Wednesday, July 30, 2008

World trade talks end in collapse

Marathon talks in Geneva aimed at liberalising global trade have collapsed, the head of the World Trade Organisation has said.

Pascal Lamy confirmed the failure, which officials have blamed on China, India and the US failing to agree on import rules.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said the result was "heartbreaking".

The talks were launched in 2001 in Doha and were seen as providing a cornerstone for future global trade.

The main stumbling block was farm import rules, which allow countries to protect poor farmers by imposing a tariff on certain goods in the event of a drop in prices or a surge in imports.

India, China and the US could not agree on the tariff threshold for such an event.

Washington said that the "safeguard clause" protecting developing nations from unrestricted imports had been set too low.

Possible solution?

The negotiations floundered as trade officials gathered for a ninth day.

"There's no use beating around the bush, this meeting has collapsed," Mr Lamy said.

"Members have simply not been able to bridge their differences."

He added that time was needed to determine "if and how" WTO members could end the stalemate.

The Doha development round of trade talks initially started in 2001 with the aim of remedying inequality so that the developing world could benefit more from freer trade.

However, the talks have repeatedly collapsed as developed countries failed to agree with developing nations on terms of access to each others' markets.

The US and the European Union want greater access to provide services to fast-growing emerging countries, including China and India.

Meanwhile, developing countries want greater access for their agricultural products in Europe and the US.

Recent complications

Analysts have said that the collapse of the Doha talks could symbolise an end to multilateral trade agreements.

Instead, nations may pursue dual agreements with partner nations, preferring to focus on their own requirements rather than a more common negotiating goal.

The talks in Geneva were complicated by recent increases in the price of food and fuel.

Higher prices have prompted protests in both developed and developing nations, making it harder for negotiators to reach a compromise on opening up their markets to greater competition, analysts said.

Mr Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, blamed the collapse on a "collective failure" but warned that the "consequences would not be equal", predicting that it would be countries that most needed help that would be hit hardest.

"They [the consequences] will fall disproportionately on those who are most vulnerable in the global economy, those who needed the chances, the opportunities most from a successful trade round." he said.

'Protecting livelihoods'

Trade officials had struck an optimistic tone on Friday, but this evaporated over the weekend amid acrimonious exchanges with the US accusing India and China of blocking progress.

The US said they were being overly protective towards their own farmers and are failing to do enough to open their markets, with US trade representative Susan Schwab calling the stance "blatant protectionism".

"In the face of the global food price crisis, it is ironic that the debate came down to how much and how fast could nations raise their barriers to imports of food," she said.

But India's trade minister, Kamal Nath, who had been criticised by a number of countries for his intransigence said the US demands were unreasonable.

"It's unfortunate in a development round we couldn't run the last mile because of an issue concerning livelihood security," Mr Nath said.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Govt defers projects worth $1.7b (A good example of reduction of crowding out effect?)

Move to ease pressure on building costs
(ST 23 July 2008, by Joyce Teo, Property Correspondent)

THE Government is deferring another $1.7 billion of public sector construction projects to ease pressure on red-hot building costs in the next two years.

This is the third time since November that public projects have been postponed amid high demand for building contractors and materials.

A total of $4.7 billion of public sector projects will now be pushed back to 2010 and beyond, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) said in a statement.

'That's good news,' said the chief executive of property firm Overseas Union Enterprise, Mr Thio Gim Hock. 'Construction costs have more than doubled in the past year. It's hard to find contractors to bid for a job. When I tender, a lot of them decline because they are too busy.'

The latest move means projects such as the Jurong General Hospital will be deferred to 2010, although the hospital will still be ready and open as scheduled by 2015.

Other delayed projects include less urgent improvement works, but public housing and upgrading programmes will not be affected.

