Since the birth of the GATT in 1947, multilateral negotiations have focused primarily on reducing barriers to trade for specific products and sectors: tariffs, subsidies, and different types of nontariff barriers. A recent report by the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Bain & Company and the World Bank (WEF 2013), Enabling Trade: Valuing Growth Opportunities (World Economic Forum, Bain & Co. and World Bank 2013) concludes that improving border management and transport and communications infrastructure services could increase global GDP by up to six times more than removing all import tariffs. Reducing supply-chain barriers to attain 50% of the global best practice level – as observed in Singapore – could increase global GDP by some 4.7% and global trade by 14.5%. By contrast, the global GDP and trade gains available from complete worldwide tariff elimination amount to some 0.7% and 10.1%, respectively. The gains from reducing supply-chain barriers would also be more evenly distributed across countries than those associated with tariff elimination. A less ambitious set of reforms that moves countries halfway to regional best practice (e.g. Chile in Latin America) could increase global GDP by 2.6% and world trade by 9.4%.
A pilot project implemented by eBay shows that helping small and medium-sized enterprises navigate the regulatory regimes of importing countries could expand their volume of international sales by 60 to 80%. Given that small and medium-sized enterprises account for a large share of total economic activity, this type of targeted trade facilitation could have significant positive spillover effects on employment.
Such large increases in GDP would be associated with positive effects on unemployment, potentially adding millions of jobs to the global workforce.
What could be done to realise the large potential welfare gains from an approach to policy focussed on supply chain barriers? The World Economic Forum report makes five specific recommendations:
1. Create a national mechanism to set policy priorities for improving supply-chain efficiency based on objective performance data and feedback loops between government and firms;
Governments must work with businesses and analysts to determine the policies and procedures that will help reach key tipping points. A central component of this effort should be the creation of mechanisms to collect data on factors affecting supply-chain operations. These data can then be used to identify ‘clusters’ of policies that jointly determine key supply chain barriers, identify priorities for action, and assess progress.
2. Create a focal point within government with a mandate to coordinate and oversee all regulation that directly affects supply chain efficiency;
Given the importance of tipping points, governments need to design policy with an economy-wide vision and recognition that industry-specific supply chains are affected by different clusters of policies. Improving supply-chain performance requires coherence and coordination across many government agencies and collaboration with industry.
3. Ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises’ interests are represented in the policy prioritisation process and that solutions are designed to address specific constraints that impact disproportionately on these businesses;
Because small and medium-sized enterprises’ ability to overcome supply-chain barriers is proportionally more difficult, governments should pay special attention to the needs of smaller businesses. For example, one relatively straightforward policy identified in the report is to raise levels for customs-duty collection that are too trivial to merit serious consideration in order to facilitate small-business engagement in international markets; another is to ensure that initiatives to reduce regulatory compliance costs such as ‘trusted trader’ programmes are complemented by programs that are accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises.
4. Pursue a ‘whole of the supply chain’ approach in international trade negotiations;
Greater coherence of domestic policies is important, but a key insight derived from the case studies is that coordination across countries matters as well. Joint action will increase the overall gains from lower supply-chain barriers. International trade negotiations usually take a silo approach, addressing policy areas in isolation. Lowering supply-chain barriers requires a more comprehensive and integrated approach that spans key sectors that impact on trade logistics, including services such as transport and distribution, as well as policy areas that jointly determine supply-chain performance – in particular those related to border protection and management, product health and safety, foreign investment, and the movement of business people and service providers.
Such a ‘whole of the supply chain’ approach can be pursued both at the multilateral (i.e. WTO) level and in regional trade agreements. Doing so would greatly enhance the relevance of international trade cooperation for businesses and help generate the engagement that is needed for trade agreements to obtain the political support needed to be adopted by national legislatures and to be implemented by governments. As has been argued by many observers, one lesson of the failure to conclude the Doha Round is that what is on the table is not seen to make enough of a difference from an operational business perspective. A supply-chain approach has great potential to address this failure and in the process provide a low-cost economic stimulus for the world economy in the medium term.
5. Launch a global effort to pursue conversion of manual and paper-based documentation to electronic systems, using globally agreed data formats.
Many of the inefficiencies in the operation of supply chains reflect a lack of reliability due to delays and uncertainty stemming from manual paper-based documentation, redundancy in data requirements and the absence of pre-arrival clearance and risk management-based implementation of policy. A global effort to adopt common documentary and electronic data/information standards would reduce administrative costs, errors, and time associated with moving goods across borders.
To address some these challenges, it is hoped that the WTO negotiations on trade facilitation will be succesfully concluded in Bali at the end of this year, 2013.