``Cooperation in Hard Times: Self-Restraint of Trade Protection''

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``Cooperation in Hard Times: Self-Restraint of Trade Protection''
Cooperation in Hard Times: Self-Restraint of Trade
Protection ∗
Christina Davis†
Krzysztof J. Pelc‡
March 27, 2015
Forthcoming, Journal of Conflict Resolution
Hard times give rise to greater demand for protection. International trade rules include
provisions that allow for raising barriers to aid industries when they suffer economic injury.
Yet widespread use of flexibility measures may undermine the trade system and worsen economic conditions. How do states balance these conflicting pressures? This article assesses
the effect of crises on cooperation in trade. We hypothesize that governments impose less
protectionism during economic crisis when economic troubles are widespread across countries than when they face crisis in isolation. The lesson of Smoot-Hawley and coordination
through international economic institutions represent mechanisms of informal governance
that encourage cooperation to avoid a spiral of protectionism. Analysis of industry level
data on protection measures for the period from 1996 to 2011 provides support for our claim
that under conditions of shared hard times, states exercise strategic self-restraint to avoid
beggar-thy-neighbor policies.
We would like to thank Raymond Hicks and Jason Weinreb for valuable research assistance and thank Kosuke
Imai for advice on statistical analysis. We are grateful to Chad Bown, Deborah Elms, Joanne Gowa, Jon Pevehouse
and participants in the Political Economy of International Organizations conference (January 2012), Workshop on
Politics in Times of Crisis at London School of Economics (March 2012), Texas A&M Workshop on Informal Politics
in Multilateral Institutions (October 2012), and the Graduate Institute of International Studies (October 2013) for
comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.
Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton
University. [email protected]
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, McGill University. [email protected]
“What I am saying here is that not only do we need the resolve to respect WTO obligations, but also restraint in exercising WTO rights.” — Pascal Lamy, July 22nd,
When do countries turn to trade protection? The usual answers emphasize the state of the
domestic economy, political pressures, and the constraining effect of international legal rules. This
paper demonstrates that such explanations fall short of accounting for a puzzling degree of restraint
in protectionism during widespread crises. We show first that this restraint extends to areas
unconstrained by formal rules; something beyond legal commitments must dissuade states from
using trade barriers. And secondly, while conventional explanations look to domestic economic
conditions, we show that conditions abroad play at least as great a role. Whereas crises at
home increase the demand for protection, hard times abroad lead governments to temper their
protectionist response to their own domestic hard times. In an information-rich environment where
international economic organizations use monitoring and policy advice to encourage coordinated
restraint, hard times can generate greater cooperation.
Even as international trade rules constrain state behavior, they allow considerable room to
maneuver. An assortment of remedies, safeguards, and tariff overhang make up the “WTO rights”
mentioned in the statement quoted above by Pascal Lamy, the WTO Director General. These
provisions are designed to allow states to temporarily exit their commitments when faced with
an exogenous shock. Although justified as policies to counter unfair pricing and import surges,
in practice they provide a window for governments to accommodate demands from domestic
interests for protection. Furthermore, to the extent that using these measures is contingent on
demonstrating that domestic industries suffer injury, they are often invoked during economic
downturns. As a result, there is sufficient flexibility available during a global crisis that states
could adopt policies that would sink the trade regime, without breaking a single rule. Regardless of
whether we call these policies flexibility measures or protectionism, their effect is to raise barriers
to trade, and reliance on such measures comes at a short-term cost to trade partners.
Lamy’s call on sovereign nations to exercise restraint in the exercise of their rights may appear
naı̈ve. Precisely at a time when the domestic political cost of mere compliance with the formal
rules is highest, why would anyone expect states to pursue informal cooperation above and beyond compliance with legal rules? Whether realist skepticism about cooperation or arguments
about how rules help states to coordinate on mutually beneficial outcomes, international relations
theories would point to the challenge of informal cooperation among states. Indeed, the purpose
of institutions such as the WTO is to address this challenge by providing credible third-party
enforcement that ties leaders’ hands in an anarchic international environment.
Yet at the height of world economic crisis, state leaders themselves echoed these informal calls
for restraint. In November 2008, a G20 meeting in Washington produced a declaration with the
promise of “rejecting protectionism and not turning inward in times of financial uncertainty.”1
This promise was reaffirmed in April 2009 in London, where states further called on international
bodies to ramp up monitoring of protectionist policies. In Toronto, the following year, the G20
reaffirmed to uphold this promise for another three years. In December 2011, a group of 23 WTO
members made “an additional pledge to fight all forms of protectionism in the strongest terms.”2
And all available evidence suggests that states did refrain from using trade policy as a tool to
protect their weakened economies during the recent crisis.3 Compliance with multilateral trade
February 22nd, 2012.
pledge-engagement.aspx?view=d Last accessed February 22nd, 2012.
See for example IMF staff position note (Gregory et al., 2010), OECD trade policy study (Trade and Economic
rules appears high; the number of complaints against violations of the rules has remained steady.4
Even with regards to legal flexibility measures, such as trade remedies, the scope of measures was
limited, and originated mostly from developing countries, such that the absolute import volumes
affected were quite small (Bown, 2009). In his analysis of the eleven top remedy users, Bown
(2011, p. 26) finds only three countries increased the share of their imports covered by temporary
barriers in 2009, relative to their pre-crisis behavior.5 Ruddy (2010, p. 489) surveys four different
sources monitoring trade policies and concludes that there has not been significant increase in
protection. The May 2010 OECD Ministerial Council Meeting conclusions note that “[d]espite
the crisis, protectionism has not spread as widely as many had feared, not least as a result of our
coordinated international efforts.”6 Our research addresses the resulting puzzle: in hard times
such as the recent economic crisis, why would states facing a major economic downturn not only
remain largely in compliance with WTO rules, but also show restraint in exercising their “WTO
rights,” by limiting their reliance on legal flexibility measures?
We develop a theory to explain the conditions under which economic crises promote international cooperation. We contend that while economic hard times increase demand for protection
within the country, the pervasiveness of hard times across countries induces offsetting pressures
Effects of Responses to the Economic Crisis, 2010), and Kee, Neagu and Nicita (2013).
Within the WTO, an average of 17 complaints were filed per year over the three years 2008-2010, which is the
same as the average complaints filed per year over the three years 2005-2006. There were only 13 complaints in
2007, and it is unclear whether this has any relationship to crisis or whether this year should be counted as pre- or
post- crisis.
See also Bown and Crowley (2013) for further evidence from quarterly data of five industrialized economies to
document that trade policy response to the Great Recession represents a distinct break from the historical pattern
for protection to rise during economic downturns.
OECD, “2010 Ministerial Conclusions” adopted at the Council Meeting at Ministerial Level on 28 May 2010.
through an increased risk of retaliation. When hard times are widespread, any sign of a shift to
protection is more likely to precipitate similar actions by other countries. Monitoring provided
by institutions raises the expectation that protection will be observed and met with equivalent
response. The consequences of retaliation are also more severe for weakened economies that need
trade to restore growth. Information provided by institutions reinforces the lessons of history
about negative consequences. As a result, the average country facing an isolated crisis uses discretionary flexibility measures to protect industries at a higher rate than when the same crisis is
shared by its trade partners. Our theory highlights an area where informal coordination based on
self-interest, rather than legal obligation or formal enforcement actions, motivates restraint.
