Economic freedom in Asia means faster growth, lower prices

* This is my article in BusinessWorld the other day.

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Thanks to its rapid economic growth, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is being looked up to by other economic blocs as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this month in Manila.

The pace of trade liberalization until this decade is perhaps the world’s fastest both among ASEAN member-states, and even among those outside the group.

Free trade creates good will among people and governments across the globe. It gives foreign trade partners greater access to the home market and, in the process, these trade partners tend to open up to more ASEAN countries’ exports and investments.

Here are two tables that show the economic wonders of free trade policy — not exactly zero-tariff and minimal non-tariff barriers (NTBs) but approaching there — for the emerging economies of Asia. We will use the purchasing power parity (PPP) values of gross domestic product (GDP) to somehow equalize valuation of goods and services across the world.

Overall, the GDP size of the world at PPP values was $40.3 trillion in 1996 and it rose to $120 trillion in 2016 or an expansion of more than three times in just two decades.

ASEAN-5 refers to Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. G7 countries are the US, Canada, Japan, UK, Germany, France and Italy.

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Table 1 numbers show the following:

  1. Emerging and developing Asia (including China and India) is now the world’s biggest economic bloc with GDP size of $38 trillion in 2016, overtaking the G7. The expansion of GDP size in just two decades was six times, an astonishing feat. The per-capita GDP also expanded almost five times, the fastest in the world.
  2. ASEAN-5 GDP size of $6.5 trillion in 2016 was larger than the combined economies of the CIS or developing Europe or Sub-Saharan Africa. Per capita GDP expanded more than two and a half times over two decades which is larger than that attained by many other economic blocs.

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Table 2 numbers further show that:

  1. While emerging and developing Asia is only the 3rd largest bloc in the exports of goods and services in the world, selling $3.9 trillion in 2016, the size of exports has expanded 7.2 times after only two decades, the fastest in the world. In terms of price inflation, the region also showed consistent price decline and stability at only 2.9% in 2016, the lowest among developing blocs in the world.
  2. Sub-Saharan Africa and MENA remain burdened with high prices and slow expansion in exports.

Giving local consumers and manufacturers more economic freedom where they can buy and sell the various goods and services that they need and produce means empowering the whole economy. Price declines and price stability are proof that freer trade is working and are instrumental in stabilizing the supply of various traded goods and services.

There are winners and losers in free trade, the same way that there are winners and losers in protectionism. But overall, “net gains” from trade trump “net losses” from protectionism because locals are deprived by policies that limit choices and options.

20170425fd31aIt is important therefore, that emerging Asian economies like the Philippines should never lose sight of the potentials of free trade and resist protectionist aspirations that penalize the consumers while protecting local vested business interests.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the President of Minimal Government Thinkers and a Fellow of SEANET; both are members of Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia.

Economic freedom, taxes and tariffs in Asia

* This is my article in BusinessWorld last December 01, 2016.

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Human prosperity is not possible if there is no economic freedom, if people do not have the freedom to own private property and have freedom to trade. Misery is the result if people live under political dictatorships and bear the effects of the state’s economic central planning.

These, among others, were the topics discussed in the two-day Economic Freedom Network Asia (EFN Asia) Conference 2016 last Nov. 22-23, 2016 at Dusit Hotel, Makati City. The event’s theme was “Economic freedom and human rights in business,” primarily sponsored by EFN Asia and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF).

The event also launched the results of the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) 2016 Report by Fraser Institute in Canada. The EFW index is measured by getting the scores (0 to 10, zero is totally unfree and 10 is full economic freedom) of countries covering five criteria: (1) Size of government, (2) Legal system and property rights, (3) Sound money, (4) Freedom to trade internationally, and (5) Regulation.

Countries with big governments and high taxes get low scores in the first measure while nations with highly corrupt legal systems and unstable property rights protection will receive low ratings in the second, and so on. The composite score of the five criteria covered is generated and countries are ranked from highest to lowest (see table).

