General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is a series of rules governing trade that were first created in 1947 by twenty-three countries. By the time it was replaced with the WTO, there were 125 member nations. GATT has been credited with substantially expanding global trade, primarily through the reduction of tariffs.
The basic underlying principle of GATT was that trade should be free and equal. In other words, countries should open their markets equally to member nations, and there should be neither discrimination nor preferential treatment. One of GATT’s key provisions was the most-favored-nation clause (MFN). It required that once a benefit, usually a tariff reduction, was agreed on between two or more countries, it was automatically extended to all other member countries. GATT’s initial focus was on tariffs, which are taxes placed on imports or exports.
Did You Know?
As a concept, MFN can be seen in many aspects of business; it’s an important provision. Companies require MFN of their trading partners for pricing, access, and other provisions. Corporate or government customers require it of the company from which they purchase goods or services. Venture capitalists (VC) require it of the companies in which they invest. For example, a VC wants to make sure that it has negotiated the best price for equity and will ask for this provision in case another financier negotiates a cheaper purchase price for the equity. The idea behind the concept of MFN is that the country, company, or entity that has MFN status shouldn’t be disadvantaged in comparison with others in similar roles as a trading partner, buyer, or investor. In practice, the result is that the signing party given MFN status benefits from any better negotiation and receives the cheaper price point or better term. This terminology is also used in sales contracts or other business legal agreements.
Gradually, the GATT member countries turned their attention to other nontariff trade barriers. These included government procurement and bidding, industrial standards, subsidies, duties and customs, taxes, and licensing. GATT countries agreed to limit or remove trade barriers in these areas. The only agreed-on export subsidies were for agricultural products. Countries agreed to permit a wider range of imported products to enter their home markets by simplifying licensing guidelines and developing consistent product standards between imports and domestically produced goods. Duties had to result from uniform and consistent procedures for the same foreign and domestically produced items.
The initial successes in these categories led some countries to get more creative with developing barriers to trade as well as entering into bilateral agreements and providing more creative subsidies for select industries. The challenge for the member countries of GATT was enforcement. Other than complaining and retaliating, there was little else that a country could do to register disapproval of another country’s actions and trade barriers.
Gradually, trade became more complex, leading to the Uruguay Round beginning in 1986 and ending in 1994. These trade meetings were called rounds in reference to the series of meetings among global peers held at a “roundtable.” Prior to a round, each series of trade discussions began in one country. The round of discussions was then named after that country. It sometimes took several years to conclude the topic discussions for a round. The Uruguay Round took eight years and actually resulted in the end of GATT and the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The current Doha Development Round began in 2001 and is actually considered part of the WTO.
World Trade Organization (WTO)
Brief History and Purpose
The World Trade Organization (WTO) developed as a result of the Uruguay Round of GATT. Formed officially on January 1, 1995, the concept of the WTO had been in development for several years. When the WTO replaced GATT, it absorbed all of GATT’s standing agreements. In contrast to GATT, which was a series of agreements, the WTO was designed to be an actual institution charged with the mission of promoting free and fair trade. As explained on its website, the WTO “is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business.”
The global focus on multilateral trade agreements and cooperation has expanded trade exponentially. “The past 50 years have seen an exceptional growth in world trade. Merchandise exports grew on average by 6 percent annually. Total trade in 2000 was 22-times the level of 1950. GATT and the WTO have helped to create a strong and prosperous trading system contributing to unprecedented growth.”
The WTO’s primary purpose is to serve as a negotiating forum for member nations to dispute, discuss, and debate trade-related matters. More than just a series of trade agreements, as it was under GATT, the WTO undertakes discussions on issues related to globalization and its impact on people and the environment, as well as trade-specific matters. It doesn’t necessarily establish formal agreements in all of these areas but does provide a forum to discuss how global trade impacts other aspects of the world.
Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the current round is called the Doha Round and began in 2001. With 153 member nations, the WTO is the largest, global trade organization. Thirty nations have observer status, and many of these are seeking membership. With so many member nations, the concept of MFN has been eased into a new principle of normal trade relations (NTR). Advocates say that no nation really has a favored nation status; rather, all interact with each other as a normal part of global trade.
The biggest change from GATT to the WTO is the provision for the settlement of disputes. If a country finds another country’s trade practices unfair or discriminatory, it may bring the charges to the WTO, which will hear from both countries and mediate a solution.
The WTO has also undertaken the effort to focus on services rather than just goods. Resulting from the Uruguay Round, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) seeks to reduce the barriers to trade in services. Following the GATT commitment to nondiscrimination, GATS requires member nations to treat foreign service companies as they would domestic ones. For example, if a country requires banks to maintain 10 percent of deposits as reserves, then this percentage should be the same for foreign and domestic banks. Services have proven to be more complex to both define and regulate, and the member nations are continuing the discussions.
