Policy uncertainty can delay investment and reduce the response to policy change. I provide theoretical and novel quantitative evidence for these effects by focusing on trade policy, a ubiquitous but often overlooked source of uncertainty, when a firm's cost of export market entry is sunk. While an explicit purpose of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is to secure long term market access, little theoretical and empirical work analyzes the value of WTO institutions for reducing uncertainty for prospective exporters. Within a dynamic model of heterogeneous firms, I show that trade policy uncertainty will delay the entry of exporters into new markets and make them less responsive to applied tariff reductions. Policy instruments that reduce or eliminate uncertainty such as binding trade policy commitments at the WTO can increase entry even when applied protection is unchanged. I test the model using a disaggregated and detailed dataset of product level Australian imports in 2004 and 2006. I use the variation in tariffs and binding commitments across countries, products and time, to construct model-consistent measures of uncertainty. The estimates indicate that lower WTO commitments increase entry. Reducing trade policy uncertainty is at least as effective quantitatively as unilateral applied tariff reductions for Australia. These results illuminate and quantify an important new channel for trade creation in the world trade system.


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  • Published online: 01 Dec 2011
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