Archive for October, 2010

Oct 04 2010

The high cost of tariffs

CBC News – Money – Shipping industry gets tariff break

A tariff is a tax on imported goods or services aimed at raising the price of foreign products to make domestically produced substitutes more attractive to consumers. A tariff is a form of protectionism, which we study in unit 4.1 of the IB Economics course.

Tariffs are appealing to policymakers as a tool for protecting domestic firms from foreign competition. Used wisely, a barrier to trade such as a tariff can promote the development of certain vital industries in the domestic economy that might otherwise not exist due to the existent of more efficient, lower cost foreign competition. Tariffs benefit domestic producers but harm domestic consumers, who must pay a higher price for the imported good than they would have to under purely free trade.

The Canadian government has, until recently, charged a 25% tariff on cargo ships, tankers and large ferries built in foreign countries. As of this month, however, this tariff is being removed.

Imported cargo ships, tankers and large ferries will no longer be subject to a 25 per cent tariff, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced Friday.

The measure is aimed at making it cheaper for Canadian shipowners to replace aging fleets with more modern and more efficient vessels.

Waiving the tariff will save the industry $25 million a year for the next 10 years, the government estimates.

“These were tariffs that don’t serve any purpose because … the ships to which they apply are not capable of being made competitively in Canada,” Flaherty told reporters…

The effects of a tariff in the Canadian ship market can be illustrated using a simple supply and demand diagram. The diagram below shows the Canadian ship market before the removal of the 25% tariff and after its removal.

The domestic supply and demand curves for ships in Canada are shown above. Notice that the domestic equilibrium price for ships in Canada without trade is very high. This is because Canadian ship builders have high costs of production and therefore would require a very high price in order to be able to build ships domestically.

So where do Canadian ship buyers get their ships from? The article mentions that one Canadian company bought ships from a Turkish ship builder. Besides Turkey, some of the other countries that specialize in ship production include Denmark, South Korea, China and Japan. The world supply of ships is represented by the blue line. In a purely free trade environment, the price of ships in Canada is determined by the intersection of domestic demand and world supply, at a price of Pw.

The world price of ships is completely unresponsive to changes in demand from Canadian ship buyers. This explains why world supply is horizontal. Since the Canadian market makes up such a small proportion of the total market for ships, an increase in demand in Canada will have no impact on the world price of ships. Therefore, the world supply curve as seen by Canada ship buyers is perfectly elastic. Canadian ship buyers can buy as few ships or as many ships as they like without affecting world price.

A tariff is a tax, and a tax is a determinant of supply. A tariff of 25% increases the costs of imported ships, and shifts the world supply curve upwards. This raises the price of imported ships, and decreases the quantity demanded of ships in Canada from Q3 to Q2 ships. Notice that at the higher world price of Pwt, there are a few domestic ship builders in Canada willing and able to produce and sell ships, so domestic quantity supplied increases from 0 to Q1.

The existence of a tariff reduces the number of imported ships in Canada from 0Q3 to Q1Q2. Domestic producers of ships, who without protection would not be able to compete and therefore produce zero ships, instead produce Q1 and enjoy producer surplus represented by the triangle X. The Canadian government collects taxes on the imported ships represented by the area Z, found by multiplying the number of imported ships (Q1Q2) by the amount of the tariff (Pwt-Pw).

The tariff on imported ships did little good for the Canadian ship market. Canadian ship builders were already uncompetitive and benefited little if at all. While the government did earn revenues from the tax, the net effect on the market was a loss of welfare represented by the triangles labelled Y in the graph above. These gray areas represent the net welfare loss (or dead weight loss) of the ship tariff.

The consumers of ships, which are in fact Canadian companies that produce other goods and services, such as the ferry companies that provide access to Canada’s several remote coastal and island communities, were clearly harmed by the 25% tariff, since the price of ships is a resource cost and the tariff translated into lower supply and higher prices for consumers of ferry services. The tariff’s effect on ship buyers in Canada is visible in the graph above. At a price of Pw, the total consumer surplus in the ship market is the area of VXYZ. With the higher price resulting from the tariff, however, consumer surplus is only the are V, while producer surplus increased only to the area X and government surplus (the tax revenue from the tariff) is area Z. The net effect, however, is a loss of total welfare of the triangles labelled Y.

The tariff’s removal, on the other hand, increases the welfare of ship consumers back to VXYZ, eliminating the dead weight loss and increasing total welfare and efficiency in the ship market. This also benefits the customers of the companies that buy ships, including ferry passengers, as evidenced in the article

“The duty remission to BC Ferries will allow it to implement a two per cent rate reduction for its users later this month, the Finance Department said.”

A tariff on imports is a protectionist measure aimed at increasing domestic producer surplus in a market in which domestic firms face competition from lower cost foreign producers. However, it should be observed that a tariff generally creates a net loss of welfare for society as a whole, as the consumers of the taxed good face a higher price and demand a lower quantity of output. While a tariff reduces imports may increase domestic production, the benefit to producers comes at the cost of lost consumer surplus and a net loss of welfare in the market as a whole. The tariff also leads to allocative inefficiency in a market, as domestic resources are over-allocated towards the production of a good on which imports are subject to tariffs.

Removing tariffs on ships increases the benefit to ship buyers, who in turn pass that benefit on to their own customers, lowering the prices of important services such as shipping and ferry service to Canadian consumers. In addition, foreign producers of ships increase their sales in Canada and experience greater demand, benefiting foreign producers and workers. The increase in foreign income may mean more demand for Canada’s exports in turn, increasing employment in other sectors of the Canadian economy in which they do have a comparative advantage over their trading partners. Overall the elimination of tariffs increases total welfare, eliminates dead weight loss, and leads to a more efficient allocation of a nation’s resources towards the goods it is able to competitively produce in the global economy.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the intended purpose of the 25% tariff on imported ships? Was this a valid reason to tax foreign built ships?
  2. Who are the various “stakeholders” affected by a tariff on imported ships. Try to identify five different stakeholders who are affected by the tariff and its removal.
  3. Why does the removal of a tariff improve allocative efficiency in a country? Does it also improve productive efficiency?

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