How import taxes drive up the cost of living | Daily News

How import taxes drive up the cost of living

“The Lanka Confectionery Manufacturers Association (LCMA) is actively seeking Government intervention to introduce a ‘negative list of manufacturing’ to safeguard local firms engaged in the industry before opening up the economy to giants like India and China.”

The above extracted from a financial daily is an illustration of a phenomenon that is common in Sri Lanka – an industry seeking protection from foreign competition. This protection generally takes the form of a tariff – a tax that is imposed on the imported product that is not applied to the domestic equivalent. In the above instance the LCMA is requesting that the existing tariff protection enjoyed by the industry is continued even if a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is signed. (An item in the “negative list” of an FTA is not subject to the FTA). For example imported biscuits are taxed at a total of around 107% of price, if biscuits are on the negative list this tax would continue, despite the FTA.

Although a tariff is imposed, this does not generally cause foreign exporters to reduce the price that they charge for the product. Therefore the domestic price of the imported product rises by the amount of the tariff.

Domestic producers competing with these imports do not have to pay the import tax, so have an advantage over the imported product. As the price of imported products rise, domestic producers have the opportunity to raise their own selling prices because competing imported products now cost more.

Will the domestic producer raise his prices? Yes, it makes no sense otherwise. If the domestic producers were to set his prices at exactly the same level he would, if imports were not taxed there would be no point in seeking tariff protection from imports. The very purpose of the tariff is to enable the domestic producer to sell his product at a higher price. The domestic producer is thus better off as a result of the tariff.

What happens to consumers?

Domestic consumers of the product are equally affected by the imposition of the tariff. They must pay a higher price for both imported and local products.

In other words, the protection for domestic industry is actually paid for by domestic consumers, in the form of higher prices.

What of the Government that imposes the tariff?

The government collects tariff revenue, on whatever quantity is imported, although they do not collect it on the local product. The benefit that the Government creates for the local producer by raising the price of imports is collected by the producer. This surplus is called a “rent”.

We thus have two domestic winners (domestic producers and the government) and one domestic loser (domestic consumers) because of the imposition of a tariff.

Charge higher prices

The local producer who is able to charge a higher price from the consumer thanks to the tariff on competing imports is said to enjoy a “rent”. In economics, a “rent”, is an unearned reward. The producer is able to charge a higher price not because of superior quality or service but because a tax imposed by the Government.

If the producer was able to charge a higher price because of better quality, even while cheaper imports were available the producer would be earning the premium price. There is an important distinction here.

Consumers would only buy a more expensive product while lower priced products are available only if they valued what they were getting. The producer must do something extra to persuade consumers that his product is superior and worth paying a higher price.

When a tariff raises the price of imports, local producers are able to charge higher prices with no increase in value to the consumers. Given a choice consumers may well chose cheaper alternatives – but the tariff makes sure that the alternative is no longer cheap. Consumers are thus forced to pay a higher price, not because they want to but because there is no alternative. This is why the premium in this instance is said to be unearned. Consumers do not perceive better value but pay more.

Thus producers gain at the expense of consumers. As noted before, it is domestic consumers (not foreign producers) who pay for the protection of domestic industries. The net impact is a transfer of wealth, from consumer to producer that is facilitated by the tariff. Is this good policy?

If it were confined to a handful of industries it may not matter much, but in Sri Lanka it is all-pervasive. Sri Lanka’s cost of living is so high. All necessities from food (fruit, meats, pasta, jams) to toiletries (soap, shapoo, toothpaste) to household products attract taxes from 62%-101%.

Sri Lankan consumers suffer a high cost of living in order to support domestic industries. There is an argument that supporting local producers to build an industrial base will accelerate growth in the long run.

Japan, Korea and Taiwan practised industrial policy (IP), but even proponents of the policy admit that care is needed to pick the right industries. In Japan and Korea the main industries were steel, ship building, heavy electrical equipment, chemicals and later cars. Taiwan had light manufacturing (electrical appliances, textiles) before moving to heavy and chemical industries and electronics.

Sri Lanka seems to want to emulate this in toiletries, household cleaning products and food: soap, shampoo, washing powder, floor polish, pasta, cheese and biscuits.

To succeed, industrial policies need to foster a structural transformation in the economy that leads to rapid creation of jobs, especially more productive and better jobs. Selecting the right industries is important.

“It matters how realistically the target industries are selected in light of the country’s technological capabilities and world market conditions.” (HJ Chang)

Krugman summarises some criteria advanced by proponents of IP in selecting sectors:

1. High value-added per worker. Real income can rise only if resources flow to businesses that add greater value per employee.

2. Linkage industries-such as steel and semi-conductors. Industries whose outputs are used as inputs by other industries can create a cycle of industrialisation. In Japan cheap, high quality steel gave downstream industries-ships, automobiles, rails, locomotives, heavy electrical equipment - a competitive advantage.

3. Present or future competitiveness on world markets. If the industry can meet this test, we can presume that resources are being allocated efficiently. Competitiveness is critical for linkage benefits to flow.

The selected industries need to target exports (albeit not exclusively) – to achieve scale economies and because it provides a “tangible criterion for the policymakers to judge the performances of the enterprises promoted by the government” (Chang). The failure to promote exports is the key reason for failure of industrial policy in Latin America. (Chang, 2009)

The exports focus also ensures competitiveness. The purpose of policy is not to protect inefficiency but improve productivity.

Therefore support for industry must be conditional-on meeting performance targets.

“The results of industrial policy (or indeed of any policy in general) depends critically on how effectively the state can monitor the outcome that is desired, and change the allocation and terms of support in the light of emerging results”(M. Khan)

Deliberation Councils were set up in Japan and Korea which would set targets together with industry. To ensure targets were stringent they also involved independent technical experts, academics and others.

Performance would be monitored and targets revised. Where a policy was seen to be ineffective it would be revised. Industrial policy is not only about picking winners but also phasing out losers.

“The success of industrial policy depends critically on how willing and able the government is to discipline the recipients of the rents that it creates through various policy means (tariffs, subsidies, entry barriers). The point is that the suspension of market discipline, which is inevitable in the conduct of industrial policy, means that the government has to play the role of a disciplinarian”. (Chang)

This requires a bureaucracy insulated from political pressure to take impartial decisions on the support to industry-and change or withdraw support, depending on performance.

“How closely the government interacts with the private sector while not becoming its hostage is very important.”(Chang)

It becomes clear that successful industrial policy is a sophisticated partnership between industry and state, governed by the underlying principles of competitiveness and productivity. Unfortunately what takes place in Sri Lanka is unlike that of East Asia but similar to Latin America.

“Import substitution policies got a bad name, especially in Latin America, because the industries that were created often only survived as the result of protection. It was particularly costly when countries protected intermediate goods, because that made goods farther down the production chain less competitive. Countries often paid a high price for this kind of protectionism, and the maintenance of this protection was often associated with corruption.” (Stiglitz)

(The writer is a Fellow of the Advocata Institute a free-market think tank based in Colombo.) 


 

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