WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo resigns

The World Trade Organization’s Director General, Roberto Azevêdo announced his resignation effective 31 August of this year. His tenure will end three years into his second four year term which was otherwise due to expire in 2021.

Azevêdo’s departure annouoncement comes in a week where a bill to withdraw the United States from the organization was introduced in the US House of Representatives by the Democratic Chairs of the Transportation & Infrastructure, and Energy and Commerce Committees. This following the introduction of a Joint Resolution to the same effect in the US Senate by Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri.

It comes as the organisation finds its dispute resolution function paralyzed by a US Appellate Body blockade, a potentially existential budget battle looms, its scheduled ministerial conference cancelled and even supportive members eyeing unilateral trade action in contravention of its principles.

At perhaps the most perilous time in its 25-year history, the WTO will be without a formally appointed leader, and the forthcoming selection process for his replacement hands the US yet another opportunity to exercise an effective veto over the organization’s future.

Dmitry Grozoubinski highlights the significance of Azevêdo’s departure.

Is this resignation a big deal?

While not likely to be the straw that breaks its back, this unfortunately timed resignation is still a hefty new weight for an exhausted WTO camel whose knees were already trembling. As the kids would say, “It’s not great.”

While opinions on the Roberto Azevêdo’s performance vary, his departure couldn’t come at a worse time, and the process to replace him is both very long and just as susceptible to being held hostage by an ornery member as everything else in the organisation.

As a global champion of rules based trade, the WTO’s ‘DG’ has an important role to play in making the full throated case against the rising tide of export restrictions, protectionism and unilateralism unleashed by the US-China trade tensions and exacerbated by Covid-19. Now is no time for the system to be without its Knight in Shiny Armani.

As the head of the WTO secretariat, the director general was poised to play a key role in steering the organisation through what now seems a near inevitable battle over its budget at the end of the year. If the US once again blocked adoption of the WTO’s budget, it would have been up to him to try and forge a compromise, or make the difficult and controversial decisions required to keep the lights on, staff paid and fondue pot glowing in the face of an unapproved budget.

As the chair of the trade negotiations committee, the director general offers convening power, good offices, and a consensus building voice. With critical negotiations around fisheries subsidies, e-commerce, investment, and WTO reform all hanging in the balance, the absence of a Director-General only further decreases the likelihood of progress (perhaps from Hail Mary Pass to Igloo in Hell).

What happens now – Interim Director-General? 

Upon Mr Azevêdo’s departure at the end of August, The rules now require the WTO General Council – a meeting of all WTO Members which serves as its highest decision making-body outside of a ministerial conference to appoint one of the four Deputy-Directors General as an interim director.

This presents a potential hurdle, as the WTO General Council makes decisions by consensus. Therefore, even a single member’s objection could prevent the appointment of an interim leader for the organisation.

The current deputies are Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria, Karl Brauner of Germany, Alan Wolff of the United States and Yi Xiaozhun of China. For obvious reasons, neither the US nor the Chinese DDGs are likely candidates for unanimous approval, and it is not impossible to envisage objections to Agah and Brauner as well – either personally or on general principle to sabotage the organisation further.

What happens next – A new Director-General?

Whether an interim DG is appointed or not, the WTO members will need to begin the process of selecting a new Director-General.

The procedure is lengthy and would ordinarily begin nine months before a DG’s term is set to expire. Once the process begins, WTO members have one month to nominate candidates, which must be their own nationals.

After this month is over, the candidates are expected to come to Geneva and meet with the WTO missions. The next seven months are to be spent weening the applicants down to a single final consensus candidate.

Is there politics? 

Oh my god yes. While the Director-General has no legal authority to make or enforce the rules, WTO members are still intensely jealous of the position and allergic to any candidate they feel might impede their interests.

Arriving at a single consensus candidate requires a raft of compromises, trades and deals even at the best of times, which of course the current situation is not.

What happens if no consensus candidate can be found? 

Theoretically, the rules do allow for a vote by the membership to select a Director-General. However, this procedure is both a measure of last-resort and intended primarily for a situation where the membership is split between two or more valid candidates and agrees by consensus on a vote to break the deadlock.

Were the US or some other member to block all candidates as a matter of principle, they would also likely oppose a vote. Even if a vote could then be forced regardless, it would only fuel the fires of those who argue the WTO has gone rogue.

