Tag: auto bailout

Mitt Romney’s Contrived Trade War

The Obama administration filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization on Monday alleging that the Chinese government is bestowing various prohibited subsidies upon Chinese automobile and auto parts producers to the tune of $1 billion and that Beijing is, accordingly, in violation of its commitments under the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures.

There are reasons to shake one’s head at this move, including the apparent hypocrisy it reveals of an administration that spins the $85 billion of subsidies it heaped upon two U.S. car companies and the United Autoworkers union as its chief economic accomplishment. Of course that figure doesn’t even include the $12-$14 billion in unorthodox tax breaks granted to GM under the bankruptcy terms; $17 billion in funds committed from the TARP to GM’s former financial arm GMAC (which received taxpayer support to facilitate GM auto sales); GM’s portion of the $25 billion Energy Department slush fund to underwrite research and development in green auto technology; and the $7,500 tax credit granted for every new purchase of a Chevy Volt, and more. (Full story here.)

To complain about $1 billion of Chinese subsidies is – shall we say – a bit rich.

Moreover, the filing of the WTO case reveals some of the unseemly perquisites of incumbency. A large concentration of the beneficiaries of the GM bailout resides in Ohio, a state that has had the administration’s strategic attention since its reelection campaign began in November 2008. But in case that largesse wasn’t enough to secure their support in November 2012, a large concentration of the beneficiaries of a successful U.S. WTO complaint also resides in Ohio, which is where – by Jove – the president was speaking when word of the WTO complaint became public.

It is all exasperating, no doubt.

But the bigger and more disconcerting story in all of this is the apparent ascendancy of economic nationalism within the GOP. Romney’s persistence in trying to brand himself the “most protectionist” or “biggest China basher” in the presidential race sort of forced Obama to bring the WTO case – or at least expedited the timetable. Have you seen the Romney ads? Have you read the shrill RNC taunts that cite the widely-discredited, union-funded Economic Policy Institute’s figures on job losses caused by trade with China? Strange bedfellows, indeed!

It was once the case – not too long ago – that Republican candidates argued in support of trade and the freedom of Americans to partake of the opportunities afforded by the global economy. But things, apparently, have changed. The nationalistic strains within the Republican Party have strengthened since 2009. I explained why this was happening in this 2010 Cato paper, which is excerpted below:

Frictions in the U.S.-China relationship are nothing new, but they have intensified in recent months. Tensions that were managed adeptly in the past are multiplying, and the tenor of official dialogue and public discourse has become more strident. Lately, the media have spilled lots of ink over the proposition that China has thrived at U.S. expense for too long, and that China’s growing assertiveness signals an urgent need for aggressive U.S. policy changes. Once-respected demarcations between geopolitical and economic aspects of the relationship have been blurred. In fact, economic frictions are now more likely to be cast in the context of our geopolitical differences, which often serves to overstate the challenges and obscure the solutions.

A sign of the times is a recent commentary by Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, in which he declares: “China’s worldview threatens America’s geopolitical and economic interests.” That statement would seem to support a course of action very different from the course implied by the same columnist 18 months earlier, when he wrote, “Globalization means interdependence; major nations ignore that at their peril.” That change of heart appears to be contagious.

Understandably, there is angst among the U.S. public, who hear frequently that China will soon surpass the United States in one economic superlative after another. Some worry that China’s rise will impair America’s capacity to fulfill or pursue its traditional geopolitical objectives. And those concerns are magnified by a media that cannot resist tempting the impulses of U.S. nationalism. Woven into stories about China’s frantic pace of development are reminders that the Chinese have not forgotten their two-century slumber—a period of humiliation and exploitation by foreign powers.

A recent National Journal cover story describing areas of bilateral policy contention—which the article laments as “frustrating” the fact that U.S. experts see “few alternatives to continued engagement” —features three menacing photographs of Chinese military formations, one picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il flanked by members of the Chinese military, and one photo of the Chinese foreign minister shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Subtly, and sometimes not, the media and politicians are brandishing the image of an adversarial China. In Chinese reluctance to oblige U.S. policy wishes, we are told that China selfishly follows a “China-First” policy. In the increasing willingness of Chinese officials to criticize U.S. policies, we are told of a new “triumphalism” in China. In the reportedly shabby treatment of President Obama by his Chinese hosts on his recent trip to Beijing, we are told that the “Chinese have an innate sense of superiority.” But indignation among media and politicians over China’s aversion to saying “How high?” when the U.S. government says “Jump!” is not a persuasive argument for a more provocative posture.

