Tag: China

Comparative Political Economy

Free-marketers often point to the varying success of pairs of countries – the United States vs. the Soviet Union, West vs. East Germany, Hong Kong and Taiwan vs. China – to illustrate the benefits of markets over planning, regulation, and socialism. Some even point out the closer but real differences in GDP per capita between the United States and Western Europe. In his 1984 book Endless Enemies (p. 380) Jonathan Kwitny added the less familiar pairs “Morocco versus Algeria, Malaysia versus Indonesia, Thailand versus Burma, Kenya versus Tanzania.” Now Rama Lakshmi reports in the Washington Post that we can see the results of two systems of political economy in one country:

It didn’t take long for the first athletes arriving in New Delhi last week for the upcoming Commonwealth Games to catch a glimpse of modern India’s two faces.

Their gateway to the country was the capital’s gleaming new international airport terminal, built by a privately led consortium and opened in June four months ahead of schedule.

But the official wristbands that the visitors were handed at the airport turned out to be an emblem of India’s famous red tape and government inefficiency. When the teams reached the athletes’ village, the police guarding the facility refused to recognize the IDs, saying that the Games Organizing Committee had not sent the required authorization order.

The jet-lagged athletes stood about under a tree for hours with their luggage, calling their embassies for help, and the problem was not finally resolved for four more days.

To observers, the incident illustrated more than just the well-documented sloppiness that has marked India’s preparations for the Games. It also underscored the gap that has emerged between a government rooted in a slower-moving, socialist era and a private entrepreneurial class that is busy building global IT companies, the world’s largest oil refineries and spectacular structures such as the $2.8 billion airport terminal.

“It is about two aspects of the India story,” said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an entrepreneur and member of Parliament. “India’s private sector has been exposed to competition and therefore has developed capability. Accountability is firmly built into the entrepreneurial mind-set. But the government structure is a relic of the colonial past and continues to plod along.”…

For the Delhi [airport] project, [Grandhi Mallikarjuna]Rao said, his company worked with 58 government agencies.

“Our nation is in the process of transition from a command-and-control economic system to a more efficient market-driven structure,” he said. “It will take some time till this transition is complete.”

Given all this history, the interesting question is why some people in the United States want to continually transfer such vital functions as energy and health care from the competitive, accountable, capable entrepreneurial sector to the slower-moving, plodding, command-and-control bureaucratic sector. (Of course, the already-government-influenced health care and energy industries are not the most entrepreneurial sectors of the economy. But as the examples above demonstrate, even imperfect markets work better than government direction. Nor are the government-run local schools very competitive or accountable, but they are more so than they will be under tighter federal control.)

Economists Ignore the Facts in Supporting Chinese Currency Legislation

The Chinese currency issue is in full bloom this week, as the House of Representatives passed the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act of 2010 by a vote of 348-79 on Wednesday.  Though there is so much to criticize about the bill and about the layers upon layers of misinformation, myth, and subterfuge that brought us to this point, this post concerns the dubiousness of the bill’s central premise: that Yuan appreciation will significantly reduce the bilateral trade deficit.

That is the position of the Peterson Institute’s Fred Bergsten and Bill Cline.

The premise seems plausible enough.  At least, the economics textbooks tell us that as a nation’s currency appreciates, its people will consume more imports and foreigners will reduce consumption of that nation’s exports.  Hence, a stronger Yuan vis-à-vis the dollar would mean that the Chinese buy more from the United States and sell less to the United States, reducing the bilateral deficit.

But in March Cato published a short paper of mine titled “Appreciate This: Chinese Currency Rise Will Have a Negligible Effect on the Trade Deficit.”  The central argument of that paper was that our national obsession with the value of the Chinese currency is misplaced—a red herring, in fact.  I presented recent historical data showing that despite a 21 percent increase in the value of the Yuan between July 2005 and July 2008, the U.S. deficit with China increased from $202 billion to $268 billion, or by 33 percent.  U.S. exports to China increased (as would be expected) by $28 billion, but U.S. imports from China increased, as well (contrary to expectations based on the old textbooks), and by $94 billion, or 38.7 percent. 

In other words, in the face of a 21 percent increase in the Yuan’s value, the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with China increased by 33 percent—a fact that raises serious questions about the integrity of the testimony, discussion, and “debate” that preceded the House vote on Wednesday. 

