Economic Czars Warn G-20 of Risk From Populist Backlash on Trade

G-20 Remains a Vital Forum for Debate, Says Komileva
  • IMF, WTO, OECD leaders in Hangzhou speak on free-trade concern
  • BRICS leaders expressed worries about increasing protectionism

Global economic leaders stepped up warnings that the populist mood sweeping many developed nations is a threat to trade and growth, calling from the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit for governments and businesses to fight to keep goods flowing across borders.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde urged corporate chiefs to lobby governments to keep trade flows up as she cautioned about the outlook for growth into 2017. Her comments on Saturday in Hangzhou, China, were echoed by World Trade Organization Director-General Roberto Azevedo, while Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland said it’s right to worry about protectionist sentiment.

"Trade is way too low and has been way too low for a long time," Lagarde told business leaders, citing an anti-trade movement in politics, policy and public opinion. "If there is no international trade, if there is no cross-border investment, if services, capital, people and goods do not cross borders, then it’s less activity for you, it’s less jobs in whichever country you are headquartered."

Lagarde’s warning comes amid a dimming global growth outlook and faltering momentum for the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact in the final months of President Barack Obama’s term. Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have both spoken against the deal, which excludes China, while progress on a U.S.-European Union trade and investment deal known as TTIP has also stalled.

‘Trade is Good’

"We’ve heard here at this G-20 a lot of talk -- and I think it’s right that we’re talking about it -- about the protectionist sentiment which is really sweeping the world," and we should be worried about it, Freeland said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

For a QuickTake explainer on the free trade debate, click here

"Those fears people have are real,” she said. “If we can show people that trade is good not just for Wall Street or Bay Street or the City of London but is good for small companies, then we’ll be doing a huge amount to push back against that protectionist sentiment."

G-2O leaders are under pressure to jump start growth that slowed to 2.7 percent last year among their economies, which represent about four-fifths of global gross domestic product. Growth is projected to slow to 2.4 percent this year before picking up to 3 percent next year and 3.1 percent in 2018, according to economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

‘Regulated Globalization’

France’s trade minister Matthias Fekl said late last month that the U.S. hasn’t offered anything substantial in negotiations with the EU on the free-trade deal and that talks should come to an end. His comments followed those of German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who said TTIP discussions “have de-facto broken down, even if no one wants to say so.

Australian beef for sale in Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned downside risks to growth are growing, telling G-20 leaders in a speech that free trade is an engine of growth.
Australian beef for sale in Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned downside risks to growth are growing, telling G-20 leaders in a speech that free trade is an engine of growth.
Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

French President Francois Hollande offered some conditional support for trade talks Sunday. "France is for free trade and is open for trade," he told reporters in Hangzhou. "But we won’t accept that trade is at the expense of fundamental principles such as respect for the environment or social protections. We have to decide what sort of growth we want, and France is for a regulated globalization."

Many Western nations are grappling with the populism that is leading to calls for caution not just on free trade but also on foreign investment in things like property and utilities. Chinese companies recently were dealt a blow on prospective projects in the U.K. and Australia.

‘Political Duty’

For leaders, the challenge is to pay heed to that populist mood in their countries while finding ways to spur their economies. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned downside risks to growth are growing, telling G-20 leaders in a speech that free trade is an engine of growth, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda. G-20 leaders have a “political duty” to resist the attractions of protectionism, Abe told the meeting, according to a briefing Sunday by Hagiuda.

At the same time, Obama warned of the need to ensure people don’t feel left behind by globalization.

“If advanced countries don’t pay attention to inequality, if we don’t pay attention to, not just growth in the aggregate, but how is that growth distributed and do people have ladders of opportunity in this new global economy, then yes, there’s going to be a reaction against globalization and against trade,” he said in a CNN interview.

Benefiting Everybody

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said she’d make the case at the G-20 that Britain can be a champion of free trade, despite Brexit.

Still, “we can’t ignore the fact that there’s sentiment out there which is anti-globalization,” she told reporters en route to Hangzhou. “We need to consider how, when we put these free trade arrangements in place, they’re actually going to benefit everybody.”

Brexit, BRICS

Angel Gurria, Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, noted that 1,400 protectionist measures had been passed since the financial crisis.

The U.K.’s planned exit from the European Union is a cause for uncertainty, he said, alongside concerns over TPP, which would link 12 nations making up about 40 percent of the world economy. He condemned comments from "some European leaders" that TTIP had failed.

Meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, the leaders of the BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- expressed concern in a statement about protectionism, while the WTO’s Azevedo called anti-trade rhetoric “extremely sad.”

“We cannot let this go without keeping it in check," Azevedo said. "Going against trade is effectively going against growth, is going against your economy and making things even worse. So we do have to take action."

Watch Next: G-20 Leaders Under Pressure to Jump Start Growth

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