Import (Trade) Certificates: Some Problems and Solutions
In our previous post, we suggested import certificates as a solution to the European debt problem.
While the idea of import certificates seems attractive, there are details that may have to be worked out. Here are several possible problems, with some solutions.
Consider the market, say, for 1-1 import certificates, certificates giving the right to import $1 worth of goods or services for every $1 worth exported. although it could be any ratio. Suppose the markets for goods were such that anything imported by the issuing country could be sold. If the certificates were perpetual, holders would tend to hold on to them, waiting for the highest price a foreign producer would be willing to pay, which could be quite high. Imports, then, would be below a level which was advantageous to the importing country. Certificates might tend to accumulate, until there was a sell off, leading to a boom-bust cycle of importation.
Suppose instead they had expiration dates, like options. 90 days, 6 months, 1 year. Then there might be a chronic shortage of imports. Or, instead of expiring, they could revert to the government, which could auction them off.
Or the certificates, instead of going to the exporter, could simply be retained by the government, which then sold them at auction. Howard Richman inIf they were targeted at any country which persisted in having a surplus with the US, they would be just as effective as untargeted ones. Attempts to route trade trough other countries would bring these countries to surplus, and then trade certificates could be issued against those countries, too.
Richman, in his article, also discusses the legal implications with respect to WTO agreements. The fact is, the adoption of import certificates would spread, and render those agreements redundant. (We should also expect resistance from the WTO, since they would be rendered redundant.) Since the universal adoption of import certificates would result in all nations having a balanced trade budget, discussions instead would revolve around bilateral differences in allocation, if temporary imbalances were seen as beneficial to one country or another, eg, to capitalize an export industry in one of the countries.
They might constitute a barrier to growth of trade, since any country with an increase in imports, need not be assured a corresponding increase in market. But under these circumstances, exporters to a particular country could be issued import certificates targeted to that country. That country would then be assured an increase in market, and so would not be discouraged from increasing its imports. It could exchange these rights with other countries, for import certificates from them. And this brings us to another option. The import certificates could be sold along side the exports of goods or services. Thus the foreign importer would acquire the right to export to that country, to sell as he chose. There would thus be no barrier to expanding trade, since each country, on expanding imports, would be assured of the rights to a market for its own exports. It would not be assured of the market itself, of course, as there might not be one there for what it produces. However, the country is better off than before, because it has rights to a market that someone might produce for, and it can exchange these rights to a market for what it produces.
At the level of producers, this might get very complicated. So, the import certificates follow the exports to the importing country, whose government acquires the rights. Then the problem of the allocation of rights to producers becomes a domestic one for each country. (This would in fact be the default situation, since any government could just tax the certificates away from its importers.) Each country’s own government would be the clear cause of any woes resulting from trade.
The whole thing seems to take on an aspect of barter. Countries have rights to markets they might not want, looking for someone with rights to markets they do want, who might not want the rights to the markets they do have. But in fact there is already a market for much the same thing, and that is the currency exchange market.
What could go wrong? Well, a country with substantial debt is eventually going to want to issue import certificates to a value less than its exports. In this way it can pay off its debt. That means its going to have to trade with countries which issue it certificates to value more than its exports. Its debt holding partners have to allow themselves to be repaid. See the example below.
A country wanting to indulge in mercantilist practice is also going to want to value the certificates it issues at less than a dollar for each dollar exported. Were all countries to engage in this practice, or even enough countries to engage in this practice, world trade, and the world economy, would contract. What would be good for one, would be bad for all. But how would one discourage individual perpetrators? The desire to expand one’s economy, at the expense of others, should not be rewarded, nor allowed to wreak havoc with the world’s economy. Now a valuation of its import certificates at less than the value of its exports, would be a clear signal of mercantilism. It would be anti-social behavior, though not aimed at anyone. But of course, it would be aimed at each country in its particular, since it is to each country that it is issuing its certificates to. That is, it would be saying to each country that it wishes to take advantage of it, to exploit its trade to grow at that country’s expense, by forcing a trade deficit on that country in particular.
Each country would be taking it ‘personally,’ and have the individual choice: To allow itself to be exploited, or to retaliate against the mercantilist country, say by issuing trade certificates against that country which were similarly valued at less than the value of the export.
Actually, retaliation would not be necessary. Suppose country A is issuing import certificates at a 1 to 1 value, one dollar of import certificates with each dollar of exports. Then any country B which issued certificates against country A of, say, $.90 per dollar exported to country A, would automatically see its trade with country A contract. That is because at the next round of trade, country A would only be able to export $.90 worth of goods to country B, and thus country B would only receive certificates to export $.90 worth of goods to country A. The next round country A would only be able to export $.81 worth of goods to country B, and that is all the certificates country B would receive. And so on.
In order for trade to maintain at the same level, country A would have to issue certificates to the value of $1.11 per dollar worth of goods exported. Then when country A exported $1 worth of goods to country B, Country B would return with $1.11 worth of goods, and the right for country A to export another $1 (90% of $1.11) worth of goods. So the situation would remain stable. Country A would actively have to allow itself to be exploited. It would have to cooperate in going into debt.
So, what is the import certificate that we are now talking about?
It is issued by each government. It is a right to import a specific quantity of goods or services into the country of that government. It is issued. for one of that country’s exporters, (perhaps to that exporter,) and it goes along with the export to the government of the country of destination. That government, depending on its domestic policies, may do with the certificate as it wishes. It may be allocated. It may be auctioned. It may be bought, sold, or exchanged.
It is 1 to 1, the right to $1 of import for each dollar of export, (eventually, in the case of debtor and creditor nations.)
We have discussed some of the alternatives, and the problems attendant on each. Some country A may issue them domestically. But that does not give any incentive to country B to import from country A. Not only does country A giving the certificate to country B give country B the right to trade with country A, but the incentive to do so, since it assures the rights to a market for its own producers. This type of import certificate constitutes a reward from country A to county B for buying from country A. How could country B complain?