We test our argument using a large dataset of trade remedies and tariff measures for the
period between 1996 and 2011. This allows us to compare variation across a fifteen year period
for a broader test than studies that have focused exclusively on the 2008 crisis. We control for
import flows at the specific product level and control for exchange rates, which allows us to focus
on how crisis impacts trade policy after conditioning on changing trade volumes and currency
swings. Controlling for both the level and type of exchange rate policy is important to address
the possibility that currency policy could substitute for trade protection measures. Our findings
demonstrate that hard times correlate with trade restrictions, but that the pervasiveness of crisis
abroad reduces the protectionist response to crisis at home. This pattern is also evident when
looking at the more aggregate national level of total annual remedies filed. Furthermore, we
extend the analysis to examine tariff hikes instead of remedy usage and find strong support for
our argument. The hypothesized effect of shared crises not only accounts for restraint during the
Great Recession, but also shows the same pattern at work for years prior to 2008. In the United
States, we observe that comments reflecting fear of rampant protectionism respond to the level of
crises abroad, rather than at home. Yet our findings are not limited to the behavior of the United
States and Europe - many countries join in the restraint of protection during widespread global
downturn. We conclude that hard times may lead to more, not less, cooperation.
A Theory of Conflicting Pressures from Crisis
Crises are by definition unexpected events. As described by Kahler and Lake (2013, p. 10),
the characteristics of crises include an element of surprise, significant threat, and compressed
decision-making that “produce greater than usual uncertainty about the causes and consequences
of action.” We emphasize that pervasive crisis compounds this challenge as many countries experience a similar shock. While a large literature examines the effect of crises on regime stability and
policy reform, our interest lies in the area of trade protection. The tension between commitments
and flexibility lies at the heart of debates about institutions, and crises test their robustness.
We examine this grey area of cooperation where states must balance competing interests under
extraordinary circumstances.
Flexibility and Cooperation in Trade
One key function of institutions like the WTO is to alleviate a terms-of-trade prisoner’s dilemma
(e.g. Bagwell and Staiger, 2002; Broda, Limao and Weinstein, 2008). States can improve their
terms-of-trade at the expense of other nations, which produces the familiar pattern whereby
individually rational actions result in a suboptimal outcome. For this reason, countries create
institutions to make enforcement credible by raising the individual cost of beggar-thy-neighbor
policies. If these costs are sufficiently high, cooperation grows more likely. This theory applies
to states whose individual actions could impact world prices, but it is important to note this
is not limited to only a handful of large states.7 In addition, domestic political goals such as
favoring influential groups lead to protection (Grossman and Helpman, 1994; Goldberg and Maggi,
1999). Framing the public interest and the context of political institutions shapes how these biases
influence trade policies (McGillivray, 2004; Naoi and Kume, 2011; Rickard, 2012). The terms-oftrade and political economy motivations account for variation across goods and countries in the
level of protection as a function of market influence and lobbying power.
To accommodate the need for enforcement and flexibility, institutions allow countries to temporarily exit their commitments when they face an unexpected shock (Downs and Rocke, 1995;
Rosendorff and Milner, 2001). These provisions explicitly acknowledge that under some circumstances protection will be necessary. A sudden surge of imports, for instance, can inflict significant
injury on a domestic import-competing industry, leading to demands for temporary trade barriers.
As states confront uncertainty over when they may need to impose protection, they bargain for the
discretion to respond to such demands. It has been shown that flexibility provisions make states
both more likely to join international institutions and to make deep commitments (Kucik and
Reinhardt, 2008). Trade remedies such as antidumping and countervailing duties, and safeguards,
are standard in modern trade agreements. Large gaps between the maximum tariffs countries
can legally set (bound rates) and the duties actually levied at the border(applied rates) are also
common practice among many WTO members. The WTO estimates the rate at which countries
Broda, Limao and Weinstein (2008) test the terms-of-trade theory and find supporting evidence across countries
and across goods within countries. They demonstrate that market power impacts tariff-setting policies of United
States as well as 15 countries including developing countries. They conclude that the market power necessary to
induce terms-of-trade behavior is not limited to what might conventionally be considered “large” countries.
use this “binding overhang” as comparable to that of trade remedies.8
Since flexibility increases import barriers, its use imposes a cost on trade partners. States have
to decide whether to exercise this option. One observes tit-for-tat dynamics as industries and
states targeted by a particular flexibility measure, such as antidumping, become more likely to
use such instruments in turn (Kucik and Reinhardt, 2008). States hold considerable discretion
in their reliance on flexibility measures—in the sense that they do not exercise every opportunity
of doing so, but rather make strategic decisions based in part on the expected future behavior of
trade partners.
Institutions monitor the use of flexibility measures. Members have recourse to dispute settlement to challenge them if they violate the regulations that specify conditions for use of remedies.
Nearly one-third of WTO disputes consist of challenges against remedies. States must report
all anti-dumping and safeguards measures to the WTO at an early stage in the process. The
Committee on Anti-Dumping Practices reviews semi-annual reports of antidumping actions and
pointedly criticizes specific countries and investigations. Trade Policy Reviews also serve as a
venue to highlight problems with trade remedy procedures and practice by the country reviewed.
Nevertheless, such monitoring takes place against the backdrop reality that trade remedies are an
accepted part of the contract for liberalization with flexibility.
The potential import relief that can be obtained through WTO-sanctioned flexibility measures
is immense. Trade remedies may set prohibitively high tariffs that remain in place for years.
Illustrative is the case of U.S. steel, which experienced a serious industry-wide crisis during the
According to the WTO, between 2005 and 2006, the membership exercised just over 150 trade remedies, while
relying on increases of applied tariffs greater or equal to 15 percent 560 times (WTO World Trade Report 2009,
late 1990s and received remedy protection such that 20 percent of all steel imports were covered by
remedy measures during the years 1999 to 2002 (Prusa, 2011, p. 71). The use of binding overhang,
which is in effect a tariff hike, also holds potential to close markets. One study estimates that
if countries reset their tariffs at the allowable bound levels, world trade would drop 7.7 percent,
representing $350 billion in welfare costs, not including the retaliation that could follow.9 In other
words, WTO-consistent global protection could compromise the trade regime.
Hard Times and Protectionism
State discretion over flexibility is conditional on the existence of some observable evidence of
hard times. Much of variation in protection over time is expected to be a function of economic
conditions. Indicators such as import surges, rising unemployment, and dwindling revenue are
all indicators of injury that justify restricting trade as one way to provide relief to an industry.
This means that one expects states to use remedies more frequently during an economic downturn
because the formal requirements behind flexibility rules are more likely to be satisfied.
Endogenous protection theories link declining fortunes of industry with rising political demand
for protection. Through the interface of political coalitions and institutions, hard times impact
national policies (Gourevitch, 1986; Simmons, 1994; Kahler and Lake, 2013). Trade policy directly
addresses the demands of narrow interest groups harmed by trade. It also offers political response
to discontent arising from economic crisis, whether effective or not as economic policy tool. Slow
economic growth and rising unemployment generally lead to an increase in protection. Magee,
Brock and Young (1989, p. 186) describe the connection between hard times and protection as a
compensation effect that occurs when income declines lead factors to shift effort from economic
Bouet and Laborde 2009; WTO Trade Negotiations Committee (TN/C/M/29, paras. 188-89).
activity to political lobbying that is rewarded by protection. McKeown (1983) presents a politicalbusiness cycle theory for protection in which leaders can afford liberalization during periods of
prosperity, when they enjoy high popularity, and use tariff increases to win favor when unpopular
during recessions. He finds that the expected positive relationship between income growth and
trade has increased following WWII (McKeown, 1991). Empirical studies of tariff and non-tariff
measures commonly control for economic growth and unemployment (e.g. Ray and Marvel, 1984;
Mansfield and Busch, 1995). Macroeconomic downturns have also been shown to increase the
use of antidumping duties and safeguards (Takacs, 1981; Blonigen and Bown, 2003; Knetter and
Prusa, 2003). These studies assume that only a country’s own economic situation matters.
