Many countries use trade policy to protect their own consumers from spikes in international food prices. It turns out that this well-intentioned practice can actually do more harm than good. During food price spikes -- such as those in mid-2008, early 2011 and mid-2012 – governments restricted the export of food staples or lowered barriers to importing them. They hoped to keep their domestic prices of rice, wheat, maize, and oilseed low, reasoning that this would help their poor and stop people from falling into poverty. But there is new evidence that, while the practice kept each country’s domestic prices down relative to the world prices at the time, it contributed to the higher international prices that were the source of concern. In a World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, “Food Price Spikes, Price Insulation, and Poverty,” we explore this phenomenon and find that it did not reduce global poverty in 2008. On the contrary, we estimate it may have increased poverty slightly (by 8 million people).
Sometimes trade policy works through unexpected channels. In the case of Indonesia, opening the services sector to foreign investment appears to be a way to significantly boost the productivity of domestic manufacturing firms, according to recent joint research from the World Bank’s Office in Indonesia and the International Trade Department. This finding has implications for governments around the world that have restricted foreign investment in services – such as transport, electricity and communications – that are vital to other productive sectors in the economy.
The state-owned operator of Indonesia’s Tanjung Priok Port is taking major steps to decrease congestion at the country’s main gateway. The company, Pelindo II, recently announced it will increase storage fees at the port to discourage shippers from leaving containers there for long periods of time. It has also said it will install a new information technology system to better monitor and direct traffic at the port.
The two initiatives are an effort to boost the performance of a port that handles two-thirds of Indonesia’s international trade. The container traffic at Tanjung Priok has grown at a rate of about 20 percent the last two years and is expected to double by 2015. But containers arriving at the port spend an average of 6 days to obtain clearance and get removed, one of the highest “dwell time” rates in the region and up from 4.9 days in 2010.
A troubling phenomenon is occurring in large, emerging economies: the gates are closing. Governments, skittish about global economic trends, are introducing new policies to limit imports and exports. The aim is to protect domestic industry in tough times, but the tools they are using threaten to make their economic problems worse.
A December World Bank analysis documents a trend of creeping protectionism in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Indonesia – all countries with burgeoning industry. Instead of tariffs, other, more indirect policies are being used to hinder free commerce between countries. The Bank analysis, based on World Trade Organization (WTO) monitoring reports and data from the Global Trade Alert, a network of think tanks around the globe, found that the number of non-tariff measures (NTMs) –including quotas, import licensing requirements and discriminatory government procurement rules –showed an increasing trend in the first two years post-2008, and rose sharply in 2011. India, China, Indonesia, Argentina, Russia and Brazil together accounted for almost half of all the new NTMs imposed by countries world-wide.
Like the massive earthquake in Japan earlier this year, the floods in Thailand are again exposing the vulnerabilities of fragmented global supply chains.
Last month, a team of economists from PREM's International Trade Department encountered some flooding side-effects during a visit to the Indonesian production site for ECCO, a Danish company that manufactures footwear. The news from Thailand: the ECCO production site there was under three meters of water, a problem for shoe-making. In order to transfer production to the factory in Indonesia, the workers needed the specific shoe molds used in the Thai factory. These specialized molds would have taken several weeks to manufacture, which would have further delayed production. So ECCO hired scuba divers to enter the Thai factory and recover the molds. They then shipped them via air to other factories around the region, including ECCO Indonesia.