Facts That Lack Currency

In Washington, everybody seems to have an opinion about the Chinese currency these days.  But too often those opinions show contempt for the facts.

The prevailing wisdom—undergirded by theories and equations that may need updating in this age of global production sharing and transnational supply chains—is that an appreciating yuan will reduce the bilateral trade deficit, as U.S. imports from China become relatively more expensive for Americans using dollars, and U.S. exports to China become relatively less expensive for Chinese using yuan.

The lead article in Sunday’s Washington Post presents this point of view unquestioningly, and in the process foregoes an opportunity to explain to its readers that the relationship between currency values and trade balances, and between trade balances and jobs, is not as straightforward as many proponents of Chinese revaluation argue.

In the fourth paragraph, the authors write:

“Whether Saturday’s announcement [from the Chinese government that it will allow its currency to appreciate gradually] will help the U.S. economy depends on how much Beijing lets its currency rise.  A jump of 20 percent, for example, could cut as much as $150 billion off the U.S. trade deficit with China and create as many as 1 million U.S. jobs by making American exports more competitive, according to estimates by C. Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute of International Economics.  From 2005 to 2008, China let the yuan appreciate 20 percent against the dollar before it stopped the process while it confronted the global financial crisis.”  (My emphasis, primarily for what is absent from this sentence).

No doubt Fred Bergsten and his colleagues at the Peterson Institute know something about economics, but Bergsten’s projection should raise some red flags for anyone who’s been following this subject.   The authors cite Bergsten’s estimation that a 20 percent appreciation of the yuan could lead to a $150 billion decline in the U.S. trade deficit with China, and they even indicate that China has allowed that kind of appreciation before—from 2005 to 2008.  But then, inexplicably, the authors abandon what should be the next logical question in reporting this story: what happened to the bilateral trade deficit during that recent period of 20 percent yuan appreciation?  After all, if the authors are going to acknowledge that period of appreciation, then surely it should serve as support for Bergsten’s current projections of trade deficit reduction and job creation—unless, of course, it doesn’t.  And it doesn’t.

That recent period of Yuan appreciation (21 percent between July 2005 and July 2008) is associated with a U.S. bilateral trade deficit that increased by $66 billion from $202 to $268 billion between 2005 and 2008, and incidentally, the number of jobs in the U.S. economy increased by 3.5 million between July 2005 and July 2008 (the precise period of appreciation), from 142.0 million to 145.5 million.  It is confounding to me that reporters are still adhering, seemingly unquestioningly, to the pre-financial crisis, pre-recession fallacy that a trade deficit hurts the economy?  Didn’t our huge economic hiccup put that myth the bed for good?

Between the end of 2007 and the end of 2009, deficit hawks got their wish.  The U.S. trade deficit declined, and substantially, by $327 billion, from $702 billion to $375 billion.  But the huge payoff they promised never materialized.  Instead, U.S. employment fell from 146 million workers in 2007 to 138 million workers in 2009.  The unemployment rate increased from an average of 4.7 percent in 2007 to 10.1 percent in 2009.  What was that about currency values and trade balances?  And between trade balances and employment?

A review of Federal Reserve exchange rate data and Commerce Department trade data reveals that the textbook characterizations of an inverse relationship between currency value and the trade account does not hold for many of America’s largest trading partners.  Between 2002 and 2008 (before trade flows dropped dramatically across the globe on account of the recession), the dollar declined considerably against the Chinese yuan, the Canadian dollar, the euro, the Japanese yen the Korean won, the Indian rupee, and the Malaysian ringgit, yet the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with all of those countries (and the Eurozone collectively) increased, in some cases substantially.

As I suggested in this paper and in this op-ed a couple months ago, many factors, including income, the availability of substitutes, and perhaps most significantly, globalized production and supply chains influence trade flows.  Since somewhere between one-half to two-thirds of the value of Chinese exports to the United States comprise of value that was first imported into China (as components, raw materials, and the labor and overhead embedded therein), an appreciating yuan produces mitigating effects.  The appreciating yuan makes the price tag higher to Americans than before the appreciation, if all else were equal.  But all else isn’t equal.  The rising yuan also reduces the cost of production in China — the cost of imported inputs, which accounts for up to two-thirds of the U.S. price tag, on average (but far more for devices like the Apple iPod)–thereby enabling Chinese exporters to lower their price tags to American consumers.

The evidence, as presented in this paper, suggests that this dynamic played a big role in preventing the trade deficit from declining.  I wonder how these transnational production processes factor into Fred Bergsten’s economic models or whether the 2005 to 2008 period can be explained away as some anomaly.  Nevertheless, at the very least those data, that recent evidence, should be acknowledged and understood by economists, who in turn can help reporters provide a more complete picture to the public.