WTO disputes are now a media mainstay. During one week-long stretch in May, reporters from The New York TimesWall Street JournalFinancial TimesLe MondeFrankfurter Allgemeine, and even USA Today published articles about ongoing disputes. The frictions ranged from the EU’s challenge to Russia’s new import restrictions on commercial vans, the US receiving a legal ruling on Chinese barriers to autos and the WTO announcing findings on a Canada- and Norway-initiated dispute to an EU ban on trade in seal products.

Despite its elevated public profile and a recent resurgence in theoretical research (e.g., Maggi and Staiger 2011, forthcoming), relatively little is known empirically about the product coverage and market access at stake in cases litigated under the WTO system. To begin and to encourage further study, we have made available a new data set of the product-level trade involved in WTO disputes for roughly three-quarters of all cases initiated between 1995 and 2011. In Bown and Reynolds (2014) we provide a more complete analysis – here we highlight some of the patterns that have emerged.

Some disputes are big …

Given the hype, it is not surprising that the data confirm that member countries entrust the WTO to legally scrutinize policies that affect large bilateral trade flows. In particular, one measure of the potential market access at stake in a dispute is the defendant (‘respondent’) country’s dollar value of imports in the disputed product from the plaintiff (‘complainant’) in the year prior to implementation of the allegedly WTO-inconsistent policy. Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of such potential market access at stake in disputes initiated between 1995 and 2011.

Figure 1. Levels of bilateral trade and scope of products subject to WTO Dispute, 1995-2011

bown fig1 8 aug

Source: Bown and Reynolds (2014, Figure 2). indicates that, for ease of exposition and due to the long right tails, we truncate the right tail at $1 billion (for the value of trade) and at 50 products (for the count of HS-06 products). We estimate that 15% of the caseload involves bilateral trade in disputed products of more than $1 billion per year.

Examples of such large stakes cases include multiple disputes in the automotive sector between the US, Japan, EU, and China; in the information technology sector between the US, EU, Japan, and South Korea, and in the steel sector between the US, Japan, and EU, amongst others.

… and some disputes are small

Less expected is that almost as many WTO disputes cover much smaller trade stakes. For example, roughly 14% of the caseload involves trade in disputed products of less than $1 million per year. And to be clear, this $1 million trade stakes is a rough proxy for export sales revenue and not profit.

Examples of these small stakes disputes include lesser-known challenges – e.g., to India’s restrictions on batteries from Bangladesh, to Trinidad and Tobago’s barriers on pasta from Costa Rica, to Turkey’s duties on steel pipe fittings from Brazil, to South Africa’s limits on paper from Indonesia, and to Armenia’s measures on alcohol and cigarettes from Ukraine.

The high frequency of small stakes disputes is intriguing, for one because the private-sector law firms that some developing country governments would rely on to litigate WTO disputes are relatively expensive. The start-up cost of using the private sector to litigate even a relatively simple dispute through to a legal decision is estimated to range from $250,000 to $750,000, depending on the law firm involved.

Nevertheless, some subsidized legal assistance is available, including through the highly utilized Advisory Centre on WTO Law. The WTO system’s chief publicly subsidized legal assistance program estimates charges to middle income developing country members at roughly $200,000 for the provision of work up to a legal decision (ACWL 2007), and progressively lower fees are available for poorer countries.

The scope of product coverage is also diverse across policies under dispute

This heterogeneity is not limited to trade values, as there is also evidence of vast diversity in the scope of products affected by the policies being challenged under WTO disputes. One useful metric to illustrate this relies on the Harmonised System’s 6-digit classification into roughly 5,000 imported products, which is both consistently defined across countries and relatively stable over time. Thus Figure 1 also illustrates that nearly 20% of WTO disputes have a complainant focused on the market access of a single product, and another 20% of disputes feature a complainant challenging a policy that is so broad that it affects over 50 different products at once.

These distributions in Figure 1 – i.e., for the scope of targeted products and also the level of trade – are each monotonically decreasing. The right tail of each distribution is long – resulting in mean values that are much larger than the medians – and so long that, for ease of exposition, we trim them at 50 products and $1 billion, respectively.

Future research on determinants of which potential WTO-violating policies that trading partners choose to challenge under dispute settlement may find it useful to include measures related to the count of products affected by policies, given that political economists have long conjectured trade policy to be subject to the problem of collective action (Olson 1965). For example, in a related setting examining trade liberalization outcomes, Ludema and Mayda (2013) provide evidence that free-riding among foreign exporters limits the extent to which importing country governments have been able to find partners with which to coordinate negotiated tariff reductions.

Do WTO disputes add up?

Here we present two simple ways of aggregating these trade stakes data to begin to address whether WTO dispute settlement is merely a media-friendly sideshow, or if countries use it to scrutinize policies that collectively impact significant amounts of trade.

One approach is to add up the value of imports in the respondent countries’ disputed products taken from the year prior to implementation of the policy that is ultimately subject to the WTO dispute. This reveals WTO dispute settlement over 1995-2011 as scrutinising nearly $1 trillion in imports (in 2005 constant US dollars). Put differently, member countries requested that WTO adjudicators examine trade in products affected by disputed policies at an average rate of $55 billion per year, which was roughly 0.5% of the level of world imports in 2011.

A second approach is to add up the value of ‘lost imports’, which we define conservatively as the simple difference between the level of trade in the disputed products in the year after the policy change – that is the subject of the WTO litigation – relative to the level of trade in the year prior to the change. Without controlling for any other factors that would also affect trade flows during this period, this works out to WTO dispute settlement investigating policies that cover imported products that were collectively $60.4 billion less than their levels prior to policy implementation.

These two statistics indicate that member countries are asking the WTO to use dispute settlement to address policies that cover economically-sizeable amounts of trade. And clearly the trade that is directly at stake is only the tip of the dispute settlement iceberg. Jurisprudence resulting from these cases is likely to have an even longer reach via the ‘shadow of the law’ extending the indirect impact of WTO dispute settlement to hundreds of billions of dollars in trade each year.

Published in collaboration with Vox

Authors: Chad P Bown, Lead Economist, World Bank; and CEPR Research Fellow and Kara M. Reynolds, Associate Professor of Economics, American University

Image: A delegate waits for the opening of a session of the Trade Negotiation Committee at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse