What are Colombia's potential economic gains from a PTA?

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Will making US trade preferences for Colombia permanent attract new investment? That’s the White House line, echoed by Nick Kristof. I’m skeptical of the magnitude of the effect.

Jeff Schott at the Peterson Institute of International Economics edited a volume on US-Colombian trade relations a few years ago. He wrote:

An FTA would provide contractual guarantees regarding the permanency of the trade preferences, in stark contrast to the uncertainty that surrounds whether the US Congress will reauthorize the ATPA [Andean Trade Preferences Act] before it expires at the end of 2006. Such uncertainty imposes costs on bilateral trade and investment and has contributed to the lackluster FDI in Colombia by US firms… To be sure, other factors — including Colombia’s macroeconomic policies, security environment, and domestic regulatory policies — may be of equal or greater importance in investment decisions.

Oh, that nasty uncertainty.

Reuters – Feb 14 – Expiring U.S. trade benefits for Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia would be renewed through the end of this year… The 10-month extension is a compromise between Democrats who had favored renewing the program for two years and Republicans, who wanted a much shorter renewal to keep pressure on Congress to approve a free trade pact with Colombia.

So Republicans are injecting uncertainty into Colombia’s export opportunities in order to use uncertainty as an argument for the PTA! Sick.

Back to Schott:

To an important extent, attracting investment is the key objective of the FTA. If implemented in conjunction with domestic policies that promote macroeconomic stability and enhance productivity, an FTA could make Colombia a much more attractive host for new investment not only by foreign companies but by Colombians as well…

In sum, the FTA should be seen as part of Colombia’s overall development strategy. Many of the reforms that will likely be required by FTA obligations may well parallel changes in domestic economic policies that were sought by the government but were blocked or diluted because there has been insufficient political support to gain legislative approval.

So the impact of the PTA will be largely contingent on domestic reforms in Colombia. And those reforms face political opposition. How is Colombia doing on those reforms?

Schott and Paul Grieco wrote:

In summary, 10 years ago, Colombia was the clear frontrunner in readiness for a free trade agreement, but today that is no longer the case. While Colombia has come through a turbulent decade without a huge decline in readiness, it has not moved up its readiness score to the levels of current US FTA partners such as Mexico and Chile. As is often the case, the political and economic domestic reforms that are essential to development are also required to leverage the benefits of a free trade agreement with the United States. While the indicators show that Colombia needs to increase gross savings and further reduce its external debt, promoting reforms that strengthen the political sustainability indicator will make the most important contribution to raising Colombia’s readiness score.

Political sustainability, huh? How is it going this week?

A political scandal that has engulfed Colombia’s political class came a step closer to the president, Alvaro Uribe, after his cousin and close political companion was arrested on charges of colluding with rightwing paramilitary groups.

I doubt this pleases investors:

Uribe’s allies are eager to see him serve a third four-year term, even though that is prohibited by the constitution. In 2005, the Constitutional Court approved an amendment that allowed him a single re-election in 2006. Many analysts here believe it is impractical for a tarnished Congress to try to amend the constitution or find other ways to spearhead another reelection effort…

Most of the politicians implicated in the scandal have had close ties to Uribe, and many of them supported the constitutional change that permitted him to run for reelection. Still, the “para-politics” scandal has touched politicians from nearly every party, including the opposition Liberal Party, which has more members linked to the paramilitary groups than any other.

I remain skeptical that this PTA will do much for Colombia in the near future.

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