Here's a new year's resolution for the World Trade Organization (WTO): make sure prevailing trade law does not prevent countries from enacting policies to prevent a next financial crisis.
Back in October, civil society organizations across the globe urged the World Trade Organization’s Committee on Trade in Financial Services (CTFS) to hold a clarifying discussion about countries’ ability under WTO rules to employ crucial capital controls and other measures to avoid and mitigate financial crises. To that end, more than 100 organizations from across the globe participated in weeks of advocacy in support of a discussion proposal submitted by WTO member state Ecuador, releasing an impressive statement, penning op-eds, sending letters to officials, arranging meetings with ministries, and reaching out to the press.
Civil society’s persistence paid off when, at the December 5, 2012 CTFS meeting, the Committee agreed by consensus to approve the framework of Ecuador’s proposed “dedicated and focused discussion” on the experiences of WTO Members in introducing prudential measures, including macroprudential regulations or policy measures. The discussion will be held at the first quarterly meeting of the CTFS in March 2013, with the possibility of continued discussion at the following quarterly meeting in June of the same year.
Such a clarifying discussion is timely and important because more than 100 countries (including 40 developing nations) have financial services commitments under WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Countries that have made such commitments now face the danger that GATS rules could prohibit the usage of policy tools needed to ensure financial stability (such as capital controls). Given this potential contradiction between GATS and financial stability, countries face three options: (1) implement financial regulation and risk facing a WTO challenge, (2) choose not to institute a needed regulatory tool to avoid a threatened challenge, or (3) alter their GATS commitments and comply with WTO-mandated compensation to affected member states--an option that may be particularly infeasible for developing countries.
While the Committee’s agreement to simply hold a discussion on this topic may seem like a minor step, it is important to note that in 2011, the U.S., EU and Canada rejected the possibility of a review of the WTO rules in light of the financial crisis and then continued to block even a discussion in the Committee two additional times in 2012. But pressure for such a discussion continued to mount. In addition to the increased advocacy by consumer, labor and development organizations and growing support for a discussion by major developing countries, institutions such as the IMF have now officially shifted their position on the use of capital controls, endorsing them as a legitimate tool for financial stability.
The fact that a dedicated discussion will take place at the WTO signals that, thanks to Ecuador’s proposal and civil society’s call for action, these developed countries have been forced to acknowledge that it is necessary to address concerns about the compatibility of WTO rules with financial regulation priorities. We will be eager to see the outcome of this dedicated discussion this year.