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The numbers on the right show the following.

One, for many years now, Hong Kong and Singapore are recognized as the two freest economies in the world. Their governments are strong in enforcing the rule of law and protecting property rights, have low income tax rates, zero or near-zero tariff rates. They may have many non-tariff barriers (NTBs) but that is for another paper.

Two, many ASEAN countries are in the middle tier in global ranks out of 157 countries covered. Outliers are Singapore which is high up there, and Vietnam and Myanmar which are among the bottom-ranking countries.

Three, the Philippines and other ASEAN countries’ score and global ranking do not significantly move up or down and I think there are flaws in the scoring made by Fraser. Here’s why.

In sub-area “Freedom to own foreign currency bank accounts,” the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam got 0 (out of 10). Similarly, these four countries also posted low scores in criteria 3, Sound Money. I think foreigners and foreign corporations can own forex bank accounts here in the Philippines, also in Malaysia, so why did Fraser give a score of 0?

In sub-area “Capital controls,” the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam scored only 0.77 while Indonesia and Thailand scored 1.54 (again, out of 10) such that their scores under Area 4, Freedom to Trade Internationally, are again low.

Perhaps the capital control that Fraser refers here is the maximum amount of Pesos (about P10,000) and dollars ($10,000) that Filipinos and foreigners can bring in or out when they travel abroad. But many travelers hardly use big cash for their transactions, they use credit and debit cards. People can also send huge amounts of money anytime via banks or money couriers from abroad to the Philippines and vice versa, without capital control limits.

Since countries’ global ranks are separated only by one or two decimal places, significant low score in Areas 3 and 4 in this case would mean overall low score. As a result, the Philippines’ overall score of 7.01 made it rank 80th while Taiwan’s score of 7.65 made it ranked 23rd. A difference in score of 0.64 already spells a huge difference of 67 places in global ranking.

Fraser should either check its data properly or adjust the scoring.

Instead of 0 or 10 for “freedom to own forex account,” “capital control” and other sub-areas, it may adjust the score to 0 or 4 or 5. This will reduce the distortion in overall score and hence, in global ranking.

Nonetheless, Fraser is doing a good job in promoting the philosophy of economic freedom, free trade, rule of law, low taxes and limited government. Its annual EFW report is being cited in various international studies and helps guide civil society and corporate leaders, government and public policy makers in instituting reforms towards a freer, more prosperous world.

 

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the head of Minimal Government Thinkers and a Fellow of SEANET. Both institutes are members of EFN Asia.

The WTO and trade agreements

* This is my article in BusinessWorld last June 13, 2016.

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Free trade means free individuals and a free society.

People who cannot find certain goods and services at specific quality from local producers given their limited personal or household budget may be able to find those from foreign producers. And people who cannot sell their products or services to local buyers may find those buyers abroad.

And this highlights the beauty of free trade: No trade will occur unless both parties, the buyer and seller, will benefit. There are losers and gainers in free trade of course, the same way that there are losers and gainers in no trade (autarky) or restricted trade. Overall, there are “net gains” in free trade where the advantages outnumber the disadvantages.

Global free trade is supposed to be facilitated by the World Trade Organization (WTO) when it was created in 1995. But 21 years later, this is far from happening.

Regional trade agreements (RTAs) and even trans-continental agreements were invented such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

This topic was discussed during the recently concluded big annual international conference, “Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity 2016,” held in Jeju, South Korea. The forum also had a panel that had the theme, “Trans-Pacific Partnership: an Assessment of its Political Economy” sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) and the Economic Freedom Network Asia (EFN Asia) last May 26, 2016.

The discussion moderator was Dr. John Delury, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea. The discussants were Dr. Sethaput Suthiwart-Narueput, Executive Chairman of the Thailand Future Foundation (TFF), Kwon Tae-shin, President of the Korea Economic Research Institute (KERI) in Seoul, and Dr. Keisuke Iida, Professor at the University of Tokyo Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, Japan. The opening remarks was given by Dr. Lars-Andre Richter, Resident Representative of FNF Korea Office.