To explain the business cycle theory of protection policies at international level, Bagwell and
Staiger (2003) argue that free trade is more sustainable during high growth periods, and shocks
that reduce trade volume during a recession may result in an increase of protection. In their theory
of trade policy, governments raise import and export tariffs to improve their terms of trade, but
refrain from doing so when the cost of retaliation would be so great that free trade becomes selfenforcing. In the context of business cycles and international trade, they model governments as
having more to lose from retaliation during boom times when trade volumes are high, and less
to lose from retaliation during recession periods because trade volumes are lower. This argument
addresses how economic downturn for either partner or at systemic level changes incentives for
protection. Amidst declining trade volumes, the threat of raising trade barriers would be less
effective as a tool to deter protection by other states. But their theory would predict a major
increase of protection during the Asian Financial Crisis and the recent Great Recession. The
moderate level of protection during the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression
thus remains a puzzle, and leads us to question anew the relationship between trade protection
and hard times.
It could be that countries no longer seek protectionism. Indeed, Rose (2013) declares that
economics has won—he attributes the weakening association between macroeconomics and trade
policy as the victory of free trade ideas advocated by economists. Gawande, Hoekman and Cui
(2014) contend that changing structure of trade through vertical specialization has led to a steady
decline in the demand for protection, and offer this as an explanation for the lack of a protectionist
surge during the 2008 crisis. Yet if this were the case, then one would not observe ongoing turn to
protection during the isolated domestic crises. These theories help account for general downward
trend in trade barriers over time, but not the differential pattern in use of remedy measures across
crises. Recent research shows protection continues to rise during economic downturns. Bown
and Crowley (2014) examine thirteen emerging markets to show the countercyclical pattern of
economic shocks with import restrictions. Furthermore, when countries did resort to protection
barriers during the Great Recession, they followed expected patterns to favor politically influential
sectors. Kang and Park (2011) find that the industry targeting of Korean trade barriers favors
the politically organized sectors, although there was no surge in the number of anti-dumping and
safeguard initiations during the 2008 crisis. Argentina is one of the emerging market economies
that increased its use of protection during the crisis with both more initiations and higher value
of imports affected by measures (Moore, 2011). The use of trade barriers to protect industries
during crises is not obsolete, and so the question remains to explain why widespread crisis has not
led to a correspondingly widespread resort to protectionism.
When the collapse of Bretton Woods monetary system and rising trade friction in the 1970s
failed to trigger the breakdown of the trading system along the lines of the 1930s, scholars searched
for an explanation. International institutions and especially the GATT were credited with helping
states to uphold their commitments to free trade and avoid the negative spiral into protection
(Keohane, 1984; Winham, 1986; Bagwell and Staiger, 2002). Strong legal enforcement through
the WTO dispute settlement system has helped states to manage domestic political pressures
(Davis, 2012). Yet binding institutional commitments cannot explain restraint in the area of
legal escape clauses that are built into institutions exactly for the purpose of gaining relief during
extraordinary circumstances. Other studies emphasize that changes in underlying structure of
interests through the emergence of new export sectors, multinational firms, and global production
networks have reduced demand for protection (Milner, 1988; Kahler, 2013). While important for
the comparison of the Depression and Great Recession, these broader shifts cannot account for
why even within globalized economy there occurs variation in response to crises. In particular,
local crises continue to produce protectionist response and the challenge is to explain why this
does not worsen under scenario of global crisis.
Pervasive Hard Times
Given high levels of economic integration, exogenous shocks that threaten to injure domestic
industries often extend beyond one country. When many countries are hit by a common shock,
the demand to exercise flexibility options increases for many actors at once. Since the legal basis
for using flexibility measures is partly contingent on injury to industries, the total availability of
flexibility rises in hard times. The states affected by crisis thus have a greater incentive to offer
import relief, and greater means of doing so. Yet they also confront the heightened likelihood of
being targeted by protectionist measures imposed by other states in similar circumstances. The
relevant feature of crises for our argument is their pervasiveness, that is, the extent to which they
are shared by a large number of countries.
Strategic Self-Restraint
There are two ways in which a pervasive crisis raises the stakes for any single decision to protect
domestic industries. First, the presence of common economic hardship in trade partners increases
the likelihood of retaliation. These other states facing hard times all come up against the same
factors that render them ex ante more likely to impose a remedy measure, because their industries
suffer injury in a legal sense and mobilize for protection. As all actors are credibly on the brink
of imposing remedies, any nudge may push them to respond in kind. Second, the consequences
of a trade conflict, were it to arise and reduce trade volume, grow more dire during crisis. As
domestic demand declines, states often turn to export markets to restore growth. When markets
close, this strategy will fail. To the extent that the remedies imposed by trade partners affect
other industries, the trade war will spread the economic hardship from the declining industry that
sought the remedy to adversely impact the most productive firms engaging in exports. Without
any outlet for growth, production levels and confidence further decline.
As a result, states have an incentive to temper their response to domestic troubles if those hard
times are shared by others. Altruism plays no role here: a self-interested state can recognize that
the odds of retaliation are a function of pressure for relief in other countries that also experience an
economic downturn. What we refer to as “strategic self-restraint” occurs when the home country
preference to impose import relief during crisis is offset by the fear that hard times abroad will
trigger foreign country retaliation. This resembles patterns of behavior when creditors may resist
increasing the risk premia of a troubled debtor in order to avoid pushing the debtor into default
(Akemann and Kanczuk, 2005; Chapman and Reinhardt, 2013). In normal times, trade remedies
or rate hikes play an important role to punish those that dump cheap goods or engage in poor
management. But when balance sheets are in the red, an actor may decide they cannot afford
to risk the possible trade war or default that could result from such actions. Our emphasis on
the sensitivity of trade policy to foreign country economic conditions augments studies that have
largely seen probability of retaliation as function of trade dependence and market size (Blonigen
and Bown, 2003).
Further, it is not simply a bilateral fear of tit-for-tat retaliation that motivates restraint. Governments in a network of trading partners with cross-cutting dependencies on trade are closely
connected to know what other states are doing and anticipate future repercussions. The tariff
raised by country A against country B impacts third countries that fear trade diversion effects
flooding their own markets and future policies that will target their own exports. Once protectionism becomes the default response to hard times, other states will not wait to get caught as
the last open market and will instead pre-emptively move to raise barriers. This is the spectre
haunting governments during the double crisis of economic downturn at home and abroad—their
own decision to increase protection could be the tipping point leading to widespread actions by
other governments to close markets.
Informal Coordination
In pervasive hard times, all states thus share a strong incentive to coordinate on restraint in trade
policy. Yet how does such coordination actually take place? It is unlikely that legal enforcement
through WTO dispute settlement is responsible for the restraint in use of flexibility mechanisms
because they are formally allowed under the rules.10 Instead, our focus is on informal coordination.
We face an analytical challenge, since formal third-party enforcement is far easier to measure than
its informal analogue, which occurs at the level of leader interaction and monitoring by institutions.
This does not deny the significance of legal enforcement as a way by which international institutions constrain
other forms of protection and help states to manage domestic political pressures (Davis, 2012).
One way in which we can observe coordination at work is in the public invocation of lessons of
the past as part of the effort to persuade own legislatures and trade partners to exercise caution.
