Rose: Protectionism is acyclical

Andrew Rose:

Almost everyone agrees that protectionism is countercyclical; tariffs, quotas, and the like grow during recessions. The abstract of Bagwell and Staiger (2003) begins “Empirical studies have repeatedly documented the countercyclical nature of trade barriers”; for support, they provide citations of eight papers which “all conclude that the average level of protection tends to rise in recessions and fall in booms.” Meanwhile, Costinot (2009) states: “One very robust finding of the empirical literature on trade protection is the positive impact of unemployment on the level of trade barriers. The same pattern can be observed across industries, among countries, and over time.” …

The sample is split into two in the scatter-plots to the right. Above, the data show a positive relationship between 1906 and 1942; high unemployment in the 1930s tends to coincide with high tariffs. This relationship is strikingly reversed in the graph below, which scatters tariffs against unemployment for the period between 1946 and 1982. Since World War Two, high American unemployment seems to coincide with low American tariffs; protectionism seems to be, if anything, cyclical…

The goal of my recent work has been to show that, at least since World War II, protectionism has not been countercyclic. While this runs counter to conventional wisdom, the evidence is reasonably strong; no obvious measure of protectionism seems to be consistently or strongly countercyclic.

An interesting question occurs: why is protectionism no longer countercyclic? Before World War I (and in contrast to more recent times), tariffs contributed greatly to the national treasury, there was no GATT, and the Gold Standard ruled. But it turns out that protectionist policies of countries with large and small budget deficits seem to react similarly to business cycles, as do those of countries inside and outside the GATT/WTO, those with fixed and floating exchange rates, small and large countries, and open and closed countries. If there has been a shift in the cyclicality of protectionism since WWII, it’s hard to be sure why.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the switch in the cyclicality of protectionism – if there has indeed been one – is a triumph of modern economics. After all, there is considerable and strong consensus among economists that protectionism is generally bad for welfare. And there is no doubt that economists are aware and actively involved in combating countercyclic protectionism; this was especially visible during the Great Recession, which saw the successful launch of Global Trade Alert in June 2009. If – and it’s a big if – the efforts of the economic profession are part of the reason that protectionism is no longer countercyclic, then the profession deserves a collective pat on the back. But in that case the profession should also consider setting its sights higher. If economists have helped reduce the cyclicality of protectionism, then perhaps they should focus on actually reducing protectionism.