Panel Rapporteur was Pett Jarupaiboon, who is also the also the Program Manager of EFN Asia, based in Bangkok, Thailand. Pett shared his notes with me.

The three discussants are all liberal economists and are pro-free trade, pro-WTO, but they disagree and debate on the role of the TPP.

In particular, Mr. Kwon and Dr. Iida were critical of the WTO because of the lack of progress in global free trade. Dr. Sethaput argued that RTAs like TPP would undermine the progress of the WTO.

Here are the main arguments of the discussants.

(1) Mr. Kwon, KERI, South Korea. TPP members will enjoy an increase in exports and income from an enlarged market size, and they will also enjoy more consumer welfare due to a decrease in import prices and intensive competition. According to a recent study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, if TPP takes effect in 2017, the GDP of TPP member countries is likely to increase by 0.5%-8.1% in 2030, compared to the GDP forecast in an event of non-adoption of TPP.

(2) Dr. Iida, Univ. of Tokyo, Japan. TPP has a rule-making function, and these rules as provided in international relations as well as who wrote them are important issues. For the US, joining TPP is part of a larger strategy of “pivoting” to Asia or rebalancing to Asia. The US was preoccupied with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and was not paying enough attention to Asia. Therefore, TPP was part of the toolkit to achieve this new policy for the Obama Administration. For Japan, which has to rely on the US for security, TPP meant mending the fences with the US following a series of recent frictions including the planned relocation of one of the most important marine bases in Okinawa to outside Okinawa.

He added that TPP is seen to benefit Japan, projected at 2.6% of GDP (accordingly to the Cabinet Office), a significant number considering that its potential growth rate minus TPP membership is mere 0.5%.

(3) Dr. Sethaput, TFF, Thailand. A multilateral system with non-preferential treatment covering many countries like the WTO is better than mega-regional trade regimes like TPP and RCEP. Why?

(a) TPP is subject to the usual problems of trade diversion: increased trade among members, lesser trade with non-members.

(b) TPP is not just about trade, it also includes other issues like investor and intellectual property protection, labor and environmental standards, etc.

(c) The investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism provides international arbitration that benefits US corporates. The US Trade Representative notes on its Web site that “the United States has never lost an ISDS case.”

(d) RCEP is a better alternative, has less non-trade baggage, uses the best elements of the multilateral system, like WTO dispute settlement, TRIPS (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights).

(e) Ultimate goal should be the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, which includes all the existing members of APEC including China and Russia. This can be achieved through either expanding the TPP or merging TPP and RCEP.

Personally, I believe that the best trade policy is unilateral trade liberalization. Be friends to all countries and economies who can bring in the best products and services at best qualities and at the best or most competitive prices into our shores and shops. This will bring down the cost for all local manufacturers in need of cheaper capital goods, cheaper raw materials, and intermediate products, which will result in cheaper production processes. Local consumers will also benefit for obvious reasons. And those countries will likely return the favor with zero or very low tariff for Philippine exports too.

Since this is far from happening, the second best policy is multilateral and global free trade. This is not happening too. So the third best policy is joining mega-RTAs like the TPP and RCEP. The worst policy of course is autarky or no trade, or even very restricted trade.

The Philippines and all ASEAN members are already RCEP members. The Philippines should proceed applying for TPP membership. The dreaded provision ISDS is actually important and useful. It simply protects foreign investors who come to other TPP member-countries based on TPP rules, when other member-countries will suddenly change the rules midway. The ISDS in effect will help prevent members from arbitrarily changing rules on trade, investments, IPR, competition and other policies.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is a Fellow of SEANET, President of Minimal Government Thinkers, which is a member of EFN Asia.
minimalgovernment@gmail.com