And no other historical event is as clear a marker of the dangers of trade protection during hard
times as the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930, which is widely regarded as the greatest breakdown
of cooperation over trade in history. Economic hardship provided impetus for diverse groups to
join together in a log-roll for higher protection, which in turn triggered retaliatory tariffs and
the formation of exclusive trade blocs (Eichengreen, 1989; Conybeare, 1987). In part a reaction
to economic crisis, the Smoot-Hawley tariff and the trade war it instigated have been widely
cited alongside currency devaluation as the kind of beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies that
deepened the Great Depression. The lesson of the Smoot-Hawley tariff is referenced at nearly
every emergency trade meeting. Lamy himself famously displayed in his office a photo of the
two authors of the legislation, and told visitors that “[t]his picture is a reminder about rises
in beggar-thy-neighbour trade responses which can quickly spiral out of control, as we saw in
the 1930s.”11 The U.S. Congress made repeated references to Smoot-Hawley Tariff during the
debates over responses to the Asian Financial Crisis and the Great Recession. Figure 1 shows the
sharp rise in attention to this precedent during these two main economic crises since the WTO’s
inception.12 The attention to this historical focal point extends beyond the U.S. Congress. Bown
(2011, 10) examines Google Trends time series data of internet searches for “Protectionism,” and
documents a sharp worldwide increase of references in the period from October 2008 through the
second quarter of 2009. Such rhetoric offers no binding authority, but provides information and
Statement made 24 April 2009 available at http://www.wto.org/english/news_e/sppl_e/sppl141_e.htm
The data were compiled through search of congressional records to count the number of floor speeches in
House and Senate that include one or more reference to Smoot and Hawley for the years 1995-2011. Sources:
Number of Congressional References to Smoot−Hawley Tariff
Figure 1: The Lesson of Smoot-Hawley: The figure displays the number of mentions to SmootHawley during floor testimony in the Senate and House of the U.S. Congress.
applies normative pressure that may lead policymakers to think carefully about the possible wider
consequences from protectionist measures. The importance of the Smoot-Hawley tariff is the way
in which it has come to represent a “lesson” to political leaders, regardless of whether it is the
correct one.13
This lesson is not only about the economic consequences of trade protection, but more specifically about the danger of closing markets when other countries are facing similar hardship. Here
the historical analogy may also be more appropriate in its general application. Irwin (2011, p.
151) contends that the greatest damage to U.S. economic interests from the Smoot-Hawley tariff
Irwin (2011) documents that the tariff was neither as large nor as devastating in economic impact as commonly
arose not directly from the tariff but rather from the discriminatory trade measures taken by other
countries, which resented the bad timing as the U.S. closed off its markets while they were also
falling into recession. In its contemporary usage, we observe high correlation between reference
to Smoot-Hawley as a historical analogy and the incidence of global downturn. Figure 1 reveals
that the Great Recession and East Asian Financial Crisis, which both represent periods when the
global economy experienced common shock, correspond to the two largest spikes in U.S. Congress
references to Smoot-Hawley in 1997 and 2009, while the U.S. recession in 2001 had no association
with the use of this lesson. As a focal point, Smoot-Hawley highlights the risk of adopting trade
protection during global economic crisis.
In the references to the Smoot-Hawley lesson, Congressional representatives emphasized the
connection to the risk of retaliation. A review of statements at the House of Representatives
March 12, 2009 Hearing on “U.S. Foreign Economic Policy in the Global Crisis” is illustrative.
Two representatives engaged in debate over appropriate use of the Smoot-Hawley lesson. First,
Representative Brad Sherman, a democrat who represents the 30th district in Orange County
California, defensively noted that the measures proposed to help U.S. industries were different
from the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, and accused Canada and the European Union of being hypocritical
in warning about a trade war. Representative Ed Royce, a Republican who represents the 29th
district in Orange County California, responded: “Of course Smoot-Hawley, with the 200 percent
increases in tariffs is not identical to some of the initiatives being pushed today. But what we
are talking about when we are talking about Smoot-Hawley is the blow back from our trade
partners. The reaction in Europe, in terms of the trade barriers that went up: the reaction in
Latin America, in Chile, and in other countries, that then impose trade barriers, and the fact that
once that happened, economic decline put a very severe recession into a great national depression
worldwide.”14 Controlling for similar district interests in this case, both representatives took
predictable positions reflecting partisan orientations toward trade. Yet more importantly, the
prospect of trade war loomed large on both sides of the debate.
Informal coordination is also promoted by the monitoring role of institutions that promote
awareness about the risk of retaliation and the cost of a trade war. The WTO promotes transparency about the use of remedies through reporting requirements that focus attention on unusual
policy trends. The recent 2008-09 recession led to several new monitoring initiatives including a
public list of trade measures imposed during the crisis issued by the WTO Secretariat, ongoing
efforts by the World Bank to monitor antidumping, and the start of the Global Trade Alert as
a watchdog on a range of trade measures that could impede trade (Bown, 2011, 11-13). WTO
ministerial meetings and trade policy reviews offer fora for members to criticize those who are seen
as abusing remedy measures. Improper use of remedies may be challenged in dispute settlement.
More generally, the WTO and other economic organizations such as OECD raise awareness about
the severity of crisis conditions in other countries and highlight the lesson of Smoot-Hawley to
assure that this remains the focal point in the mind of policy-makers. Such pressures for restraint
constitute examples of informal governance that can become most important when stakes are high
and agreed upon rules prove inadequate.15 Cowhey (2013, 216) highlights that even for the United
States, the monitoring reports of the G-20 and other institutions along with USTR played key role
to shape expectations that other countries were not turning to protection during the Great Recession, which was an important condition for the Obama administration in 2008 to move forward
“U.S. Foreign Economic Policy in the Global Crisis”, Hearing before the subcommittee on terrorism, nonpro-
liferation, and trade of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 12 March 2009 (Serial No.
111-18): p. 3-4.
For a recent treatment of the importance of informal governance, see Stone (2011).
on a trade liberalization agenda. Given that treaty provisions explicitly allow the use of remedies, monitoring and pledges must act as primary mechanism by which international institutions
constrain and inform behavior. The WTO’s legal obligations and its dispute settlement system
provide a backstop against egregious forms of protectionism that violate legal commitments, but
our theory points to a degree of restraint that goes beyond the formal commitments contained
in WTO agreements. In this process, the WTO functions as one of several venues for states to
achieve informal coordination.
Flexibility measures were designed to deal with the hard times of economic crisis, but pervasive hard times across countries present a special risk. We argue that during widespread crises,
policymakers have an incentive to pull back and encourage others to do the same. They rely on
focal points, such as the public references to the lesson of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, and monitoring
reports from international institutions to produce convergent expectations about the response to
crisis. The above reasoning leads to our hypothesis: a country facing an economic crisis will be
less likely to impose protectionism when other countries also experience economic crisis.
Analysis of Protectionism in Crisis
Our outcome of interest is trade protection countries deliver through flexibility measures. This
choice allows us to focus on informal cooperation, because these measures represent forms of
protection recognized as legal within trade agreements.16 In this paper we focus on the use of
trade remedies and tariff rates, controlling for imports at the product level and exchange rates.
In application, many flexibility measures are challenged in dispute settlement as a violation of treaty commit-
ments. We are not claiming that trade rules do not regulate the use of remedies but rather that states can typically
make prima facie case for legality of their use.
Our primary policy instrument of interest, trade remedies, refer to safeguards, countervailing
duties, and antidumping duties. While they differ in their specifics—safeguards are taken purely in
reaction to domestic exigency, while antidumping and countervailing duties are taken in reaction
to foreign trade actions—all trade remedies share similar requirements. In order to exercise any
remedy, countries must demonstrate “serious injury or threat thereof” to an industry as a result
of trade.17
Governments influence remedy levels in several ways. First, firms file petitions for relief claiming that they have suffered injury from imports. Detailed statutory rules set guidelines for the
approval of an investigation in response to a petition and for the determination of whether to
impose duties based on the calculation of fair prices and injury. Nevertheless, the agency approval
process is vulnerable to outside influence. Research shows that decision making reflects political
contributions to members of trade oversight committees in congress and location of firms in the
district of these members (Hansen and Prusa, 1997). Knetter and Prusa (2003, 5) note that in
Australia and the EU ministerial oversight of the determination of antidumping duties make their
process “subject to more direct political interference” than even the United States. Furthermore,
petitions can respond to the political environment. Firms receive signals from the media coverage
of declarations by leaders calling for restraint of protectionism in the midst of crisis or advocating stronger measures to protect domestic industry. Their contacts with political representatives
and legal advisors offer an additional conduit for information that can shape expectations about
In terms of the number of affected industries, antidumping actions constitute by far the greatest proportion
of remedy usage, representing 78% of investigations in our data. Countervailing duties form 12% of the actions,
and safeguards represent the remaining 10%. However, the latter significantly understates the impact of these
measures, since safeguards are not targeted remedies, that is, they affect all countries trading a given product. By
comparison, both AD and CVD actions single out one or a few countries.
whether investing resources in filing a petition is worthwhile. As a result, the decisions of firms
and the supervising agencies are based on shifting economic conditions that impact the occurrence
of dumping and injury, but they also have room to take into account whether the political climate
encourages or discourages use of the measures at a particular time.