So what does it all mean? 

On its own, this resignation does not fundamentally change the state of play. The WTO is severely weakened, partially paralysed and increasingly in the crosshairs of the US, where concerns about it extend beyond the Trump administration and across party lines.

It does however rob the WTO of an experienced, consensus-approved leader at a time when both the organisation and the cause of rules-based trade desperately need one.

Still, though slim, there is hope the DG selection process might serve to revitalise the organisation. Long rumored candidacies like that of Kenya’s formidable Amina Mohamed, who chaired the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference to a successful conclusion and would be the organization’s first female and first African Director-General, offer a path to a more globally representative future.

Source: article by Dmitry Grozoubinski, Borderlex.eu, 14 May 2020

AfCFTA – an uphill struggle in quest for regional trade on the continent

Picture : Bloomberg.com

The following article was published by Bloomberg and sketches the day-to-day hardship for cross border trucking through Africa. In a sense it asks the very questions and challenges which the average African asks in regard to the highly anticipated free trade area. While rules of origin and tariffs form the basis of trade across borders, together with freedom of movement of people, these will mean nothing if African people receive no benefit. As globalisation appears to falter across Europe and the West, it begs the question whether this is in fact is the solution for Africa; particularly for the reason that many believe globalisation itself is an extension of capitalism which some of the African states are at loggerheads with. Moreover, how many of these countries can forego the much need Customs revenue to sustain their economies, let alone losing political autonomy – only time will tell.

Nyoni Nsukuzimbi drives his 40-ton Freightliner for just over half a day from Johannesburg to the Beitbridge border post with Zimbabwe. At the frontier town—little more than a gas station and a KFC—he sits in a line for two to three days, in temperatures reaching 104F, waiting for his documents to be processed.

That’s only the start of a journey Nsukuzimbi makes maybe twice a month. Driving 550 miles farther north gets him to the Chirundu border post on the Zambian frontier. There, starting at a bridge across the Zambezi River, trucks snake back miles into the bush. “There’s no water, there’s no toilets, there are lions,” says the 40-year-old Zimbabwean. He leans out of the Freightliner’s cab over the hot asphalt, wearing a white T-shirt and a weary expression. “It’s terrible.”

By the time he gets his load of tiny plastic beads—the kind used in many manufacturing processes—to a factory on the outskirts of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, he’s been on the road for as many as 10 days to traverse just 1,000 miles. Nsukuzimbi’s trials are typical of truck drivers across Africa, where border bureaucracy, corrupt officials seeking bribes, and a myriad of regulations that vary from country to country have stymied attempts to boost intra-African trade.

The continent’s leaders say they’re acting to change all that. Fifty-three of its 54 nations have signed up to join only Eritrea, which rivals North Korea in its isolation from the outside world, hasn’t. The African Union-led agreement is designed to establish the world’s biggest free-trade zone by area, encompassing a combined economy of $2.5 trillion and a market of 1.2 billion people. Agreed in May 2019, the pact is meant to take effect in July and be fully operational by 2030. “The AfCFTA,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his Oct. 7 weekly letter to the nation, “will be a game-changer, both for South Africa and the rest of the continent.”

It has to be if African economies are ever going to achieve their potential. Africa lags behind other regions in terms of internal trade, with intracontinental commerce accounting for only 15% of total trade, compared with 58% in Asia and more than 70% in Europe. As a result, supermarket shelves in cities such as Luanda, Angola, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast, are lined with goods imported from the countries that once colonized them, Portugal and France.

By lowering or eliminating cross-border tariffs on 90% of African-produced goods, the new regulations are supposed to facilitate the movement of capital and people and create a liberalized market for services. “We haven’t seen as much institutional will for a large African Union project before,” says Kobi Annan, an analyst at Songhai Advisory in Ghana. “The time frame is a little ambitious, but we will get there.”

President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana and other heads of state joined Ramaphosa in hailing the agreement, but a number of the businesspeople who are supposed to benefit from it are skeptical. “Many of these governments depend on that duty income. I don’t see how that’s ever going to disappear,” says Tertius Carstens, the chief executive officer of Pioneer Foods Group Ltd., a South African maker of fruit juices and cereal that’s being acquired by PepsiCo Inc. for about $1.7 billion. “Politically it sounds good; practically it’s going to be a nightmare to implement, and I expect resistance.”

