Tag: China

Media Miss Real News in Latest Trade Report

This morning’s report from the U.S. Department of Commerce that the pesky trade deficit shrank unexpectedly in October is being hailed in the media as “good news” for the economy, while the real news behind the numbers remains buried.

According to the latest monthly trade report, exports of U.S. goods rose in October compared to September, while imports declined slightly. Rising exports are good news in anybody’s book, but according to the conventional Keynesian and mercantilist logic, falling imports must also be good for the economy because that means consumers are spending more on domestically produced goods, right? Wrong.

In the real world, that assumption is almost always false, as I did my best to document a few weeks back in an op-ed titled, “Are rising imports a boon or bane to the economy?”

The real news in the report is the spectacular rise of U.S. exports to China. Year to date, U.S. exports to China are up 34 percent compared to the same period in 2009. That compares to a 21 percent increase in U.S. exports to the rest of the world excluding China. China is now the no. 3 market for U.S. exports, behind only our NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico, and by far the fastest growing major market.

The politically inflammatory bilateral trade deficit with China is also up 20 percent so far this year, but our trade deficit with the rest of the world excluding China is up 38 percent.

Yet Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are still talking about pushing a bill during the lame-duck session that would authorized the same Commerce Department to assess duties on imports from China because of its undervalued currency. A cheaper Chinese currency relative to the U.S. dollar supposedly inhibits U.S. exports to China while tempting American consumers to buy even more of those useful consumer goods assembled in China. [For the record, U.S. imports from China so far this year have grown, too, but at a rate slightly below imports from the rest of the world.]

To anyone taking an objective look at the numbers, this morning’s trade report shows that whatever the wisdom of China’s currency policy, it has not been a real obstacle to robust U.S. export growth, nor has it fueled an extraordinary growth in our bilateral trade balance with China. Members of Congress should drop their obsession with China trade and move on to more urgent matters.

Promoting Free Trade—Sort Of

The U.S. and South Korean governments have agreed to changes in the free trade agreement negotiated by the Bush administration. The president rightly lauded the FTA as a good deal for Americans:

“This agreement shows the U.S. is willing to lead and compete in the global economy,” the president told reporters at the White House, calling it a triumph for American workers in fields from farming to aerospace.”

Approving the FTA has taken on added urgency after the European Union negotiated a similar accord with the South. Once that agreement takes effect, Europeans would have better access than Americans to the world’s 13th largest economy. Protectionism is always foolish, but especially so when one’s competitors are promoting open markets.

The accord also offers important geopolitical benefits. With much nervousness in the U.S. and throughout East Asia over an increasingly assertive China, Washington should work to break down barriers to Americans trading with China’s neighbors. Already Koreans do more business with China than the U.S. While the FTA won’t reduce the appeal of products from next door China in South Korea, it will allow American producers to compete more freely in that market.

The president deserves credit for pushing the agreement forward, but he also needlessly held up ratification by two years. Moreover, his “fix” punishes American consumers. As the official government fact sheet explains:

Car Tariff Elimination: The 2007 agreement would have immediately eliminated U.S. tariffs on an estimated 90 percent of Korea’s auto exports, with remaining tariffs phased out by the third year of implementation. The 2010 supplemental agreement keeps the 2.5 percent U.S. tariff in place until the fifth year. At the same time, Korea will immediately cut its tariff on U.S. auto imports in half (from 8 percent to 4 percent), and fully eliminate that tariff in the fifth year.

Truck Tariff Elimination: The 2007 agreement would have required the United States to start reducing its tariff on Korean trucks immediately and phase it out by the agreement’s tenth year. The 2010 supplemental agreement allows the United States to maintain its 25 percent truck tariff until the eighth year and then phase it out by the tenth year – but holds Korea to its original commitment to eliminate its 10 percent tariff on U.S. trucks immediately.

That is, the Obama administration forced a delay in the reduction of U.S. auto tariffs. This obviously hurts Korean exporters, but the highest price will be paid by American consumers. The provision is simply a special interest payoff to the auto industry, which already has benefited from a big federal financial bail-out. So much for bringing “change” to Washington.

Free trade is good for Americans. That means bringing down foreign trade barriers. It also means bringing down U.S. trade barriers.

Beijing Key in Controlling North Korea’s Recklessness

Shortly after unveiling a new uranium enrichment facility, North Korea has shelled a disputed island held by the Republic of Korea.  A score of South Koreans reportedly were killed or wounded.

These two steps underscore the North’s reputation for recklessness.  Unfortunately, there is no easy solution: serious military retaliation risks full-scale war, while intensified sanctions will have no impact without China’s support.

Instead, the U.S. should join with the ROK in an intensive diplomatic offensive in Beijing.  So far China has assumed that the Korean status quo is to its advantage.  However, Washington and Seoul should point out that Beijing has much to lose if things go badly in North Korea.

The North is about to embark on a potentially uncertain leadership transition.  North Koreans remain impoverished; indeed, malnutrition reportedly is spreading.  With the regime apparently determined to press ahead with its nuclear program while committing regular acts of war against the South, the entire peninsula could go up in flames.  China would be burned, along with the rest of North Korea’s neighbors.

