Supply Chain

Protectionism Hits the Global CFO

Economic theory and experience offer little reason to believe that a move towards increased protectionism will benefit the United States.
Bodhi GanguliMarch 17, 2017

The United States and other powerhouse global economies currently stand at a watershed moment, waiting for the rules of global trade to be rewritten. This uncertainty adds to the challenges facing the modern CFO, who must drive business growth while ensuring compliance with the new playbook.

On the one hand, global corporations have invested heavily in intricate supply chains that span multiple countries and play an important role in ensuring seamless distribution of their products to their customers (who could also be in various countries at the same time). On the other hand, CFOs now have to prepare for changes in this established order as a wave of deglobalization sweeps the world.

It’s clear that President Trump is going to shake up U.S. trade policy, but what exactly he will do and when remains unclear. Regardless, he seems to be moving toward an “America First” policy. But economic theory and experience offer little reason to believe that a move towards increased protectionism will benefit the United States.

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In the absence of details, the uncertainty surrounding the issue will add to corporations’ cost of doing business. In some cases, it might even lead to reduced business activity. For instance, a CFO might advise his or her company against investing in a new production facility in Mexico until the fate of NAFTA is clear.

Long-term damage such as dissipation of economic growth, a legacy of toxic politics and a slowdown in innovation are just some of the effects of what some experts are calling deglobalization — a stagnation or contraction in cross-border relationships.

Current events seem to be bearing this out. The recent Brexit vote, uneasy trade relations among countries, reduced GDP growth worldwide, and the emergence of more restrictive migration policies all point to a global relational environment that is contracting, not expanding, according to Dun & Bradstreet’s economists.

The differing views we see today in the United State reflect both the benefits of increased global trade across a wide constituency (consumers, educated workers) and the fact that the losers in globalization are extremely concentrated geographically, in terms of industries, and demographically.

Further, there is ample evidence that the main beneficiaries from U.S. trade with poorer countries are U.S. consumers. Thanks to international trade, clothes in the U.S. cost almost the same as in 1986, and furnishing a house as much (or as little) as in 1980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index.

Conversely, those most exposed and vulnerable to international competition, such as manufacturers and their employees in the Midwestern rustbelt and in the South, are the ones paying the price for the cheap imports.

As we are seeing in the current political climate, the groups who are losing their jobs as a consequence of international trade are far more vocal in their denunciation of trade than the many who have benefited from cheaper clothes, electronics, and other imports.

The industrial and geographical winners and losers of potential shifts in U.S. trade policy will depend on the new rules that replace the current ones. But at the macro level, the United States’s withdrawal from multi-country deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) does narrow the playing field for global corporations and constrains the CFO’s ability to penetrate new markets under a standardized set of rules.

For the United States, the main winners in the trade deals would have been companies in the agricultural sector, particularly in beef and pork, as the Japanese market would have opened up to these imports. U.S. companies that rely on intellectual property would have benefitted from the TPP’s increased protection of IP in signatory nations. Services companies such as banks and telecoms would also have gained, as TPP would have liberalized trade in services, in which developed countries are generally far more competitive.

In the end, we are seeing a pivot in U.S. trade policy from multilateralism to bilateralism. The president has repeatedly said the United States will negotiate one-on-one with its trading partners to get better deals.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), yet another proposed trade deal between the United States and the EU, is also unlikely to pass here. And it’s not just the United States that’s leaning towards that approach. Brexit, too, is an example of the United Kingdom’s intent to break away from a set of rules that govern multiple countries in an effort to obtain more favorable concessions via one-on-one negotiations.

Much of the modern world has enjoyed the benefits of globalization, which has until recently largely been perceived as positive. Yet political turmoil, socioeconomic upheaval, and territorial conflict characterize the flavor of world relations today, stemming from a sense among some populations that the benefits of globalization haven’t translated to all.

In the midst of this turmoil is a fragmenting of populations, trade agreements, and sociopolitical relationships. History suggests that periods of deglobalization, like the one we’re now in, can have effects that last for decades, including isolationism in rich countries.

Yet, globalization isn’t really going away. To be sure, there are certainly parts of the world that are behaving in a more isolationist way.

But deglobalization is an illusion in some ways. You can retrench and be less global if you want. Companies and countries have the ability to some extent to shift the amount of dependency they have on cross-border debt, on cross-border imports and exports, and on the balance of trade. But at the end of the day, supply chains and value chains are global. Customers are everywhere. The global CFO must work for all of them.

Bodhi Ganguli, is lead economist for Dun & Bradstreet’s country risk services team. D&B senior economist Oana Aristide also contributed to this article.

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