China is a sovereign nation. Its government, like the U.S. government, pursues policies that it believes to be in its own interests (although those policies—with respect to both governments—are not always in the best interests of their people). Realists understand that objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous. Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft. These tactics must continue to underpin a U.S. policy of engagement with China.

In this campaign, the RNC seems to be fighting to position itself to the protectionist side of Obama, daring the president to take action – a dare the president has accepted, inflating his political credit in places like Ohio. In response to Governor Romney’s assertion that the president had been soft on China and that he, Romney, would label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, Obama created the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center, which resonated politically with the target audience. While the challenger blathers about the president’s alleged fecklessness in dealing with China, the president responds by bringing new WTO cases against Beijing. The most recent complaint, relative to the strident tack Mitt Romney is advocating, is the more responsible, more pro-market course of action. If Romney is to be believed, his trade actions would have far worse consequences for the economy.

Instead of focusing on the real sources of economic stagnation in the United States – including the uncertain business climate inspired by the bailouts, the proliferation of costly and superfluous new environmental, health, and financial regulations, a tax code that is in constant flux, frivolous torts, an education monopoly that fails to produce enough talent backstopped by an immigration system that chases it away – Mitt Romney has chosen to blame America’s woes on China. THAT is the message the Republican presidential candidate, with the full backing of the RNC, brings to the voters in Ohio, whose fortunes are increasingly tied to America’s engagement in the global economy. As of July, Ohio’s unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, more than one full percentage point lower than the U.S. rate of 8.3%. Ohio’s economy is growing on account of trade – particularly with China, the state’s third largest market and destination of $2.7 billion worth of Ohio’s output in 2011. Just look at this bar chart that depicts the importance of China to Ohio, and conversely, the costs of a real bilateral trade war.

Governor Romney should ditch his trade warrior schtick pronto, and start explaining to the electorate how pro-trade policies – including the freedom of corporations to invest abroad (to offshore a la Bain Capital)– help enlarge the economic pie. Puffing out the chest to appear the biggest protectionist in the race is bad economics and bad politics.

Ongoing Ripples from the Auto Bailout

A couple of weeks ago I suggested that the person responsible for Ford’s anti-bailout ads was deserving of a raise. Today, I wonder how that extra income will be spent…in Siberia. According to media accounts seemingly originating with the Detroit News, Ford has pulled that ad after learning the Putin Obama White House was none too pleased.

It is unclear from the Detroit News article whether overt threats, implied repercussions, or mild expressions of regret best characterize the communications from the White House to Ford. Regardless, something spooked Ford enough to prompt it to pull the popular ad (no longer available on YouTube), which sought to differentiate the Ford brand over the “bailout” characteristic, which is not insignificant to auto purchasing decisions.

Hopefully, some probing journalists will discover the true nature of what transpired. In the meantime, it’s important to reflect on the fact that—contrary to the views of E.J. Dionne and others who cannot contemplate what is not seen—the auto bailout was not a discrete event, which happened and now resides in our memories. It is an ongoing tipping of the scales of competition—intentionally and inadvertently. Ford’s mere perception that the administration might stir up trouble if it didn’t fall into line is a vestige of the bailout.

To the extent that the administration wants to tout the bailout as evidence of its “successful” economic stewardship, it should know that there are plenty of us willing and able to do the auditing on that claim.

President Obama and the Auto Industry

Back from vacation, I’m catching up on things I missed last week. Dan Ikenson did a fine job on President Obama’s boasting about how he saved the automobile industry. But a few days later Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker,” was more brutal:

We take no view on whether the administration’s efforts on behalf of the automobile industry were a good or bad thing; that’s a matter for the editorial pages and eventually the historians. But we are interested in the facts the president cited to make his case.

What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk, just like the fine print in that too-good-to-be-true car loan.

Here’s a sample of the specific analyses:

“GM plans to hire back all of the workers they had to lay off during the recession.”

This is another impressive-sounding but misleading figure. In the five years since 2006, General Motors announced that it would reduce its workforce by nearly 68,000 hourly and salary workers, creating a much smaller company. Those are the figures that generated the headlines.

Obama is only talking about a sliver of workers — the 9,600 workers who were laid off in the fourth quarter of 2008.

And that’s why President Obama’s speech was awarded Three Pinocchios.

Whitewashing the Auto Bailouts

With his appearance at a Toledo factory today, President Obama seems to want to make the auto bailout a campaign issue. Let’s welcome that. Americans should understand what transpired.

Fancying himself “Savior of the Auto Industry,” the president deserves credit only for choosing to insulate two companies (and the UAW) from the consequences of their decisions. But with that credit he must accept responsibility for sluggish U.S. business investment, limited job creation, and the anemic economic recovery, which is due in no small measure to the regime uncertainty that descends from his intervention in the auto industry.

The administration suggests that the entire cost of the auto bailout is captured by the outlays that haven’t or won’t be returned. Despite much smaller claims from the administration, that figure will be about $5.5 billion in Chrysler’s case (the administration is overlooking $4 billion written off when New Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy) and somewhere from $7 to $15 billion in GM’s case (depending on average share price for 500 million shares). Should that loss have to be reported to the FEC on a dollar-per-auto-worker-vote basis?

But the costs are much greater than these outlays.

The most compelling objections to the bailout were not rooted in the belief that the government couldn’t use its assumed power to help Chrysler and GM. On the contrary, the most compelling objections were over concerns that the government would do just that. It is the consequences of that intervention — the undermining of the rule of law, the confiscations, the politically driven decisions, and the distortion of market signals — that animated the most serious objections. Ford never publicly objected to the interventions to rescue its rivals. Do you think Ford may feel entitled to a future bailout if needed, having foregone the recent one? Does Ford think it has a pretty good insurance policy if it takes excessive risks that go awry?  This is a cost that’s tough to measure, but an important cost nonetheless.

Any verdict on the outcome of the auto industry intervention must take into account, among other things, the billions of dollars in property confiscated from the auto companies’ debt-holders; the higher risk premium built into U.S. corporate debt as a result; the costs of denying the other, more successful auto producers the spoils of competition (including additional market share and access to the resources misallocated at Chrysler and GM); the costs of rewarding irresponsible actors (like the UAW) by insulating them from the outcomes of what should have been an apolitical bankruptcy proceeding; the effects of GM’s nationalization on production, investment, and public policy decisions; the diminution of U.S. moral authority to counsel foreign governments against market interventions that can adversely affect U.S. businesses competing abroad; and the corrosive impact on America’s institutions of the illegal diversion of TARP funds to achieve politically desirable outcomes.

Let’s make the auto bailout a campaign issue and see if we can’t reconcile all of its costs.

Monday Links

  • It is false to assume that GM’s earnings report means the auto bailout was a success.
  • It is false that, among other things, failing to raise the debt limit means defaulting on our obligations.
  • It is false that Osama bin Laden’s death means torture is a good idea.
  • It is false that international institutions can deliver what they say they can deliver.
  • It is false that oil speculators are to blame for fluctuating oil prices:


President’s Statement about GM IPO Reveals a Defensive Politician

I don’t particularly relish picking on a president who, on virtually every policy front, is showing all the markings of a man in way over his head.  But the president’s actions and statements are becoming excruciating to watch—like a highly-touted Olympic figure skater who can’t complete a maneuver without falling to the ice. 

President Obama’s salutary statement about GM’s IPO yesterday reveals a man so focused on defending his policies that he can no longer conceal the incongruity between his political objectives and the country’s imperatives.

American taxpayers are now positioned to recover more than my administration invested in GM, and that’s a good thing. (My emphasis)

Besides revealing the president’s preference for LIFO accounting procedures, the statement strikes me as sub-presidential.  Shouldn’t the POTUS be concerned about  American taxpayers getting back all of the money invested in GM?  Even though former President Bush is complicit, shouldn’t the sitting president of a country that owes its wealth, freedom, and future to the endurance of the rule of law and the other long-standing, bedrock institutions that were defiled and abused to bail out two automakers issue a statement of regret and reassurance that such extreme measures will never be undertaken again? 

I think President Obama missed an opportunity to make amends, build a bridge, and reassure businesses and investors that the White House will do its part to reduce the economy-stifling problem of regime uncertainty going forward.  But, then again, that might have been too presidential for a politician who appears motivated more by avoiding blame than by advancing the country’s best interests.