How can the premise that Yuan appreciation will reduce the bilateral deficit still hold?  Why is so much credence given to economists with fancy models who project with certainty that an X% increase in the value of the Yuan will generate a Y% increase in economic growth, which will produce Z number of new jobs in the economy, when recent evidence plainly refutes those claims?  What is the value in holding hearings when conjecture matters more than fact?

Bergsten and Cline (in testimony and podcast, respectively) dismiss the counterintuitive relationship between currency and the trade deficit during 2005-2008 by suggesting that there is a long lag period to consider—two to three years, according to Bergsten; two years, according to Cline.  In other words, the impact on the trade deficit of Yuan appreciation in the period 2005-2008 would not be fully manifest until the period 2007-2010.  While lags are expected (economists speak of a J-curve effect that accounts for the process of adjustment to the new prices in both countries), a two- or three-year lag in an era of instant communications, cyberspace transactions, transnational production, and airtight supply chains is simply not credible.  It took only a matter of months for the financial meltdown in 2008 to spread to the real economy, which prompted an overnight crash in international trade volumes, as production orders were terminated, shutting down operations throughout supply chains across the globe.

The two- to three-year lag theory is convenient merely because it puts in play the data for 2009, when international trade tanked worldwide, and the Chinese global trade surplus and the U.S. deficit with China were cut in half.  If the two- to three-year lag theory were plausible, the U.S. trade deficit with China would be falling in 2010, not rising, as the steepest appreciation in the Yuan occurred in 2008.

There’s a more plausible theory than that.

In my paper, I went on to examine whether the increase in imports was attributable to American demand for Chinese goods being price inelastic.  In other words, if the price of Chinese goods to American consumers increased by 21 percent (on average) and Americans reduced their consumption of Chinese goods by less than 21 percent, then demand would be considered inelastic, the price effect would dominate, and total import value would rise (adding to the trade deficit).  There are plenty of reasons that American demand for Chinese goods is price inelastic including, most importantly, that there are limited substitutes for those goods.  Much of what Americans consume from China is not made in the United States anymore.  So facing limited alternatives, Americans are forced to absorb the higher prices (a fact that currency legislation supporters are undoubtedly unwilling to share with their constituents).  Of course, eventually American consumers might adjust their consumption habits (which speaks to the lag factor).

But closer examination of the data revealed something else.

The fact that a 21 percent increase in the value of the Yuan was met with a 38.7 percent increase in import value means that the quantity of Chinese imports demanded increased by nearly 15 percent after the price change.  Increased!  Higher prices being met with greater quantity demanded would seem to defy the law of demand.

So what happened?  Chinese exporters must have lowered their Yuan-denominated prices to keep their export prices steady. That would have been a completely rational response, enabled by the fact that Yuan appreciation reduces the cost of production for Chinese exporters—particularly those who rely on imported raw materials and components. According to a growing body of research, somewhere between one-third and one-half of the value of U.S. imports from China is actually Chinese value-added.  The other half to two-thirds reflects costs of material, labor, and overhead from other countries. China’s value-added operations still tend to be low-value manufacturing and assembly operations, thus most of the final value of Chinese exports was first imported into China.

Yuan appreciation not only bolsters the buying power of Chinese consumers, but it makes Chinese-based producers and assemblers more competitive because the relative prices of their imported inputs fall, reducing their costs of production. That reduction in cost can be passed on to foreign consumers in the form of lower export prices, which could mitigate entirely the intended effect of the currency adjustment, which is to reduce U.S. imports from China.

That process might very well explain what happened between 2005 and 2008, and is probably a reasonable indication of what to expect going forward.  Yet this elephant in the room continues to be wantonly ignored in the anlayses that push us toward provocative legislation.

It seems that the textbook discussion of currency and the trade account needs to be updated to account for the compelling facts of globalization.

China Currency Hearings a Distraction

This week’s congressional hearings on China’s currency generated a lot of heat but almost no light. Winning the prize among tough competition for the most irresponsible sound bite was Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. At a Senate hearing Thursday that featured Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Schumer tossed out this grenade:

At a time when the U.S. economy is trying to pick itself up off the ground, China’s currency manipulation is like a boot to the throat of our recovery. This administration refuses to try and take that boot off our neck.

The implication of the senator’s remark is that Americans would be enjoying a robust economic recovery right now if only China were to allow its currency to appreciate by 20 to 40 percent. But is that a reasonable charge?

