British exports and American tariffs, 1870-1913

by Brian D Varian (Swansea University)

B. Saul (1965) once referred to late nineteenth-century Britain as the ‘export economy’. During this period, one of Britain’s largest export markets—in some years, the largest market—was the United States. To the United States, Britain exported a range of (mainly manufactured) goods spanning such industries as iron, steel, tinplate, textiles, and numerous others.

A forthcoming article in the Economic History Review argues that the total volume of British exports to the United States was significantly affected by American tariffs during the interval from 1870-1913. The argument runs contrary to the more general finding of Jacks et al. (2010) that Britain’s trade with a sample of countries, i.e. not just the United States, was uninfluenced by foreign tariffs.

This argument complements some previous studies that focused on specific commodities that Britain exported to the United States in the late nineteenth century. Irwin (2000) found that Britain’s tinplate exports to the United States were indeed responsive to changes in the American duty on tinplate. Inwood and Keay (2015) reached a similar conclusion regarding Britain’s pig iron exports to the United States. However, as this research claims, the determinacy of American tariffs for the volume of British exports was not limited to only certain commodities, but rather applied to the bilateral flow of trade, as a whole.

The United States imposed different duties on different commodities. Because the composition of commodities that the United States imported from all countries collectively differed from the composition of commodities that the United States imported from Britain, the average American tariff is an inaccurate measure of the tariff level encountered by, specifically, British exports to the United States. For this reason, this research reconstruct an annual series of the bilateral American tariff toward Britain for the interval from 1870-1913, using the disaggregated data reported in the historical trade statistics of the United States. This reconstructed series is crucial to the argument.

chart

The figure above presents the average American tariff and the reconstructed bilateral American tariff toward Britain, both expressed as percentages (ad valorem equivalent percentages, to be precise). In the 1890s, the average American tariff and the bilateral American tariff toward Britain do not follow a similar course. For example, whereas the tariff revisions of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 had little effect on the average American tariff, these tariff revisions resulted in the bilateral American tariff toward Britain declining from 45% in 1893/4 to 31% in 1894/5.

This econometric analysis of the Anglo-American bilateral trade flow relies upon the empirically-correct bilateral American tariff toward Britain. In this respect, the forthcoming article in the Economic History Review departs from other historical studies of trade, which use average tariffs as approximations of bilateral tariffs.

Perhaps the reconstruction of another country’s bilateral tariff toward Britain—Germany’s tariff toward Britain is an obvious choice—would reveal that the effect of foreign tariffs on British exports was more widespread than just the bilateral American case. Nevertheless, the importance of the bilateral American case should not be diminished, as the United States was a large export market of Britain, the ‘export economy’ of the late nineteenth century.

 

Link to the article: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ehr.12486/full

To contact the author: b.d.varian@swansea.ac.uk

 

References

Inwood, K. and Keay, I., ‘Transport costs and trade volumes: evidence from the trans-Atlantic iron trade, 1870-1913’, Journal of Economic History, 75 (2015), pp. 95-124.

Irwin, D. A., Did late-nineteenth-century US tariffs promote infant industries? Evidence from the tinplate industry’, Journal of Economic History, 60 (2000), pp. 335-60.

Jacks, D., Meissner, C. M., and Novy, D., ‘Trade costs in the first wave of globalization’, Explorations in Economic History, 47 (2010), pp. 127-41.

Saul, S. B., ‘The export economy, 1870-1914’, Bulletin of Economic Research, 17 (1965), pp. 5-18.

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