Under the rules, small countries such as Malawi, whose central government gets 7.7% of its revenue from taxes on international trade and transactions, will forgo much-needed income, at least initially. By contrast, relatively industrialized nations like Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa will benefit from the outset. “AfCFTA will require huge trade-offs from political leaders,” says Ronak Gopaldas, a London-based director at Signal Risk, which advises companies in Africa. “They will need to think beyond short-term election cycles and sovereignty in policymaking.”

Taking those disparities into account, the AfCFTA may allow poorer countries such as Ethiopia 15 years to comply with the trade regime, whereas South Africa and other more developed nations must do so within five. To further soften the effects on weaker economies, Africa could follow the lead of the European Union, says Axel Pougin de La Maissoneuve, deputy head of the trade and private sector unit in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Development and International Cooperation. The EU adopted a redistribution model to offset potential losses by Greece, Portugal, and other countries.

There may be structural impediments to the AfCFTA’s ambitions. Iron ore, oil, and other raw materials headed for markets such as China make up about half of the continent’s exports. “African countries don’t produce the goods that are demanded by consumers and businesses in other African countries,” says Trudi Hartzenberg, executive director of the Tralac Trade Law Center in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Trust and tension over illicit activity are also obstacles. Beginning in August, Nigeria shut its land borders to halt a surge in the smuggling of rice and other foodstuffs. In September, South Africa drew continentwide opprobrium after a recurrence of the anti-immigrant riots that have periodically rocked the nation. This could hinder the AfCFTA’s provisions for the free movement of people.

Considering all of these roadblocks, a skeptic would be forgiven for giving the AfCFTA little chance of success. And yet there are already at least eight trade communities up and running on the continent. While these are mostly regional groupings, some countries belong to more than one bloc, creating overlap. The AfCFTA won’t immediately replace these regional blocs; rather, it’s designed to harmonize standards and rules, easing trade between them, and to eventually consolidate the smaller associations under the continent­wide agreement.

The benefits of the comprehensive agreement are plain to see. It could, for example, limit the sort of unilateral stumbling blocks Pioneer Foods’ Carstens had to deal with in 2019: Zimbabwe insisted that all duties be paid in U.S. dollars; Ghana and Kenya demanded that shippers purchase special stickers from government officials to affix to all packaging to prevent smuggling.

The African Export-Import Bank estimates intra-African trade could increase by 52% during the first year after the pact is implemented and more than double during the first decade. The AfCFTA represents a “new pan-Africanism” and is “a pragmatic realization” that African countries need to unite to achieve better deals with trading partners, says Carlos Lopes, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and one of the architects of the agreement.

From his closer-to-the-ground vantage point, Olisaemeka Anieze also sees possible benefits. He’s relocating from South Africa, where he sold secondhand clothes, to his home country of Nigeria, where he wants to farm fish and possibly export them to neighboring countries. “God willing,” he says, “if the free-trade agreement comes through, Africa can hold its own.”

In the meantime, there are those roads. About 80% of African trade travels over them, according to Tralac. The World Bank estimates the poor state of highways and other infrastructure cuts productivity by as much as 40%.

If the AfCFTA can trim the red tape, at least driving the roads will be more bearable, says David Myende, 38, a South African trucker resting after crossing the border post into South Africa on the way back from delivering a load to the Zambian mining town of Ndola. “The trip is short, the borders are long,” he says. “They’re really long when you’re laden, and customs officers can keep you waiting up to four or five days to clear your goods.” 

Source: article by Anthony Sguazzin, Prinesha Naidoo and Brian Latham, Bloomberg, 30 January 2020

Third anniversary of WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement

Three years since the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) entered into force on 22 February 2017, WTO members have continued to make steady progress in its implementation. Director-General Roberto Azevêdo, on the occasion of the TFA’s third anniversary, welcomed members’ efforts to ensure traders can reap the full benefits of the Agreement.

The TFA, the first multilateral deal concluded in the 25-year history of the WTO, contains members’ commitments to expedite the movement, release and clearance of goods across borders. As of the TFA’s third anniversary, 91% of the membership have already ratified the Agreement. It entered into force three years ago when the WTO obtained the two-thirds acceptance of the Agreement from its 164 members.

