Discussion paper

DP10625 Choosing between Protectionism and Free Trade in an Uncertain World

We develop a two-sector, two-factor general equilibrium model of international trade with imperfect short-term mobility of one factor that features uncertainty about sectoral productivity, and hence uncertainty about the terms of trade. Uncertainty resolves after the sectoral capital allocation has been decided. We show that the capital allocation chosen by producers need not be welfare maximizing if producers and consumers have differing attitudes to risk. In a small country facing uncertain terms of trade, risk-neutral producers specialize more in exporting than is preferred by risk-averse consumers. From a national welfare perspective this misallocation can justify the use of trade policy that deviates from free trade. In the general case with uncertainty in both countries, there exists a trade-of between trade as insurance against domestic shocks, and protection as insurance against foreign shocks. In our framework, the optimal trade policy of a country is thus very much a function of its particular circumstance: the nature of its comparative advantage and especially the size and correlation of domestic vs. international shocks that a country faces. The model we propose can explain the persistent protectionism especially in sectors such as agriculture.


Willmann, G and P Debaere (2015), ‘DP10625 Choosing between Protectionism and Free Trade in an Uncertain World‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 10625. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp10625