We compiled a large dataset of trade barriers and trade flows from 1995 to 2012 at the product
level (six-digit Harmonized System).18 We analyze two dependent variables: our main analysis
focuses on initiation of remedy investigations, and a secondary analysis examines tariff policies.
For the analysis of remedy policies, we restrict the sample to include only countries that use
remedies, meaning they have established an antidumping law (Kucik and Reinhardt, 2008) and
have used one of the three remedies at least once. This keeps the focus on the set of countries
for which flexibility measures represent a potential policy response. Our sample of countries that
meet these criteria and have data available on our measures include twenty-nine countries with
the European Union being treated as single country because remedies are measured at the EU
level.19 There is no restriction on the target countries.
The number of products with data available varies by country and in any given year. For the United States
there are 484 product categories included in the conditional logit estimation sample. The six-digit products are
quite specific (e.g. fresh apples, or refrigerators). All our trade and tariff data come from the World Integrated
Trade Solution (WITS), hosted by the World Bank: https://wits.worldbank.org/WITS/, last accessed Dec. 5th,
Remedies are measured at the EU level, and for national level variables such as crisis and polity score we
calculate the average of EU members. The sample includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China,
Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, United States, Uruguay,
We examine the country-product-year unit of analysis in our main specification. This inflates
the number of observations since each country may trade as many as 5,000 products at the 6digit level. Controlling for product-level imports represents a major advance relative to country
level aggregation because we can ascertain that changes in trade volume alone do not account for
the varied observation in remedy use. For our main analysis, we estimate the probability that a
state initiates at least one remedy investigation for a country-product-year observation. We use a
conditional logit regression, which limits the sample to the most relevant observations, as the fixed
effects specification drops observations where the country-product panel has never experienced use
of remedies over the period. This approach allows us to control for much of the heterogeneity at
the product and country level (e.g. factor productivity, political organization of the industry)
that theory tells us influences demand for protection but are effectively unobservable. By using a
dichotomous indicator for whether any remedy investigation was initiated, we purposefully avoid
focusing on the level of the duty or the number of targeted partners.20 As a robustness check,
we also include analysis of the total number of remedy investigations. We lag all explanatory
variables one year to reduce simultaneity. Because of the lag, our main analysis of remedy usage
covers the period 1996-2011. In a separate specification, we collapse the product data for analysis
of a single country-year unit of analysis. Finally, when using alternative measures we are able to
use full dataset for period from 1996-2012.
We use the information about remedies that Chad Bown collected, the World Bank Temporary Trade Barriers Database. It is the most authoritative data source of trade remedy actions
available. It includes antidumping, countervailing, and safeguard investigations coded at the
and Venezuela.
See Bown (2011) for detailed analysis of changes in the stock of remedy measures with attention to the product
coverage, level, and targeted countries.
Number of Remedy Initiations
Figure 2: Remedy Investigations: The figure shows the number of investigations initiated each
year for all of the countries in the dataset including antidumping, countervailing, and safeguard
country-product-year level. We code remedy actions as when the government responds to a petition for import relief with a formal investigation, because investigations depress trade regardless
of whether they lead to a decision to grant import relief. This is consistent with the WTO practice
of counting new investigations as benchmark measure of remedy activity.21 Figure 2 shows the
pattern of remedies. Clearly, 1999 and 2001 stand out as the worst years for remedy use and make
the increase in 2008 look modest in comparison. Why would the wake of the 1997-1998 Asian
Bown (2011) also examines removal of remedy measures and shows that the overall stock of temporary barriers
currently in place closely tracks the trend for new initiations for most countries. A notable exception is Mexico,
which reduced protection in 2008 through removal of longstanding barriers against China and the absence of new
financial crisis produce more protection than the crisis itself? And why would the small economic
downturn of 2001 (following the burst of the dot-com technology bubble) be accompanied by more
protection than the Great Recession? Our explanation focuses on why pervasive crises dampen
protection relative to more isolated local problems.
We measure our independent variables for crises using data from Reinhart and Rogoff (2009),
which covers several categories of economic hardship. The data include indicator variables for
whether a given country-year has experienced a crisis in the realm of banking, currency, domestic
default (or restructuring), external default (or restructuring), inflation, and stock market. Each
dimension captures a problem that has the potential to ripple throughout the economy. Even
crises primarily located in financial markets impact firm profits and employment levels through
tightening credit. We sum these to create a “crisis index” with a range from 0 to 6 for any given
country year. For example, the United States receives a score of 2 in 2008 for having both banking
and stock crisis, and a score of 1 in 2009 for ongoing banking crisis. Indonesia receives a score of 6
in 1998 during Asian Financial Crisis, and Argentina receives a score of 5 in 2002 at the height of
its crisis. The index allows for a broad definition of crisis that captures many sources of economic
problems. It also incorporates variation in the severity and breadth of the economic crisis more
than would be true of a separate measure such as single dimension of crisis or a dichotomous
recession variable. For example, when bad news extends across banking, stocks, currency, and
debt as was experienced by Indonesia and Argentina, the crisis is more severe than what might
otherwise be an ’ordinary’ recession. For the home government and especially for the logic that
trade partners will take into account the economic circumstances of other countries, these are
important distinctions. Later, we use unemployment and recession as alternative measures of
System level crises weighted by GDP
Figure 3: World Crisis Tally: The figure shows the average level of our measure of crisis among
all countries in our data sample, when the crisis index is weighted by the relative GDP size of the
country in crisis.
We use this crisis index to create a Rest of the World (ROW) crisis indicator, which corresponds
to the average level of crisis of all countries, excluding the country under observation. Because
the impact of crises on others should be proportionate to market size, we weigh crises using the
ratio of a country’s GDP over the largest country GDP of that year. We then construct an
interaction term between the local and the (GDP weighted) ROW crises indicators.22 The trend
for this measure shown in Figure 3 reveals that it captures known trends in the level of world
crisis. Our hypothesis suggests the interaction term will be negative as widespread crises reduce
the protectionist response to hard times at home.
The local crisis measure is unweighted because we control for GDP separately.
In addition to the fixed effect at country-product unit in our main conditional logit estimates,
we add control variables for time-varying factors at country and product level. We include GDP
and income (per capita GDP), which are both standard variables in analysis of trade policy based
on expected importance of market size and level of development.23 Because the trade literature
devotes considerable attention to the role of democracy, we include the Polity IV measure of regime
type. On the one hand, democracies are thought to attach greater importance to aggregate welfare
and support free trade, but are also more vulnerable to interest group pressure. Given potential
complementarity or substitution between trade and currency policies, we control for the real
exchange rate and fixed. We include the applied tariff rate for the country-year-product under
observation as a measure of existing protection. We also include the log of country-year-product
level imports, which both proxies for the size of the industry and whether rising imports justify
prima facie case for remedies. It is important to control for imports given the possibility that
declining imports during a slowdown of the world economy could provide an alternative route
that would depress remedy use.
First, we examine the conventional wisdom. Scholars expect that when hard times hit, governments will make more use of import relief. The first column of Table 1 shows exactly that: in the
year following a localized crisis, the odds of observing a higher number of trade remedy actions
grow significantly. In other words, local crises increase the likelihood of protection. We gain confidence in our measure of economic crisis because it produces the expected positive relationship
between economic hard times at home and greater use of trade remedies.
Both variables are measured in constant U.S. dollars, and we take the log to smooth values.
