Economic Retardant Package

Whether you have faith that a blast of demand-side fiscal stimulus can jump start the economy or not, policymakers are moving with dispatch to rig up a defibrillator. 

A couple hours ago, President Bush announced his support for a $140 billion “tax relief” package (scare quotes because, as Chris Edwards points out, we’re talking about money borrowed by the Feds on our and our children’s credit to be repaid by us and our children with interest), which amounts to about 1 percent of GDP.

The president is leaving to Congress the details of which citizens in which income groups get checks and how much. Chances are good that the Democratic Congress will produce a plan to get bigger checks into the hands of those who are most likely to spend it all and quickly — lower- and middle-income Americans. But if getting lower- and middle-income Americans to spend more is the key to reversing our slowing economy, why is the next big item on the House Ways and Means Committee’s docket antagonistic trade legislation that would make Chinese-produced goods more expensive? The committee is reportedly planning to put together a “China Bill” from the dozens of pieces of legislation introduced in the first session, including bills aimed at Chinese subsidization, dumping, and currency misalignment.

Think about it. Americans spent about $325 billion on imports from China in 2007 (actually, that figure is the customs value at the U.S. port, so U.S. consumers probably spent 10 to 20 percent more than that after factoring in the transportation, selling, and administrative expenses and profits reflected in the final prices). Lower- and middle-income Americans likely accounted for the majority of that spending.

Since the Chinese yuan was unhitched from a pure dollar peg in July 2005, it has appreciated against the dollar by almost 15 percent. Theory suggests that U.S. imports should decline in light of the higher relative prices to U.S. consumers, but they haven’t. Between July 2005 and July 2007, the yuan appreciated by about 10 percent against the dollar, yet imports from China increased by 36 percent between January-July 2005 and January-July 2007. (This paper goes into more detail about currency values and trade flows).

If, in 2008, the yuan increases in value 25 percent against the dollar (which is what many in Congress would like to see and is the object of some of the pending legislation) and U.S. demand is identical to 2007 (no new demand and old demand remains unresponsive to higher Chinese prices), then imports from China would total about $406 billion. In other words, $80 billion ($406 – $325) of the $140 billion “tax relief” package would go down the tubes, not supporting an ounce of additional U.S. economic activity.

So, is Congress not working at cross-purposes when it doles out cash to Americans to support economic activity and then limits the activity that can be supported by pursuing other policies that devalue that cash? Some might say that spending money on imported consumables doesn’t support U.S. economic activity, but they would be wrong. There is plenty of U.S. value-added in an import purchased on American retail shelves AND some percentage of the revenue that goes to China will be devoted to purchasing U.S. exports.

Perhaps the slowing U.S. economy juxtaposed against surging U.S. exports to a growing world economy will give Congress a fresh perspective on the benefits of trade.