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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Sugar tariffs

Mike Smitka
reposted from my Econ 102 Macro Principles blog

First, here are data to help you remember that import prices are not everything. Prices effectively triple between the wholesale price sugar farmers such as the Fanjul brothers receive, and the price you pay in a store. A big baker will pay something much closer to the wholesale than the retail price - if you buy by the train car (not the truckload!), delivery costs per pound are very low. The price gap between Brazilian and US sugar is about 40%. So even if the tariff was eliminated, the price would only fall by about 6¢ wholesale, and by about the same retail. How eager would consumers be to fight over 6¢ per pound? Even though I do some baking, it takes me over 1 year to use a 5 lb bag!

Prices1980's Average2013
Brazil Raw Sugar Price - 14 cents
U.S. Raw Sugar Price22.16 cents20.46 cents
US Wholesale Refined Sugar Price27.06 cents27.22 cents
Grocery Store Refined Sugar Price33.59 cents64.32 cents

Source: US Sugar Prices - American Sugar Alliance, IndexMundi for the Brazil price and XE.com for the Brazilian Real / US$ exchange rate.

Then there is the political economy. The first sugar tariff dates to 1789. Protection was strengthened during the Great Depression with the 1934 Sugar Act, including policies to raise farmer's incomes while at the same time using rationing (esp during WWII) to avoid raising consumer prices. That Act expired in 1974, but in view of his pending election campaign President Ford tripled the import tariff. Presidents Reagan, and George HW Bush also implemented protective measures, while George H Bush was able to veto the Farm Bill in 2008 knowing that Congress would (did!) override his veto. Both Carter (a farmer!) and Clinton (who grew up in a farm district) turned down policies that would have increased sugar protection. There were no changes under Obama. See the Coalition for Sugar Reform for details.

In both the EU and the US the sugar that you buy in a store or get in a restaurant sugar packet is beet sugar. Production dates to the 19th century, when new cultivars with higher sugar content made it a profitable crop, first in Europe and then in the US. In Japan sugar beets were cultivated in the 19th century, but then the expansion of the Empire southward to Taiwan (1895) led to more sugar cane. Today 2/3rds of Japan's sugar is imported, and there remains enough near-tropical land that 20% of domestic output is from sugar cane. Sugar beets are still the overwhelming domestic source. Oh, and that's because of tariffs in all 3 regions.

Sugar growers are a powerful lobby. The Fanjul brothers own over 150,000 acres of Palm Beach County, Florida. That's a potential swing state in national elections (do you know the term "hanging chad"?). Both are politically active – one a Republican, the other not by chance a Democrat. In the Midwest corn farmers are a potent lobby, and in a handful of states so are sugar beet growers. The Senate thus has a big block in favor of agricultural protection. This political economy – enough farmers in enough electoral districts that their vote is essential – is true in Japan, the European Union and NAFTA. In the former two, unless I'm mistaken, direct and indirect farm subsidies are greater than aggregate farm income. The CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) is the single biggest item in the EU budget. Through the good fortune of geography agriculture in the US is inherently more productive, so our overall subsidies are less. It is nevertheless the sector where trade is most constrained by a web of quotas, tariffs, subsidies, cropping restrictions, loan programs and tax breaks.

...trade in sugar could have sweetened the Doha Round...

This matters not just because it was a barrier to the continued integration of the European economies – agriculture has been the biggest sticking point in the various EU expansions, and with attempts to create greater policy cohesion among existing members. On the global trade front, the Doha Round was intended to extend the WTO to cover agriculture, which largely left the sector untouched, other than requesting countries adopt tariffs in place of quotas. [See the textbook for why tariffs are far the better means of protection.] But the politics – dispersed consumers but a geographically concentrated industry, big enough to affect a significant minority of electoral districts in every high-income economy – meant no progress was made. Without progress, however, there was little "benefit" for negotiators from developing countries to take home. The talks have effectively collapsed, and there is no near-term ability to renew them.

...comparative advantage implies we benefit from unilaterally making importing easier...

One real challenge is that several large developing countries are themselves facing pressure to subsidize farmers. China may not be a democracy, but the majority of urban residents have close relatives back on the farm. Keeping urban areas quiet requires making life better in the countryside. Most Chinese farmers now receive cash subsidies. Ten years ago they might have gladly offered many "concessions" to the US and Europe and Japan in agriculture. Now that dynamic is changing. We all lose. Comparative advantage implies we benefit from unilaterally making importing easier. That includes agricultural products. If we're concerned with issues of urban poverty, as is the case now in China, then agricultural imports are particularly beneficial. But because of the politics of "reciprocity," the agricultural sector impedes continued global negotiations. That would be fine if we could rest on our laurels. However, economies are not static, and so areas where all would benefit (healthcare-related sectors, under the rubric of "intellectual property") cannot be addressed because the horse-trading, multilateral most-favored-nation process of global trade negotiations has fallen under the weight of agricultural lobbies. The very real fear is that trade deals are like bicycles: unless they keep moving forward, they fall over and retrogress. Trade in sugar could have sweetened the Doha Round. Politics nixed that.