Next, we examine whether the pervasiveness of crisis abroad counteracts this tendency. The
remainder of Table 1 shows estimates that include the three terms needed to assess our hypothesis:
local crisis, rest of world (ROW) crisis, and interaction of local and ROW crisis. The findings
offer support for the hypothesis—the interaction term between foreign crises and local crises is
significant and negative. While either domestic crisis in absence of world crisis or world crisis in
absence of domestic crisis increase the probability of remedy use, their simultaneous occurrence
attenuates the expected level of protection. Note that models 2 and 3 in Table 1 include fixed
effects for country-product, which has the result of restricting our sample to only those industries
within each country that have filed a successful petition to initiate a remedy investigation at least
once during the period. This approach is useful as a conservative test of our hypothesis, but the
conditional logit coefficients are difficult to interpret.24
What are the effects of the domestic and world crises contingent on the interactive relationship
specified in our argument? In order to discuss substantive effects, we show the estimates from
a linear fixed effects regression on the sample from our estimation of the conditional logistic
regression (i.e. dropping observations with zero variation on outcome in the panel) in the second
column. As with the conditional logit model, fixed effects are at the country-product level. The
advantage of this model, beyond its interpretability, is that we can estimate robust standard errors
clustered at the country level. Based on the linear model coefficients shown in model 3 of Table
1, Figure 4 presents the estimated interaction effects between domestic and international crisis
levels on the probability of remedy use when compared with the probability of remedy use in the
To avoid the incidental parameter problem, we use the conditional logit model which estimates all the co-
efficients but not the fixed effects. The disadvantage of this model, however, is that it lacks a baseline for the
country-product effect and hence we cannot calculate marginal effects for this specification. The coefficients are
useful primarily to test for direction of effect.
Table 1: Effect of Shared Crises on Trade Protection
Domestic Crisis
ROW Crisis
Domestic X ROW Crisis
Log of GDP
Log of GDP per cap.
Regime Type
Tariff Rate
Log of Product Imports
Real Exchange Rate
Exchange Rate Regime
p < 0.10,
p < 0.05,
p < 0.01
Dependent variable is measure of trade remedy usage. Columns (1) and (2) show conditional logit estimates.
Column (3) shows OLS regression with robust standard errors clustered on country. Column (4) shows random
effects logit estimation. Column (5) shows negative binomial count model of the number of trade remedy
investigations. All explanatory variables lagged one year.
absence of crisis. The contour plot on the left presents these estimates as a function of both world
crisis (horizontal axis) and domestic crisis (vertical axis). The contour lines display the highest
increase in predicted probability of remedy usage in the upper left corner. Where domestic crisis is
at its peak value and world crisis at its minimum, the probability of adopting a remedy increases
by 10 percent relative to situations in which no crises exist. The lower right corner shows an
increase of 8 percent in the predicted probability of remedy use when other countries in the world
are experiencing crisis and domestic crisis is low. Our surprising result is found in the upper
right corner, which displays the shift that occurs when moving from zero crisis to simultaneous
domestic and foreign crises. Rather than magnifying the protectionist tendency, the combination
of high levels of crisis at home and abroad leads to a small reduction of two percentage points in
the probability of remedy use, relative to a non-crisis scenario. The zero line indicates that when
ROW crisis measure rises above 0.10 and the domestic crisis measure is greater than 4, there is
no expected increase of remedy use relative to a no crisis scenario, and beyond these levels one
would expect negative effect on protection—the crisis interaction induces restraint.
The graph on the right examines predicted probabilities of remedy use under two scenarios: the
line of solid circles displays estimates for high domestic crisis (5) over the range of values for world
crisis; the line of open circles displays estimates for zero domestic crisis over the range of values
for world crisis levels. Dashed lines represent 95% confidence intervals. Given the wide levels
of uncertainty for estimates at the two extreme ends of the measure, there are wide confidence
intervals but the underlying coefficient for the interaction term is highly significant. The graph
shows that under conditions of high domestic crisis the expected probability of remedy use declines
as the measure of world crisis grows higher, and this directly contrasts with the positive effect of
world crisis on the estimated probability of remedy use in absence of domestic crisis.
Estimated Change in Probability of Remedy Use
(Relative to No Crisis)
Domestic crisis = 0
Domestic crisis
Domestic crisis = 5
Estimated Change in Probability of Remedy Use
Estimated Effects of Rest of World Crisis
Rest of World crisis
Rest of World crisis
Figure 4: Estimated Interaction Effect Between Domestic and World Crisis Levels: the two graphs
present estimates from linear fixed effects model shown in Table 1. The contour plot (left) shows
the estimated effect over each combination of values for crises at home and abroad while the line
plot (right) graphs the estimated effect of world crisis at the maximum and minimum values of
domestic crisis with 95 percent confidence intervals.
Indeed, the marginal effect of world crisis on remedy use is quite substantial. There is a
40.0 percent decrease in the predicted probability of a remedy investigation when holding control
variables constant at mean and domestic crisis at five while increasing ROW crisis by one standard
deviation.25 Conditions abroad strongly qualify domestic responses to hard times.
It is well established that exchange rate adjustments offer an alternative means for countries
to respond to crisis (Broz and Frieden, 2001; Pelc, 2011; Copelovitch and Pevehouse, 2013). While
Using coefficients from the specification in model 4 in Table 1, we calculate the marginal effects as the probability
of positive outcome assuming that the random effect is zero. In the comparison of two models, we adjust both the
ROW crisis variable and its interaction term values. Given the size of the aggregate sample, the base probability
of remedy initiation for any given product/year is quite low, but the relative change in probability is large.
the 1930s witnessed beggar-thy-neighbor policies on both trade and currency dimensions, it is
possible that more recent years have witnessed these policies used as substitutes.26 For this
reason, we include controls for exchange rates. We use the level of the real exchange rate to
measure fluctuations in the value of the local currency relative to the U.S. dollar (i.e. an increase
in this variable corresponds to an appreciation of the local currency).27 A positive coefficient
would indicate that higher levels of the currency are accompanied by increased remedy use, while
a negative coefficient would indicate that higher levels of the currency reduce remedy use. To the
extent that a lower currency raises the cost of imports, it can substitute for import barriers, while
providing a de facto export subsidy. We also include an indicator of whether the country has a
fixed exchange rate.28 These countries are less able to use exchange rate adjustment to buffer
their economy during hard times, which could increase pressure to resort to direct trade barriers.
As with other covariates, we lag the exchange rate measures by one year. Our core findings are
robust to these controls. The expectations of the literature are borne out: the evidence shows that
Knetter and Prusa (2003) show that in four major remedy users during the 1980-98 period, currency appreci-
ation increased antidumping filings and depreciation lowered average number of filings. Bown and Crowley (2013)
find that exchange rate movements are one factor that may have reduced protection during the Great Recession.
We use the World Bank measure of real effective exchange rates (REER measures the value of a currency
against a weighted average of several foreign currencies divided by a price deflator or index of costs).
The measure is based on the classification of exchange rate regimes by Reinhart and Rogoff (2009). Using
their coarse classification of exchange rate regimes into six categories, we code an indicator for fixed exchange rate
regime set to one for any of the following categories: no separate legal tender, pre-announced peg or currency
board arrangement, pre-announced horizontal band that is narrower than or equal to +/-2 percent, or de facto peg.
All other exchange rate regimes are set to zero. Their data end in 2007: we extend the data assuming that the
exchange rate regime remains the same thereafter. Since we use lagged values, only two years of imputed values
are in the analysis. The EU is dropped from the analysis prior to 2000, and thereafter the EU is coded to have the
Euro as currency level and a flexible exchange rate.
exchange rate policies are connected to use of trade remedies. Countries that have a lower currency
are less likely to initiate a remedy investigation throughout our four models. The evidence on the
impact of a fixed exchange rate regime is more mixed, with inconsistent findings across our five
models. Most importantly, our main finding are robust to the inclusion of these exchange rate
controls: crises abroad make a protectionist response to domestic crisis less likely.
