Measuring protectionist actions during the crisis: What’s the counterfactual?

Dani Rodrik:

The GTA’s latest report identifies no fewer than 192 separate protectionist actions since November 2008, with China as the most common target. This number has been widely quoted in the financial press. Taken at face value, it seems to suggest that governments have all but abandoned their commitments to the World Trade Organization and the multilateral trade regime.

But look more closely at those numbers and you will find much less cause for alarm. Few of those 192 measures are in fact more than a nuisance. The most common among them are the indirect (and often unintended) consequences of the bailouts that governments mounted as a consequence of the crisis. The most frequently affected sector is the financial industry.

Moreover, we do not even know whether these numbers are unusually high when compared to pre-crisis trends. The GTA report tells us how many measures have been imposed since November 2008, but says nothing about the analogous numbers prior to that date. In the absence of a benchmark for comparative assessment, we do not really know whether 192 “protectionist” measures is a big or small number.