Thursday 7 June 2018

What Digital Policy Restrictions to Focus on?

Now that the DTRI is out, I have received the same question various times from different policy officers in the field: what digital policy restrictions should we focus on?

The DTRI covers a wide spectrum of policy categories ranging from tariffs in ICT goods to regulations in services and investment to cross-border data flows restrictions. The obvious answer to a trade economist like me would therefore be: well it depends. That’s a cliché, but since economics is about scarcity, decisions need to be made about trade-offs.

Personally, I am more interested in the future of trade, namely (digital) services, data and ideas and other intangibles. I think that’s where world trade is heading to and where new large productivity gains will have to come from. That’s not to disregard trade in ICT goods or e-commerce. Precisely if a choice needs to be made, I would argue for these flows to focus on in future policy negotiations.

Now, to focus which policies then: the OECD recently released an interesting report in which services trade by modes of supply are estimated. 

This is a huge step since before we only had a rough idea whether services trade took place through foreign affiliates after FDI was established (i.e. Mode 3), or through the internet (i.e. cross-border called Mode 1). The figure below shows both items in the form of a ratio: Mode 3 over Mode 1 in two points in time, namely 2000 (white dots) and 2014 (blue bars).

The figure tells me that the higher the blue bar, the more trade through establishments were important in 2010. When the blue bar falls below the white dot, trade over the internet has become more important over the years to 2014 – and vice versa.  

Source: Andrenelli et al. (2018), page 21; Analytical AMNE database Note: Exports of foreign affiliates have been removed from cross-border exports.

When looking at this figure, some extremely interesting conclusions become visible. One, for some services such as Distribution, Publishing activities, Computer and information services, and Financial and Insurance services, and possibly for Professional and Scientific services, this ratio decreased over time. 

This means that the internet as a vehicle for trade in these sectors has become more important. In other words, more trade of these sectors has been traded over the internet rather than through foreign establishments.

Other sectors such as Construction, Postal services, Warehousing and Transport support, Administrative services or even Telecom, trade through a foreign establishment has become more important over time as the blue bar falls above the white dots (though Telecom already had a high internet-trade ratio).

This pattern is very relevant to decide to focus on in terms of policy in services. The services sectors that have seen an increase of internet-based trade are also the ones that Ferracane et al. (2018) have assessed as very data-intensive. These are sectors that use a lot of software and data. These are also the sectors that are mostly affected by data-related policies such as data localization.

That’s visible in the figure below. The sectors which are colored in green are the ones which are most data-intensive; the sectors in red are least data-intensive. If a country has comparative advantage in data-intensive sectors, the policy restrictions covered by Cluster C in the DTRI are most relevant: data localization, data retention, intermediate liability and policies related to content access. 

Source: Author; Note: Data & Software intensities based on US Census data.

Conversely, if your country has comparative advantage in say Postal services, Transport, Health or Construction, then it makes sense for policy makers to focus on policies covered under Cluster B of Establishment restrictions. 

Sure, some trade in these sectors are still traded over the internet, but since complementarities exists between the two Modes of trade, prioritizing establishment restrictions will nonetheless have a knock-on effect on trade in these services over the internet.

Ultimately, therefore, choices on what policy to focus on will have to be based on your country’s comparative advantage: where is your country good at in exporting – and how it is traded.  

Ferracane, M., J. Kren and E. van der Marel (2018) “Do Data Policy Restrictions Impact the Productivity Performance of Firms?”, DTE ECIPE Working Paper Series No. 1, ECIPE, Brussels, forthcoming.

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