The Agreement is unique in that it allows developing countries and least-developed countries (LDCs) to set their own timetables for implementing the TFA depending on their capacities to do so. They can self-designate which provisions they will implement either immediately (Category A), after a transition period (Category B), or upon receiving assistance and support for capacity building (Category C). 

As of 22 February 2020, over 90 per cent of developing countries and LDCs have notified which provisions they are able to implement after a transition period, and the ones for which they will need capacity-building support to achieve full implementation of the Agreement. Developed countries committed to immediately implement the Agreement when it entered into force.

Based on members’ notifications of commitments, 65 per cent of TFA provisions are being implemented today compared to the 59 per cent implementation rate recorded on the Agreement’s first anniversary. Broken down, the latest figure equates to a 100 per cent implementation rate for developed members and 64 per cent for developing members. As for least-developed countries, the improvement in the implementation rate is particularly notable at 31 per cent today versus the 2 per cent recorded a year after the Agreement entered into force. The implementation rate for each WTO member can be viewed here

The Agreement has the potential, upon full implementation, to slash members’ trade costs by an average of 14.3 per cent, with developing countries and LDCs having the most to gain, according to a 2015 study carried out by WTO economists. It is also expected to reduce the time needed to import and export goods by 47 per cent and 91 per cent respectively over the current average.

Source: World Trade Organisation, 22 February 2020

Grasping the size of Container Traffic

The following infographic is shared courtesy of Visual Capitalist

Size-of-Shipping

E-commerce in China extends Belt and Road Initiative

Cross-border e-commerce freight train [Xinhua]

From ancient trade to modern tech

Two millennia ago, camel caravans trekked across an inland route centered around Chang’an – today’s Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province – serving to connect China to western-lying regions of the world through trade and exchange.

Today, under the guidelines of the Belt and Road Initiative, cross-border and transcontinental transactions are booming online as well, with a key difference: unlike the ancient model, the online businesses of today’s digital era are more efficient, more diverse and far more extensive.

Smart technologies and modern logistics have enabled people to pick and choose products from overseas – from Argentina’s red prawns, Mexico’s avocados and Chile’s cherries to the Czech’s crystals, Myanmar’s emeralds and Bulgaria’s rose oil – and receive them within hours or days after a simple click.

The Belt and Road online

Countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative have launched businesses on China’s online shopping platforms, among which the e-commerce giant JD.com alone has attracted more than 50 overseas e-stores.

At the same time, these e-platforms facilitate the export of Chinese products to 54 countries, among them Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Thailand, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

China’s e-commerce sector, projected to reach 2 billion consumers globally by 2020, has become a pillar industry supporting worldwide trade, said Xing Yue, vice president of Alibaba.com, one of China’s leading e-commerce conglomerates headquartered in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province.

“With circumstances highlighting digital dividends, cross-border e-businesses do not only focus on selling products, but also on creating service-centered trade, a signal epitomizing digital commerce,” added Xing at the second Cross-Border E-Commerce Summit held in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province, in May this year.

According to Alibaba.com, the company’s annual online shopping spree hosted last November 11 – a day evolved from China’s Singles’ Day into an annual online shopping frenzy – attracted buyers from 225 countries and regions, generating a revenue of 168.2 billion yuan (US$26.25 billion) and producing 812 million orders.

AliExpress, a global business division of Alibaba.com established eight years ago, reached 100 million overseas customers as of April 2017. “We may be underestimating the actual size as people under the same roof may use the same account,” said Shen Difan, the general manager of AliExpress.

“Products made in China are nothing inferior to the rest of the world. However, the problem is that the small-and-medium-sized enterprises in China were unable to reach overseas customers,” Shen said, adding that e-commerce has allowed these businesses to tap into other markets, extending connections between the two sides.

E-commerce and drones reshaping trade

The change in delivery speeds in Russia exemplifies the convenience of online business. Before e-commerce took off there, overseas packages often took as long as 60 days to arrive to Russian households, after being sent to Moscow for a security check.

Now, however, with the adoption of big data, Russian customs is no longer required to send deliveries to Moscow for unpacking and examination. Instead, detailed information about each package, including dates, types and values of commodities, is made available online, enabling direct delivery to customers.