Public projects put on hold
Some of the $1.7 billion worth of projects to be postponed:
  • Jurong General Hospital
  • Improvement works to selected schools
  • Upgrading of sports facilities in some educational institutions
Earlier projects postponed include:
  • National Art Gallery
  • National Addiction Management Centre
  • A section of Changi Prison Complex
  • Several institutional projects such as student hostels and hawker centres
  • Extensions to the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Peranakan Museum, and the
  • Communicable Disease Centre
The move will allow construction resources to be used to ensure the timely delivery of big projects such as the integrated resorts, Marina Bay Financial Centre and the Downtown MRT line. Most should be finished by late next year.

The BCA also said that the resources freed up then can be used later for the deferred projects, ensuring a better spread of construction resources beyond next year.

Market experts said on average, costs have risen 20 to 35 per cent in the past year.

Mr Seah Choo Meng, executive chairman of construction consultancy Davis Langdon & Seah, was upbeat about the latest move. 'It will not bring costs down but it will lessen the pressure on existing resources.'

Singapore could now be among the world's most expensive nations in terms of construction costs, though this is not likely to last, said Mr Jackson Yap, CEO of developer cum construction firm United Engineers.

The total value of construction projects here is forecast at $23 billion to $27 billion this year, compared to $24.5 billion last year, and is set to stay high next year, BCA said. It is a far cry from 2003 and 2004, when the figure was just $10 billion.

Last November, the Government took what was then a rare step of deferring $2 billion worth of projects. Then in February, it deferred another $1 billion worth of projects.

Dr Chua Hak Bin, Asian strategist at Deutsche Bank Private Wealth Management, is not convinced the latest deferment is needed as building growth has eased.

'Construction orders will likely continue coming off, given a softening residential and commercial property market,' he said, adding that the Government may need to consider bringing forward deferred projects in a slowdown.

Some private projects, particularly residential, may also be delayed, said Mr Seah. 'While this year's rate of escalation in construction costs is expected to be in the double digits, it may be affected by the potentially weaker economic outlook in the region.'

Monday, July 07, 2008

S'pore, India to double bilateral trade

By Ravi Velloor, India Bureau Chief

NEW DELHI - SINGAPORE and India agreed yesterday to double bilateral trade to S$48 billion by 2012, counting on the gains both nations are seeing from a landmark trade and investment treaty they signed three years ago.

Their trade ministers also agreed to launch new areas of cooperation, beginning with science and technology, intellectual property rights and the media.

The enhanced trade target was the highlight of talks here yesterday between visiting Singapore Trade Minister Lim Hng Kiang and his Indian counterpart, Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath.

Much of the impetus for the ever-expanding commercial contacts has come since the two signed their Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) in June 2005.

According to Mr Nath, Singapore is now India's fifth largest trading partner and fourth largest export market for goods.

Last year, trade between the two economies amounted to S$24 billion. Singapore and India now plan to launch a full review of the Ceca early next year to intensify their relationship.

India has of late emerged as a key destination for global capital. Some US$25 billion (S$34.3 billion) of foreign direct investment poured into India in the year to March 31.

Mr Nath said Singapore is the fourth largest investor in India, with US$4.7 billion of cumulative foreign direct investments since economic reforms began in 1991.

Malaysia is leading Asean's negotiations with New Delhi on an Asean-India free trade agreement.

The FTA has suffered several delays because of India's sensitivities on various commodities, including palm oil. Mr Lim said Indonesia and Malaysia had moved considerably to remove the obstacles to clinching the deal.

India hopes to announce the conclusion of the FTA negotiations at the Asean economic ministers meeting in August, Mr Nath said.

Link: Singapore and India explore ways to boost multiple links (7 May 2008)
Link: India - Singapore Economic and Commercial Relations (Look at nature of exports and imports)
Link: Singapore and Free Trade Agreements

1. Discuss the factors that have led to the success of the trade and investment treaty signed between Singapore and India.

2. Suggest possible areas (in terms of investment and trade) in which Singapore could cooperate with India.

3. Why would a similar agreement between India and Asean (including Malaysia) be harder to reach, than that between India and Singapore?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Q&A: Record oil prices


Oil prices have hit record highs above $145 a barrel and have more than doubled in less than a year.