Granted, China’s currency, the yuan, probably is priced in dollars below what it would be were its value freely determined in global currency markets. And an undervalued currency will make Chinese imports to the United States more affordable, and U.S. exports to China somewhat more expensive. But “a boot to the throat of our recovery”? Let’s get real.

The Chinese market has been one of the bright spots for American exporters. China’s economic growth has been so robust that its growing demand for U.S. goods has swamped any negative effect of its currency. In the first seven months of 2010, according to the most recent monthly report from the U.S. Commerce Department, exports of U.S. goods to China are up 36 percent compared to the same period last year. That is a 50 percent faster growth rate than U.S. exports to the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, U.S. imports from China so far this year have been growing more slowly than exports to China, and more slowly than imports from the rest of the world. As a result, while our trade deficit with China in 2010 has grown by $22 billion, our trade deficit with the rest of the world has grown by $64 billion. But it is much easier these days to demonize China than other trading partners with whom Americans run a trade deficit, such as Canada, Japan, and the European Union.

One of the bright spots of the U.S. economy has been the manufacturing sector, which is supposedly taking the brunt of China’s “currency manipulation.” According to the latest report from the Federal Reserve, U.S. manufacturing output is up about 8 percent from a year ago.

The chief obstacle to America’s recovery is not China’s currency regime, but a housing market that remains depressed, soaring government spending and debt, looming tax increases, and grandstanding politicians who refuse to remove those very large boots from the neck of the American economy.

Experience Is a Good Teacher, But She Sends in Terrific Bills

[above quote attibuted to American writer Minna Thomas Antrim (1861-1950)]

The AP reports on trouble facing the Chinese census:

After years of reforms that have reduced the government’s once-pervasive involvement in most people’s lives, some Chinese are proving reluctant to give up personal information and harboring suspicions about what the government plans to do with their details.

The Rumors of Manufacturing’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

“US manufacturing grows for 13th straight month” is the headline of an AP newswire story posted around noon today.  This statistic doesn’t surprise me, since I’ve been following developments in U.S. manufacturing for many years now, and have published analyses of public data that refute the myth of deindustrialization and manufacturing decline

With the exception of the recession of 08-09, when all U.S. economic sectors took a hit, U.S. manufacturing has been breaking its own record, year after year, with respect to output, value-added, profits, returns on investment, exports, and imports. U.S. factories are the world’s most prolific, accounting for 21.4% of global manufacturing value added in 2008 (China accounted for 13.4%).

But I bring the AP headline to your attention for one reason: so that you can judge for yourself who has any credibility on Capitol Hill, within the executive branch, in the media, among organized labor, in industry, in the think tank world, and within the international trade bar, as Nancy Pelosi tries to stuff a ruinous anti-China trade bill down our throats in the name of supporting our floundering manufacturing base.  Look for the columns, the op-eds, the press releases, and the floor statements between next week and November.

Who among them will continue to cite our suffering manufacturing sector as the justification for protectionism?  They should never again have any credibility.

Obama on Human Rights in America

I’ve just sent a short post to ”The Corner” at NRO on the Obama State Department’s new report to the U.N. Human Rights Council on human rights conditions in the U.S.  In a word, we’ve got problems, especially concerning women, minorities, etc., but we’re trying to live up to the expectations of other human rights exemplars on the council – Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba.

Read and weep.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Chinese Economic Tiger

The news that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy has generated a lot of attention. It shouldn’t. There are roughly 10 times as many people in China as there are in Japan, so the fact that total gross domestic product in China is now bigger than total gross domestic product in Japan is hardly a sign of Chinese economic supremacy.

Yes, China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom — which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. According to the World Bank, per-capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power parity) was $6,710 for China in 2009, compared to $33,280 for Japan (and $46,730 for the U.S.). If I got to choose where to be a middle-class person, China certainly wouldn’t be my first pick.

This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. Better to have $6,710 of per-capita GDP than $3,710. But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy. The country’s nominal communist leadership has allowed economic liberalization, but China is still an economically repressed nation. Scores have improved, but the Economic Freedom of the World report ranks China 82 out of 141 nations, just one spot above Russia, and the Index of Economic Freedom has an even lower score, 140 out of 179 nations.

Hopefully, China will continue to move in the right direction. That would be good for the Chinese people. And since rich neighbors are better than poor neighbors, it also would be good for America.