E-commerce – arising as one of China’s four major modern inventions, along with high-speed railway, Alipay and bicycle sharing platforms – has overhauled traditional industrial chains and reshaped the trade system across the world, the People’s Daily reported.

“I have been greatly interested in the rural logistics run by JD.com,” Wu Min, the editor in chief of the Italian weekly newspaper Il Tempo Europa Cina, said while paying a visit to JD.com’s Beijing headquarters on June 1 of this year.

“In the past few years, it cost us heavily to send newspapers to the countryside, where difficult geographic conditions blocked entrance. Today, with the use of drones, we are able to surmount the last-mile challenge and send our newspapers to rural readers at much lower costs,” Wu explained.

JD.com has also developed drones, weighing 13 kilograms each, to manage deliveries to outlying areas. Additionally, smart technologies including robotic couriers and unmanned inventory have enabled the companies’ shipments to cover 99 percent of the population nationwide, saving 70 percent of total logistical costs, the People’s Daily reported.

Source: China.org.cn, article by Wu Jin, 14 June 2018

e-Certificates of Origin – Blockchain Platform Launched

blockchain-z

The world’s first blockchain-based platform for electronic certificates of origin (eCOs) was unveiled in Singapore on Tuesday.

The platform is the result of a partnership between the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce  (SICC) and Singapore-based vCargo Cloud. As the first chamber in the world to implement blockchain-based eCOs, SICC seeks to provide its members and trade-related agencies, including trade financing and insurance firms, with a system that offers higher security, efficiency and flexibility. The platform aims to vastly improve transparency, security and efficiency in authenticating trade documents. It permits instant verification of eCOs and runs on a private blockchain network that prevents fraud, alterations and third-party interference.

SICC says the platform represents a quantum leap in processing trade-related documents by hosting information of trade transactions on a tamper-proof distributed ledger system, which can be authenticated and accessed by various stakeholders of the platform. The platform uses QR codes, allowing eCOs to be scanned using smart phones and then printed. The number of allowable prints is restricted to prevent unauthorized duplicates. This improves efficiency and minimizes the costs of verifying COs, removing a major impediment in the process and a frequent cause of high insurance or trade finance costs.

vCargo Cloud intends to leverage on the Singapore launch to promote the platform globally, beginning with Asian countries that are substantive manufacturing exporters such as Japan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, using a pay-per-use model.

The launch of the blockchain-based eCO platform comes amidst the Singapore Government’s call for a Self-Certification regime through the ASEAN Single Window, which aims to expedite freight clearance and reduce manual paperwork across all 10 member countries.

eCo

Source: Maritime Executive, original article published 8 May 2018.

Globalisation to give way to “localisation”

global-local

Global trade has reached its peak and globalisation is giving way to localisation, which is one of the most “profound changes” currently facing the global economy, says Paul Donovan, global chief economist at UBS Wealth.

Accounting for about a quarter of the world’s GDP, global trade is at a record high. “This is as good as it gets. What we are now starting to see is localisation returning to the manufacturing sector,” Donovan said on Tuesday, speaking at a Sasfin Wealth event.

Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, collectively referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, mean that factories are mechanising, and are placed closer to companies’ consumer markets.

Swedish retailer H&M is using robotics, manufacturing most of its clothing in Europe, not Asia, enabling it to respond to consumer demand more effectively, Donovan said.

This allows the fast-fashion front-runner to quickly respond to consumer demand and even unseasonal weather.

“The fourth industrial revolution will dramatically alter investment, economics and society.”

At SA’s recent inaugural Singularity University event, disruption innovation expert David Roberts said that 40% of the S&P 500 companies would disappear in the next 10 years as exponential technologies disrupted a host of industries. The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company had decreased from 67 years to 15 years, he said.

While only about 9% of jobs would disappear altogether, automation and digitisation would affect about 40% of jobs, said Donovan. This would require people and companies to adapt to new ways of doing things.

“If your university degree is reliant on memorising a textbook, you are a low-skilled worker. We need companies and countries with workforces that are flexible.”

Donovan predicted a return to the imperial model of trade, where raw materials and intellectual property were imported, while “everything else” happened close to the consumer. “Raw materials will still be globalised, but finished products will be declining as a force for global trade in the years ahead.”

Source: Originally published in Business Day, Ziady. H, September 6, 2017. Globalisation gives way to localisation, in profound change, UBS economist says.