There have been calls for oil producers to increase supply.

However, they blame the high prices on speculators and the weakening US dollar, which makes oil a more attractive investment.

Why are oil prices so high?

Economists will tell you that prices are set by supply and demand and, indeed, at the heart of the rise in oil prices are what are known as the fundamentals.

Demand for oil has been growing as Asia's power-house economies such as China and India fuel their rapid economic expansion.

Barrels of oil
There are many factors that influence the price of oil

At the same time, there are all sorts of worries about the supply of oil.

A lot of the world's oil comes from somewhat unstable countries, so every time oil workers are attacked in Nigeria or Iraqi oil facilities are damaged, people get concerned about the supply of oil.

So fundamentally, people are worried that demand may be growing faster than supply, and oil is such an important commodity that they are prepared to pay more and more for it if they are worried.

That all sounds pretty simple then

Well it would be if everybody had exact figures for the fundamentals that influence oil prices.

The problem is that nobody knows exactly how much oil there is in the ground, many producers are a bit cagey about admitting how much they have taken out and we do not know how much oil is in tankers being shipped around the world.

On top of that, we do not have reliable figures for how much oil most countries have squirreled away in case of emergencies or indeed exactly how much oil is being consumed.

So what determines prices is not the fundamentals but everybody's perceptions of the fundamentals.

That means that when proper figures, such as the weekly US inventories figures, are released, undue weight is placed on them because few countries are so transparent.

But other than that it's just like any other commodity?

Unfortunately not.

First of all there is the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), which controls 55% of the world's oil exports.

The idea is that its members only raise or lower their production when all the other members do.

It does not always work, but it certainly means that oil is not a free market.

Also, there is a finite amount of oil in the world.

The oil that has been taken out of the ground first is the easiest, and therefore cheapest, to access.

As oil prices rise, it becomes financial viable to spend more to extract oil that is in trickier places to mine.

But as the available oil is depleted, the price will naturally rise because it is harder to find and more expensive to mine.

In addition, when there is talk about supply being threatened by unrest in the Middle East or storms in the Gulf of Mexico, how much of a problem these factors will actually be is generally a guess.

So is it unfair to blame the speculators?

The speculators certainly have a part to play in all this.

To an increasing extent, financial institutions are trading in oil as an investment like shares or currencies.

Rocket in North Korean parade
Should North Korean rocket testing really have affected oil prices?

They buy oil contracts in the hope that their value will go up before they sell them.

Alternatively, if they think the price will fall, they may sell oil contracts they do not have and buy them later, in time to settle the deal.

Even those who believe that the market is based on fundamentals accept that the participation of speculators has created greater volatility in the market.

Factors that in the past might have moved the price by a few cents could now move it by more than a dollar.

It has also given sudden relevance to factors that in the past would not have moved oil prices at all.

What sort of factors?

Events such as rocket testing in North Korea have been cited as reasons for the rising price of oil.

But it is hard to imagine how it could have any direct effect on its supply or demand.

In a market with such a serious shortage of reliable information, as long as enough people believe that a factor will affect the oil price, it will.

And in some cases the effect of factors have been reversed.

How can that happen?

Up until less than a year ago, a weakening US dollar would have been seen as a sign of weakness in the US economy, which would have meant that demand for oil was likely to fall and so the oil price would fall.

But recently, many traders have believed that some people are treating oil and the dollar as alternative investments.

So, if they think the dollar is falling they will buy oil instead and if they think oil is falling they will buy dollars instead.

Because people believe this to be the case, a negative relationship has built up between the oil price and the dollar.

Whether people are actually treating the two as alternative investments is no longer important - what matters is that people believe that they do.

But a market based on so little concrete information and so much belief is vulnerable to people changing their minds.

Related article:
What is driving oil prices so high?