Tim Büthe
Current and recent research projects and papers on the
Politics of Standards and Regulations

Much of my research focuses substantively on the politics of standards and regulations.  Standards and regulations are increasingly important in the international political economy, as non-tariff barriers have replaced tariffs and quotas as the most contentious impediments to international trade, but they also have important domestic political, economic, and public policy purposes.  A broader theme, here as in much of my other work, is the role of domestic and international institutions in constraining or empowering actors.

The Politics of Setting International Product Standards

In the social sciences, product standards have primarily studied by economists, who have mostly focused on "de facto standardization" through the market mechanism and the use technical standards as marketing strategies and tools for boosting a company's competitive position.  Political scientists, if they have at all studied these important non-tariff barriers to trade, have tended to focus on standard-setting through negotiations among governments in traditional international organizations, such as the UN or the ITU.

My work as co-princinpal investigator of the International Standards Project, has provided the first social-scientific analyses of international standard-setting that does not primarily rely upon market mechanisms but takes place in recognized and largely uncontested transnational non-governmental organizations.  My work shows that this method of writing rules for the global economy is clearly distinctive from both market-based and inter-governmental international standard-setting, but is nonetheless a highly political process, with high stakes for the producers and often the users of the goods targeted by the standards.  More broadly, this work seeks to contribute and encourage social science analysis of technical standards and the related regulatory politics.

Several articles and chapters, a policy report, and a forthcoming Princeton University Press book explore the politics of setting international product standards, i.e., technical standards for manufactured goods.  In the article in World Politics, we develop an original theoretical argument about "institutional complementarities," which posits power in international non-governmental governance institutions as a function of the fit between domestic and international institutions.  (We further develop and test this argument in subsequent work, some of which goes beyond the realm of product standards.)  The work on product standards draws empirically in large part on an original business survey that we conducted among 1000+ senior managers and standards expert in 5 industries and 5 countries.

"Setting International Standards:  Technological Rationality or Primacy of Power?"  (co-authored with Walter Mattli)  World Politics vol.56 no.1 (October 2003): 1-42.

Standards have become one of the most important non-tariff barriers to trade.  Especially national product standards that specify design or performance characteristics of manufactured goods often inhibit trade, whereas regional and international standard increasingly also serve as instruments of trade liberalization.  Consequently, the setting of international standards—seemingly technical and apolitical—is rapidly becoming an issue of great economic and political salience.  But who sets the international rules of standardization?  Who wins, who loses?  This study offers a fresh analytical approach to the study of international standards, which we call the Institutional Complementarities approach.  It builds on insights from Realism and the “Battle of the Sexes” coordination game but emphasizes complementarities of historically conditioned standardization systems at the national level with the institutional structure of standardization at the international level.  It posits that, after controlling for other factors that influence involvement in international standardization, differences in institutional complementarities play a critical though largely accidental role in placing firms from different countries or regions in a first- or second-mover position when standardization becomes global.  We illustrate the insightfulness of this approach through statistical analyses of the first scientific set of data on standards use and standardization, collected by the authors through an international online survey.

Product Standards in Transatlantic Trade and Investment:  Domestic and International Practices and Institutions.  (with Jan Martin Witte)  AICGS Policy Report No.13.  Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, May 2004.

Standards play a crucial--if often overlooked--role in firms and in the economy at large, reducing transaction costs; enabling economies of scale; facilitating quality control; and ensuring employee, consumer, and environmental protection.  At the same time, cross-nationally divergent product standards have over the past twenty years emerged as one of the most prominent non-tariff barriers to trade, and political economists and policymakers are also beginning to recognize their importance for foreign direct investment (FDI).  This study examines the setting and harmonization of product standards in the transatlantic marketplace, where standards and standards setting are increasingly becoming a contentious issue between the U.S. and European countries.  We focus on standardization in the United States and Germany, as well as the largest international standards developing organizations, ISO and IEC.  We examine how standards are set, analyze the consequences of national differences, and derive a set of policy recommendations.




The International Harmonization of Accounting/Financial Reporting Standards

As part of the International Standards Project, which I co-direct with Walter Mattli of Oxford University, I am completing on a major study of international accounting or "financial reporting" standards and the setting of such standards by the London-based International Accounting Standards Board (IASB).  A key component of this research is an international business survey among stock-market listed firms and others with a stake in accounting standards.  This survey, recently completed in the U.S., UK, France, and Germany, has allowed us to gather the detailed, current data to analyze the effects of the shift of financial reporting standards-setting from the domestic to the international level.  The survey research is being complemented by archival research that into the evolution of the standards-setting institutions at the domestic and the international level, as well as interviews with financial executives, regulators, and investors.  This project will lead to a series of papers and possibly a policy report.

The issue is of great theoretical interest as IASB constitutes an important, innovative case of private-sector governance with a public mandate, regulating a key aspect of global financial markets.  The survey is also most timely from a public policy perspective: The EU is now requiring the use of IASB-developed standards for consolidated financial statements, but no systematic analysis of the effects of this change has been conducted yet; and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has proposed allowing both U.S. and foreign registrants the use of international accounting standards instead of U.S. accounting standards in their required filings.

The home page of the survey can be found at http://www.standardssurvey.com.





Change and Persistence of Institutions in Domestic and International Standards Setting

One of the puzzles that arises from Institutional Complementarity Theory and my empirical analyses of international product standard-setting is why there is not more institutional adaptation or change (at the domestic or international level) by or in countries with a low level of institutional complementarity between their domestic and the international standards setting institutions.  Why is there such institutional persistence?  At the same time, when institutional change in standards setting institutions occurs, what explains such changes?  These questions are the focus of some preliminary research and papers:

"Institutional Change and Persistence: The Resilience of Domestic and International Institutions for Standardization."  Remarks delivered at the Workshop 'Different Perspectives on Institutions, Identities, and Historical Change,' Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin, 26/27 May 2003.

These informal remarks, delivered at a workshop at the WZB, Berlin, begin to explore some of the puzzles of instituional persistence that arise out of the findings of our research on product standards setting.  If the poor fit between domestic and international standards setting institutions disadvantages U.S. interests at the international level, as our institutional complementarities argument and our empirical findings clearly suggest, then why has the United States neither fundamentally changed its domestic institutions nor the international ones?  I speculate about possible reasons, drawing in part on historical institutionalist arguments.  We hope to examine this issue more systematically in future research.



Regulation of Competition, Anti-Trust and Mergers in the European Union

Please see the separate summary of my related research on European integration.




















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