Next, we perform a less restrictive test. We relax the country-product fixed effects to estimate
a random effects logit model. This substantially increases the sample by including those products
that never experience a remedy investigation. The findings, presented in model 4 of Table 1,
support our hypothesized relationship between crisis and remedy use. The positive coefficient
for the domestic crisis variable supports the expectation that hard times at home increase use of
remedies. The positive coefficient for ROW crisis indicates that in absence of domestic crisis, the
pervasiveness of crisis abroad also increases the probability of protection by the home government.
Our key finding remains strong in support of the restraint logic by which the interaction of domestic
crisis and pervasive world crisis moderates the use of remedies. Finally, in model 5, estimates from
a negative binomial regression with fixed effects show the probability of remedies when modeling
the dependent variable as a count of total remedy initiations for the country-product-year instead
of the dichotomous measure for main estimates.
The positive effect of the ROW crisis variable reflects how factors abroad drive the legal case
for remedies at home. In the interactive model, the coefficient on ROW crisis should be interpreted
as the effect of pervasive world crisis on the estimated probability of remedy use when domestic
crisis equals zero.29 Under these circumstances, the industries of other countries in crisis dump
excess production, which increases the defensive use of remedies by other countries. In particular,
Note that this coefficient is positive even when we omit the local crisis variable and the interaction term.
the crisis-stricken countries with declining consumption at home send their “distress goods” to
those countries in better shape where demand remains high. As a result, the non-crisis country
faces more genuine cases of dumping as crisis spreads elsewhere. To test for this possibility, we
rerun our estimations from Table 1, this time with logged imports as the dependent variable.30
We find that the healthier domestic economies (measured in terms of lower values in the Reinhart
and Rogoff “crisis index”) attract more imports, and crises abroad also have a significant positive
effect on imports at home. This supports our expectation that distress goods are increasingly
sent abroad by countries in crisis to those countries less affected by hard economic times. The
flood of distress goods in home markets leads to more remedy use. If restraint on protection were
sympathy for the circumstances of other countries there should be negative impact of ROW crisis,
but instead we observe positive impact. Our argument about strategic restraint highlights the
role of joint crisis to moderate use of protection.
Across all models of Table 1, our control variables generally support expectations. Market
size consistently corresponds to lower rates of remedy use, but income with higher rates. This
relationship reverses, however, for the very large sample that includes all products, even where no
remedy has been initiated. Omitting the income control variable affects the magnitude of GDP
but not its direction or significance, and other variables are unaffected. The positive correlation
between democracy and remedy usage is robust for all specifications, except the linear specification
in model 3 of Table 1. Products with higher import volume are associated with more frequent
remedy investigations. At the same time, high tariffs correspond to lower use of remedies, hinting
at a substitution effect between both instruments.
The prevalence of WTO membership makes it difficult to make inferences about the influence
Estimation not shown: results available from authors.
of membership on state behavior.31 Our argument that restraint arises through informal cooperation, rather than hard enforcement, suggests that the rich information environment supported by
institutions such as the WTO is important.
Country-level Aggregate Analysis of Remedy Use The product-country-year unit of observation we employ in our main analysis allows us to provide a fine-grained analysis of remedy
use with covariates for imports and fixed effects at the product level to account for unobserved
variation related to industry political organization. Nonetheless, because the crises variables are
measured at the country level, it is useful to examine the overall pattern of remedy usage at the
higher level of aggregation for each country. We create a new dependent variable for the total
number of remedy investigations across all products that were initiated by a given country each
year. As in the earlier analysis, we only include the twenty-nine countries that are remedy users
during the period of analysis 1995-2011.32 At the highest level, India imposed 669 remedy investigations in 2008. The sample mean, however, is much lower, at 29 investigations per year.
The year with the highest average usage across all countries was 2001, when the sample mean
rose to 65 investigations. Given the count nature of the outcome of interest (a binary indicator
would register little variation, since most countries initiated at least one remedy in most years),
we estimate the probability of remedy use with a negative binomial regression panel model, and
include country fixed effects. At this level of aggregation, imports represent total imports, and
we do not include the product-specific measure of applied tariff rate. As before, all independent
The data do not allow us to test whether WTO members are more restrained in their policies, since data for
product-level remedy investigations by non-WTO countries is limited to China in the years prior to WTO accession,
when it was under heightened scrutiny as applicant.
Since we do not require the product level import flows in this model, data allows including 1995 as start of
time period.
variables are lagged by one year.
Table 2: Effect of Shared Hard Times on Protection (Country-Level)
Domestic Crisis
ROW Crisis
Domestic X ROW Crisis -4.650∗∗
Log of GDP
Log of GDP per cap.
Regime Type
Log of Imports
Tariff Rate
Real Exchange Rate
Exchange Rate Regime
p < 0.10,
p < 0.05,
p < 0.01
Dependent variable is a count of trade remedy actions in a given country-year. Column (1) shows country-level
negative binomial panel regression. Column (2) shows country-level OLS regression with robust standard errors
clustered on country. All explanatory variables are lagged by one year.
The results are shown in Table 2. Our findings at the country level are highly consistent—
domestic crises are associated with an increased probability of remedy investigations, and when
crises are widely shared, countries exercise restraint as seen by the lower frequency of remedy
initiation across all products. The first column shows the negative binomial model, while the
second column shows an OLS model. The dependent variable is a count of the number of remedy
investigations in a given country-year, which varies from 0 to 31 in our sample. The relationship
with the real exchange rate remains the same, with lower levels of the exchange rate being associated with lower reliance on trade remedy protection and fixed exchange rate regimes being
associated with greater use of trade remedies. Having confirmed that even at the national level
we can observe the predicted pattern in total remedies, we return to the disaggregated industry
data for analysis of tariffs as dependent variable measuring protection.
Estimating Crisis Effect on Tariffs Next, we test our expectations on an alternative form
of legal trade flexibility. Many states have negotiated higher bound tariff rates while actually
levying a lower rate on an MFN basis. The resulting gap, referred to as binding overhang, allows
countries to temporarily increase their applied tariffs without violating the legal commitment to
maintain tariffs below the bound rate. The average level of binding overhang is 18% across the
WTO membership, meaning that the average traded product could have its tariff rate raised by
18% overnight without any violation of WTO obligations.33 This alternative protection measure
represents the simplest government action to protect markets. The tariff measure expands our test
to a broader range of countries and different policy-making venue. Unlike the trade remedy process
that depends on interaction between industry and bureaucracy for the petition, investigation, and
final approval of remedy measures, the increase of an applied tariff can be accomplished quickly
through a direct policy change by the tariff authority within government. Binding overhang is
thus of particular interest to our analysis, since it can be exercised quickly, cheaply, and can be
used by countries that may not have the necessary bureaucratic apparatus or industry capacity
to conduct remedies investigations.34
Based on 2012 data from World Integrated Trade Solution data, hosted by the World Bank.
Indeed, such substitution is often pointed to as a justification of binding overhang by WTO developing country
members (e.g., Statement by the Representative of India, WTO document WT/COMTD/W/143.
Table 3: Effect of Shared Crises on Tariffs
Domestic Crisis
ROW Crisis
Domestic X ROW Crisis
Domestic Recession
ROW Recession
Domestic X ROW Recession
Log of GDP
Log of GDP per cap.
Regime Type
Tariff Rate
Log of Product Imports
Real Exchange Rate
Exchange Rate Regime
p < 0.05,
p < 0.01,
p < 0.001
Each model estimates the decision at 6-digit product level to hike applied tariffs by 15 percent or more for those
products where tariff hike would be compliant with WTO tariff schedule. Both columns show results of random
effects logit estimation. All explanatory variables are lagged by one year.
In Table 3, we present results estimating an indicator of tariff hikes greater than 15 percent,
which is the level of tariff rate increases that the WTO itself employs when comparing reliance of
overhang to usage of trade remedies.35 Here we restrict the sample to those product lines in each
country that had sufficient overhang in the prior year to allow for tariff hikes of at least 15% within
the legal commitments of their WTO tariff schedule. We have data for forty-three countries that
have tariff overhang exceeding 15% on some products.