Similar to GATS is the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Intellectual property refers to just about anything that a person or entity creates with the mind. It includes inventions, music, art, and writing, as well as words, phrases, sayings, and graphics—to name a few. The basic premise of intellectual property rights (IPR) law is that the creator of the property has the right to financially benefit from his or her creation. This is particularly important for protecting the development for the creation, known as the research and development (R&D) costs. Companies can also own the intellectual property that their employees generate. This section focuses on the protection that countries agree to give to intellectual property created in another country.
Over the past few decades, companies have become increasingly diligent in protecting their intellectual property and pursuing abusers. Whether it’s the knock-off designer handbag from China that lands on the sidewalks of New York or the writer protecting her thoughts in the written words of a book (commonly understood as content), or the global software company combating piracy of its technical know-how, IPR is now formally a part of the WTO agreements and ongoing dialogue.
Current Challenges and Opportunities
Agriculture and textiles are two key sectors in which the WTO faces challenges. Trade in agriculture has been impacted by export-country subsidies, import-country tariffs and restrictions, and nontariff barriers. Whether the United States provides low-cost loans and subsidies to its farmers or Japan restricts the beef imports, agriculture trade barriers are an ongoing challenge for the WTO. Global companies and trade groups that support private-sector firms seek to have their governments raise critical trade issues on their behalf through the WTO.
For example, Japan’s ban of beef imports in response to mad cow disease had a heavy impact on the US beef industry during the first decade of the 21st century. Japan was the largest foreign buyer of U.S. beef before it banned all imports when the first case of the brain-wasting disease, also known bovine spongiform encephalopathy [i.e., mad cow disease], was discovered in the U.S.
Japanese restrictions on U.S. beef created distance between Japan and the U.S. Japan Agriculture Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu told reporters in 2010 after meeting [US Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack in Tokyo. “For us, food safety based on Japan’s scientific standards is the priority. The OIE standards are different from the Japanese scientific ones.” During the beef export ban, the U.S. beef industry lost about $1 billion a year in sales because of the restrictions, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, [a trade group supporting the interests of American beef producers].
The ban was eased in 2005 to allow meat from cattle aged 20 months or less, which scientists say are less likely to have contracted the fatal illness. … Japan was the third-largest destination for U.S. beef [in 2009], with trade totaling $470 million, up from $383 million in 2008, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. That compares with $1.39 billion in 2003. Mexico and Canada were the biggest buyers of U.S. beef [in 2009].
The role of the WTO is to facilitate agreements in difficult bilateral and multilateral trade disputes, but this certainly isn’t easy. Japan’s reluctance for American beef may have appeared to be the result of mad cow disease, but business observers note Japan’s historical cultural preference for Japanese goods, which the country often claims are superior. A similar trade conflict was triggered in the 1980s when Japan discouraged the import of rice from other countries. The prevailing Japanese thought was that its local rice was easier for the Japanese to digest. After extensive discussions in the Uruguay Round of trade talks, on “December 14, 1993 the Japanese government accepted a limited opening of the rice market under the GATT plan.”
Antidumping is another area on which the WTO has focused its attention. Dumping occurs when a company exports to a foreign market at a price that is either lower than the domestic prices in that country or less than the cost of production. Antidumping charges can be harder to settle, as the charge is against a company and not a country. One example is in India, which has, in the past, accused Japan and Thailand of dumping acetone, a chemical used in drugs and explosives, in the Indian market. In an effort to protect domestic manufacturers, India has raised the issue with the WTO. In fact, India was second only to Argentina among the G-20 (or Group of Twenty) nations in initiating antidumping investigations during 2009, according to a WTO report.
The future for the WTO and any related organizations remains strong. With companies and countries facing a broader array of trade issues than ever before, the WTO plays a critical role in promoting and ensuring free and fair trade. Many observers expect that the WTO will have to emphasize the impact of the Internet on trade. In most cases, the WTO provides companies and countries with the best options to dispute, discuss, and settle unfair business and trade practices.
- The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is a series of rules governing trade that were first created in 1947 by twenty-three countries. It remained in force until 1995, when it was replaced by the WTO.
- The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only global, international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. The WTO agreements that have been negotiated and signed by the organization’s 153 member nations and ratified in their parliaments are the heart of the organization. Its goal is to help the producers, exporters, and importers of goods and services conduct business. The latest round of the WTO trade negotiations is called the Doha Round.
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- Source: “The Multilateral Trading System—Past, Present and Future,” World Trade Organization, accessed December 29, 2010. ↵
- Source: Jae Hur and Ichiro Suzuki, “Japan, U.S. to Continue Dialogue on Beef Import Curbs (Update 1),” BusinessWeek, April 7, 2010. Restrictions were further eased in 2013. ↵
- Source: “Japan Rice Trade,” case study on American University website. ↵