it’s a short data series. But, at first blush it does suggest that the high exchange rate is hindering this export industry.

As the title suggests, I’m just offering this as a data point. When we talk about the impacts of exchange rates and the OCR and Auckland housing and manufacturing, this is the sort of thing going on out there in the economy.


A parable about trade

04/10/2012 Comments Off on A parable about trade

7.20 am, in a mall in Christchurch.

I’m sitting at a cafe, the first customer of the day. So first, in fact, that they aren’t even ready to serve me.

I watch the mall stores get ready. The butcher, the baker, the sushi-maker. Not exactly ‘Il est cinq heures, Paris s’eveille’, but not without its charms.

The barista shooshes up a couple of coffees and takes them to the butcher. It occurs to me — not every shop has a coffee maker. It sounds trivial, but it tells us something. Why don’t they? Coffee making is not hard, the technology is widely available.

This is a great example of specialisation. Espresso makers cost a bit, and getting more coffees per machine is good. Baristas get a technique going, learning to make coffees better and faster. The butcher could, of course, make coffee and chop meat. But he can do better focusing on just the one.

Next, the barista comes out of the butcher’s shop, and she’s carrying a couple of packages of meat. It doesn’t look like meat for the cafe, but something to take home. There we go — trade. Her coffee for his meat. At a ratio mutually agreed. Because they trade, they can specialise. She doesn’t have to butcher her own meat. It isn’t so much ‘taking in each other’s washing’, it’s more exchanging washing for baking.

The mall is its own economy, small producers trading amongst themselves. So, sales to mall customers are like exports from Mall-land. It becomes clear what trade can provide.

Why do we go to the mall?

  • to benefit from specialisation — just like the butcher and the barista
  • to get stuff we can’t get elsewhere — stuff we can’t make ourselves regardless of how hard we try
  • to get different stuff — yeah, I could have coffee at home, but coffee out is a change.

International trade isn’t any different in principle. We get stuff we can’t produce here — rare minerals, tropical fruits. We can also focus on doing some things well — milk powder, merino wool. And we can have more diversity — climb each other’s mountains, ford each other’s streams.

It works for the barista and butcher, and it can work for all of us.

Markets in Easter candy

05/04/2012 Comments Off on Markets in Easter candy

Easter is almost upon us, reminding me of my early lessons in endowments, preferences, and Pareto optimisation. I’m talking, of course, about trading Easter candy.

Now, parents have an impossible task. They can either give every child exactly the same endowment of candy (jelly beans, chocolate eggs, marshmallow chicks, etc.), or they can attempt to equalise the satisfaction of the children by matching endowments to known preferences.

I come from a big family. Easter morning, our baskets of candy would be waiting for us, delivered overnight by the Easter bunny. In a small family, it is possible to spend more time giving each child what they want. In a big family, everybody just needs to get in line and accept what they get.

So, we all had pretty much the same baskets. As a result, once the chocolate bunnies were eaten, we were each left with candy we didn’t particularly like. There was scope for Pareto improvement — each one of us could be better off and no one worse off by engaging in free trade. I was the only one who liked black jelly beans, so that was my ace in the hole. I was pretty much the monopsony buyer of black jelly beans. On the other hand, I don’t particularly care for marshmallow chicks, so I was happy to get rid of them. Also, as an older child, I had a bit of an advantage over my less experienced siblings.

Of course, candy is candy, even if it isn’t the best. Each piece still has a minimum sugar value. This sugar value functioned as a reserve price in the barter process.

What did I learn from all this?

  • heterogeneity of preferences can be a strong driver of trade
  • failures in initial endowments can be corrected through open markets
  • information is powerful — use it to your advantage
  • the trade price is indeterminate, so try to find your partner’s reserve price.

When I say that trades were Pareto improving, that’s a technical term. It doesn’t mean there weren’t arguments and even tears. But that’s all part of the information discovery process, right? And, as much as everyone was better off, I have to admit that I might have been a bit betterer off. What can I say? That’s what big brothers do.

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