A Successful IPO Does Not a Justifiable Bailout Make

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the meaning of GM’s IPO today.  A common narrative in today’s media is that GM’s return to the stock market affirms the wisdom of the auto bailout.  Some tougher customers in the media insist on a higher threshold being met—that taxpayers get back the entirety of their $50 billion investment in GM—before declaring “mission accomplished.” And then there are the rabid partisans who—in their seething animosity toward the Obama administration—reach conclusions devoid of logic and rich only in conspiratorial-mindedness.  For example, yesterday I was contacted by a media outlet vetting this conclusion: “The IPO is evidence of the failure of the bailout because taxpayers were excluded from buying shares at the IPO price and, therefore, denied the opportunity to get their money back.”  Huh?

All of those analyses are wrong.  Let me dispense with the last one first, as it simply betrays a gross misunderstanding of how taxpayers are on the hook.  By divesting of GM (i.e., selling its shares), the government is beginning to make the taxpayer whole.  But just as there were no checks written directly from taxpayers to GM, there will be no checks written to taxpayers, as the Treasury liquidates the public’s share of GM.  Whether main street Americans could participate in the IPO has nothing to do with making the taxpayer whole.  And, by the way, IPOs typically limit sales of shares at the initial price to a chosen few.  So let’s just shelve the canned indignation on this claim.  It’s a distraction.

Here’s the real issue.  Today’s IPO is nothing more than testament to the fact that the government threw GM a lifeline, enabling the company to expunge most of its debts and firm up its balance sheet on terms more favorable than a normal bankruptcy process would have yielded.  That enabled GM to partake of the cyclically growing U.S. auto market in 2010 and turn a profit through the first three quarters.  So what?  Did anyone really think that a chosen company so coddled and insulated from market realities couldn’t turn a short-run profit?  Yes, even GM, under those favorable conditions should have been expected to turn a profit this year.

But at what cost?  That answer—even the question—seems to be elusive in the public discussion of the IPO.  The cost was not only $50 billion—the amount diverted to GM in the first place.  Nor was it that $50 billion minus the proceeds raised in today’s IPO (and minus the proceeds raised later when the government divests entirely of GM – it will still hold 33% of GM after today).  In other words, making taxpayers whole does not absolve the Bush and Obama administration’s for the auto intervention.  Recouping the $50 billion only gets us partially out of the hole.  (And I’m not even sure who “us” includes because the costs are so far reaching.)

Yes, GM is making sales and accounting for market share, but only at the expense of the other automakers.  Had GM been forced to severely atrophy or liquidate, the other automakers would have had greater revenues, more market share, and probably higher profits).  They would have been able to attract GM’s best engineers and line workers.  They would have more money to invest in R&D and to lead the industry into the future.  Instead, by keeping GM in the mix, some of those industry resources remain misallocated in a company that the evolutionary market process would have made smaller or extinct. 

The auto industry wasn’t rescued with the GM bailout.  GM was “rescued.”  By rescuing GM, the government overrode market forces, and there are significant costs to assign for that.  Witness the stagnant economy with 9.6 percent unemployment.  Is it not plausible that businesses are sitting on their cash and not investing or hiring because of the fear inspired by the government interventions starting with the bank and auto bailouts?  It’s more than plausible.  The regime uncertainty that persists to this day was spawned by the GM bailout and other interventions.

What about the weakening of the rule of law?  Doesn’t the diversion of TARP funds by the Bush administration, in circumvention of congress’s wishes and in contravention of the language of the law, represent a cost?  How about the property right of preferred bondholders who were forced to take pennies on their investment dollars under the Obama bankruptcy plan?  Any costs there?  What about U.S. moral authority to dissuade other goverments from meddling in their markets or indulging industrial policy?  That may be costly to U.S. enterprises.  And with the government still holding a third of GM, its hard to swallow the idea that public interest will be the driver of policies affecting the auto industry.  And that suggests even more costs.

But don’t mistake this blog post for an anti-IPO rant.  I’m in favor of the IPO.  It couldn’t have happened sooner.  But I suspect the investment bankers, the administration, and the other members of GM’s Board of Directors reckoned that, with the hype over the new Chevy Volt and the recent newsleak of GM’s $43 billion in unorthodox tax deferrments on the balance sheet, now was the perfect time to go public.

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