The U.S. also should inform Beijing that Washington might choose not to remain in the middle if the North continues its nuclear program.  Given the choice of forever guaranteeing South Korean and Japanese security against an irresponsible North Korea, or allowing those nations to decide on their own defense, including possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, the U.S. would seriously consider the latter.  Then China would have to deal with the consequences.

Beijing’s best option would be to join with the U.S. and South Korea in offering a package deal for denuclearization, backed by effective sanctions, meaning the cut-off of Chinese food and energy assistance.  Otherwise, Beijing might find itself sharing in a future North Korean nightmare.

Will the Federal Reserve’s Easy-Money Policy Turn the United States into a Global Laughingstock?

Early in the Obama Administration, there was an amusing/embarrassing incident when Chinese students laughed at Treasury Secretary Geithner when he claimed the United States had a strong-dollar policy.

I suspect that even Geithner would be smart enough to avoid such a claim today, not after the Fed’s announcement (with the full support of the White House and Treasury) that it would flood the economy with $600 billion of hot money. Here’s what my colleague Alan Reynolds wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Bernanke’s policy.

Mr. Bernanke…believes (contrary to our past experience with stagflation) that inflation is no danger thanks to economic slack (high unemployment). He reasons that if people can nonetheless be persuaded to expect higher inflation, regardless of the slack, that means interest rates will appear even lower in real terms. If that worked as planned, lower real interest rates would supposedly fix our hangover from the last Fed-financed borrowing binge by encouraging more borrowing. This whole scheme raises nagging questions. Why would domestic investors accept a lower yield on bonds if they expect higher inflation? And why would foreign investors accept a lower yield on U.S. bonds if they expect exchange rate losses on dollar-denominated securities? Why wouldn’t intelligent people shift their investments toward commodities or related stocks (such as mining and related machinery) and either shun, or sell short, long-term Treasurys? And if they did that, how could it possibly help the economy?

The rest of the world seems to share these concerns. The Germans are not big fans of America’s binge of borrowing and easy money. Here’s what Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had to say in a recent interview.

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. …I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don’t recognize the economic argument behind this measure. …The Fed’s decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. …It’s inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

The comment about borrowed money has a bit of hypocrisy since German government debt is not much lower than it is in the United States, but the Finance Minister surely is correct about monetary policy. And speaking of China, we now have the odd situation of a Chinese rating agency downgrading U.S. government debt.

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with “negative” outlook.

This development shold be taken with a giant grain of salt, as explained by a Wall Street Journal blogger. Nonetheless, the fact that the China-based agency thought this was a smart tactic must say something about how the rest of the world is beginning to perceive America.

Simply stated, Obama is following Jimmy Carter-style economic policy, so nobody should be surprised if the result is 1970s-style stagflation.

Commercial Ties with India Are An Opportunity, Mr. President—Not A Problem

During his visit to India, President Obama should bury once and for all his divisive rhetoric about American companies shipping jobs overseas. Our growing commercial ties with India are a great opportunity, not a problem. U.S. exports to India have doubled in the past four years. American companies that have set up shop in India have helped to fuel demand in that country for U.S. products and services. The president should be celebrating rather than demonizing our deeper economic ties with India.

Too Top-Down…Even for the Chinese Government!

It’s not surprising that Treasury Secretary Geithner’s recent G-20 proposal that governments agree to keep their current-account balances (either surplus or deficit) within 4 percent of GDP has met with resistance. After all, it assumes governments can and should manage the buying, selling, and investment decisions of hundreds of millions of Americans and billions of people worldwide. But I marvel at how deeply Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai’s tongue must have been planted in cheek when he uttered this rich rejection of Geithner’s idea: “The artificial setting of a numerical target cannot but remind us of the days of a planned economy.” If the shoe fits….

Currency Wars Also Have Unintended Consequences and Collateral Damage

The Fed’s planned purchases of $600 billion of long-term Treasury bonds were targeted for domestic problems, but are having international consequences. The expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet drives down the foreign-exchange value of the U.S. dollar, and (same thing) forces other currencies to appreciate in value.

Emerging markets with high short-term interest rates will attract “hot money” flows. These flows are not stable sources of funding, and disrupt the small capital markets in these countries. Long-term, the appreciation of their currencies harms their competitiveness in global goods’ markets.

Brazil has already imposed capital controls and other emerging markets may follow. The Chinese in particular have reacted sharply.  According to a Reuters dispatch, Xia Bin, adviser to China’s central bank, said another financial crisis is “inevitable.” He added that China will act in its own interests.

In short, the Fed’s actions have undone whatever good came out of the G20 meetings. Any hope for cooperation on currency values and financial stability is out the window. There are potential spillovers in other areas of global cooperation.

Currency wars, like other wars, have unintended consequences and collateral damage.  Some countries will predictably react by imposing capital controls.  Moves to curb imports can follow. Monetary protectionism leads to trade protectionism.

However it might like matters to be, the Fed cannot simply act domestically.  It has reached the useful limits of further easing.