Both columns of Table 3 show estimated coefficients from a random effects logit model including
the same set of control variables as above. The first column relies on the Reinhart and Rogoff crisis
index, while the second column instead measures economic hard times as recession, using a binary
indicator coded as 1 if a country experiences negative GDP growth in two consecutive quarters in
a given year. The larger sample size in the second column is due to the better country coverage
of GDP data, as compared against Reinhart and Rogoff’s crisis data. As in our estimations of
trade remedy usage, widespread hard times lead to less tariff hikes than isolated hard times,
regardless of whether hard times are measured with our crisis or recession measures. Some of our
controls, however, behave differently, resulting either from the broader country coverage, or from
the use of tariff hikes as the dependent variable. Regime type is now negatively signed across
both models, suggesting democracies are less likely to rely on tariff hikes when they have the
room to do so, offering support for the view that democracies prefer to allocate protection to more
“opaque” instruments, such as trade remedies (Kono, 2006). Higher levels of the real exchange
rate appear to decrease the likelihood of tariff hikes, while the effect of fixed exchange regimes
is inconsistent across both models. As in all our other specifications looking at trade remedies,
the higher the imports, the more likely a tariff hike, reflecting the conventional wisdom about the
See WTO World Trade Report 2009, p. 136.
domestic politics of trade. Most importantly, with regards to restraint, the picture looks much the
same with tariff hikes as it does with trade remedies. Countries grow less likely to rely on tariff
hikes when others also confront hard times.
Robustness Checks We conduct several robustness checks pertaining to our main analysis.
First, we examine whether our main estimation is robust to different crisis measures. We replace
the crisis measure based on Reinhart and Rogoff’s data with a measure of unemployment, and then
a measure of recession, both drawn from World Bank data. Once again, we use conditional logit
regression, which limits our sample to those country-products that have experienced a remedy
case during the period in our sample.36 In both cases, we observe the restraint our theory leads
us to expect: during recessions, or during periods of high unemployment, countries are less likely
to engage in protectionism if other countries are facing similarly hard circumstances. Our control
variables behave much as in Table 1, except for tariff rates, which have no significant effect in
the model using unemployment as the measure of hard times. Importantly, however, our results
appear robust to alternative measures of crisis.
Next, we rerun our analysis while restricting our crisis measures to a country’s top trading
partners. We confirm that all our results hold with this restricted definition of crisis. Moreover,
crisis does not appear to have a more pronounced effect when using a measure of crisis in top trade
partners than when using a measure of crisis across the entire WTO membership. This suggests
to us that restraint arises as much from broad sense of systemic risk as it does from fear of specific
partner retaliation.
To examine whether the findings are driven entirely by the two largest economies, the United
States and EU, we estimate our two main models excluding both the US and the EU. Our esti36
Results not shown due to space limitations. All our robustness results are included in the online appendix.
mations for this subset of the data show a substantively smaller effect of shared crisis, but remain
significant in the expected negative direction, suggesting that even while the US and EU make
up a real portion of restraint, they are not the only states to do so. The national level aggregate
tests (Table 2) are also robust to the omission of the US and EU.
The Reinhart and Rogoff (2009) data we rely on to construct our crisis index is made up of six
categories. By summing these into an index, we achieve a single measure of “hard times.” Next,
we assessed the different components of the index. We rerun our main estimation individually
on each of Reinhart and Rogoff’s crisis variables.37 The results are broadly consistent: four crisis
categories – currency, stock market, domestic debt, and external debt – exhibit the restraint that
we theorize in this article. Inflation crises do not have significant effect at either domestic level
or as interaction with systemic crisis. Banking crises seem to lead to more protectionism at home
when they occur in isolation and have positive interaction with global level of banking crises
contrary to our hypothesis. The question of why banking crises generate distinct dynamic should
be explored in future research. Overall, the results suggest that the restraint countries engage in
during widespread crisis is not limited to a particular type of crisis, offering further support for
the use of the crisis index.
Finally, we test all our findings for the period preceding the Great Recession, from 1997 to
2007. In doing so, we ask a key question: is the restraint we observe during shared crises driven
by the recent Great Recession, or is it a more general phenomenon? For all estimations examining
industry-level remedy use and tariff policies, our results hold entirely for the pre-2008 period. This
The low variation of the dichotomous indicator for infrequent crises in combination with conditional logit
specification can give rise to estimation problems. Using the full index in the main specification of the paper avoids
this problem.
suggests the restraint we have identified is not be limited to the exceptional circumstances of the
Great Recession, as some have suggested (Bown and Crowley, 2013). Rather, what these findings
suggest is that the 2008 crisis is but one example in a broader pattern showing that widespread
crises lead states to moderate their tendency to give in to protectionist demands when they face
hard times at home.
Political economy theory would lead us to expect rising trade protection during hard times. Yet
empirical evidence on this count has been mixed. Some studies find a correlation between poor
macroeconomic conditions and protection, but the worst recession since the Great Depression has
generated surprisingly moderate levels of protection. We explain this apparent contradiction. Our
statistical findings show that under conditions of pervasive economic crisis at the international
level, states exercise more restraint than they would when facing crisis alone. These results throw
light on behavior not only during the crisis, but throughout the WTO period, from 1995 to the
present. One concern may be that the restraint we observe during widespread crises is actually the
result of a decrease in aggregate demand, and that domestic pressure for import-relief is lessened
by the decline of world trade. By controlling for product-level imports, we show that the restraint
on remedy use is not a byproduct of declining imports. We also take into account the ability of
some countries to manipulate their currency, and demonstrate that the relationship between crisis
and trade protection holds independent of exchange rate policies.
Government decisions to impose costs on their trade partners by taking advantage of their legal
right to use flexibility measures are driven not only by the domestic situation, but also by circum-
stances abroad. This can give rise to an individual incentive for strategic self-restraint towards
trade partners in similar economic trouble. Under conditions of widespread crisis, government
leaders fear the repercussions that their own use of trade protection may have on the behavior of
trade partners at a time when they cannot afford the economic cost of a trade war. Institutions
provide monitoring and a venue for leader interaction that facilitates coordination among states.
Here the key function is to reinforce expectations that any move to protect industries will trigger
similar moves in other countries. Such coordination often draws on shared historical analogies,
such as the Smoot-Hawley lesson, which form a focal point to shape beliefs about appropriate
state behavior. Much of the literature has focused on the more visible action of legal enforcement
through dispute settlement, but this only captures part of the story. Our research suggests that
tools of informal governance such as leader pledges, guidance from the Director-General, trade
policy reviews, and plenary meetings play a real role within the trade regime. In the absence
of sufficiently stringent rules over flexibility measures, compliance alone is insufficient during a
global economic crisis. These circumstances trigger informal mechanisms that complement legal
rules to support cooperation. During widespread crisis, legal enforcement would be inadequate,
and informal governance helps to bolster the system.
Informal coordination is by nature difficult to observe, and we are unable to directly measure
this process. Instead, we examine the variation of responses across crises of varying severity,
within the context of the same formal setting of the World Trade Organization. Yet by focusing
on discretionary tools of protection—trade remedies and tariff hikes within the bound rate—we
can offer conclusions about how systemic crises shape country restraint independent of formal
institutional constraints. Insofar as institutions are generating such restraint, we offer that it is
by facilitating informal coordination, since all these instruments of trade protection fall within the
letter of the law. Future research should explore trade policy at the micro-level to identify which
pathway is most important for coordination. Research at a more macro-historical scope could
compare how countries respond to crises under fundamentally different institutional contexts.
In sum, the determinants of protection include economic downturns not only at home, but also
abroad. Rather than reinforcing pressure for protection, pervasive crisis in the global economy
is shown to generate countervailing pressure for restraint in response to domestic crisis. In some
cases, hard times bring more, not less, international cooperation.
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