Can Procurement Lead the Fight Against Protectionism?

Protectionism will never produce a win-win situation. And it can be a huge wall for procurement to work around.

protectionism

Few procurement professionals view their role through the lenses of either protectionism or free trade. But the protectionism-free trade dimension is a crucial topic for procurement, so it is certainly worth thinking about the impacts on procurement the world over.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines protectionism as, “the theory or practice of shielding a country’s domestic industries from foreign competition.” Further, protectionism is a mind set as much as formal policy; it is the intentional or inadvertent preference for domestic industries over foreign industries.

Free trade meanwhile is “international trade left to its natural course without tariffs, quotas or other restrictions”.

The translation into procurement is fairly simple. Protectionism is limiting access to domestic procurement markets to foreign suppliers, and the preference for awarding public contracts to domestic rather than foreign suppliers. Free trade is the absence of this.

Protectionism is largely, or partly, illegal between numerous countries with free trade agreements (FTAs), such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), or are part of a trade bloc such as the European Union. But protectionism includes more subtle biases.

Ideas around boosting the local economy, creating local jobs and protecting the local environment are all protectionist when preferred over equal boosts to an economy, job creation, or the environment elsewhere.

Protectionism – A Zero Sum Game

The first strand of this article is that protectionism harms economies, jobs and prosperity, locally and globally, for two reasons.

Firstly, it is intuitive to think that sourcing goods and services locally has positive impacts, creating jobs and economic growth in the local area. But this is a zero sum game.

Protectionism is normally reciprocated. If one country has policy preference for domestic businesses, then other countries respond in the same way, offsetting the benefit. Protectionism may allow Country A to create more local jobs by awarding contracts to domestic businesses. However, when Country B does the same, export jobs in Country A are lost.

No more jobs are created and no additional economic growth is produced by procuring from domestic suppliers. Domestic industries get some short term benefit and exporters lose out.

Should We Really Favour Our Own Country?

Protectionists argue that public procurement in their own country should favour domestic businesses. In the UK, the contract for a large rail project in London was awarded to Germany’s Siemens, ahead of UK-based Bombardier. Cue outrage at job losses in the UK factory because the government awarded to a foreign business.

Unless protectionists believe they deserve double standards, this logic dictates that Bombardier should not have won contracts with Trenitalia, Italy’s main train operator. Nor should British architects have been awarded the contract to build the dome for the German Reichstag.

These created British jobs from German and Italian taxpayers. Hundreds of thousands of British jobs rely on British businesses winning public contracts outside the UK through non-discriminatory competition.

In the USA, incoming president Trump has riled against other countries “stealing” American jobs. However, he does not seem to oppose German, Japanese and Korean car manufacturers employing hundreds of thousands of workers in American factories. But surely the British and American governments’ obligations are to their own workers and businesses?

Maybe so. A country having an obligation to help domestic businesses and workers more than the rest of the world is understandable, but there is not actually any gain. Protectionism also makes British and American citizens and workers worse off.

Reducing Choice & Raising Costs

This leads onto the second reason. Protectionism gives citizens fewer choices of what they can buy and increases their living costs. The belief that protectionism helps local communities at all is flawed.

Free trade allows consumers to have the best goods, regardless of location. In the developed world, the UK is bad at growing bananas and the USA makes expensive toys, so free trade enriches citizens by allowing better bananas and cheaper toys.

Free trade allows businesses and citizens in the developing world to access the best technology and equipment that is not or cannot be effectively produced locally. In essence, protectionism limits the goods that citizens can buy, to everyone’s loss.

Hamstrung by Protectionism?

This has the exact same impact on procurement and the second strand of this article is that the procurement industry is hamstrung by protectionism. Protectionism harms both the procuring entity and ultimately the users of public services.

If a hospital needs new radiotherapy machines, it should procure the machines with the best combination of quality and price. In a world of 7 billion people, the best radiotherapy machines will probably not be made locally, and maybe not domestically.

Basing buying decisions on nationality rather than value for money and effectiveness of the radiotherapy machines hurts cancer patients and increases costs for taxpayers. As protectionism is reciprocated, it decreases consumer choices and increases import costs. This is without even a net benefit for domestic industries or workers.

This conclusion that should therefore be reached is that every protectionist move has pros and cons, but the pros are directly and equally offset by counter-moves, leaving only the cons intact and everyone worse off. Hardly a desirable outcome.

So in the context of the Brexit vote, Trump’s victory and the stagnation in global trade, the case needs to be made now more than ever that protectionism on net harms prosperity. Procurement functions have a large role and responsibility to their organisations, countries and the world to avoid it.