The dangers of saying goodbye to globalisation

On the other side of the Atlantic, President Trump is keen to “put America first” and move manufacturing back to the United States and he has already had dealings with US companies thinking of moving production overseas. He has also talked of moving away from free trade has about re-writing NAFTA (the trade agreement with Canada and Mexico).

However it is worth reflecting  about the Argentinian experience. Cristina Kirchner was elected President of Argentina in 2007 and announced that Argentina needed to manufacture far more of the goods it consumed, rather than importing. In order to achieve this, she imposed  import tariffs of between 30% – 40% and banned the import of certain goods, in the hope that foreign companies would move production to Argentina. In 2011 one such banned good was the cell phone. Apple refused to produce in Argentina but Blackberry agreed. (It is worth noting that at this time Blackberry was the most popular and fashionable mobile phone in the country with sales of over $100m). The Blackberrys previously imported into Argentina had components from Asia and were assembled in either Mexico or Uruguay.

The Argentinian Government specified the place where the factory was to be built and selected Tierra del Fuego, a remote small island with poor roads and few flights at the southern tip of Argentina. In fact the main streets of Tierra del Fuego look more like  the set of a spaghetti western, with sheep grazing in the fields and tumbleweed (almost) blowing down the street, than a major manufacturing area. The establishment of the factory and recruitment of workers, who had to be paid three times the normal wage to persuade them to move down, took two years and there was much celebration in 2013 when the first Blackberry rolled off the production line.

Unfortunately, as a warning to anti-free-traders, because it took so long to bring the factory into production that the phones produced were two year old models and, because of high labour costs, the phones sold for almost twice as much as later models on sale elsewhere in the world. A new industry – the smuggling of Blackberries into Argentina from the USA – quickly grew and demand for the Argentinian-made phones fell, leading to redundancies in Tierra del Fuego. Those in favour of free trade cite the principle of comparative advantage and suggest that Argentina should have put more resources into the sector sit is best at, such as wine and beef.

 

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