Tag: China

Mega-Consumers against Consumerism

Adjacent articles in the latest New Yorker deplore “consumerism” among the American revolutionaries and the modern Chinese. You wonder how a magazine so concerned about manifestations of consumer desire would support itself. Surely it struggles along on a shoestring, preaching the message of austerity and simplicity to sincere but poor readers. In fact, however, these laments about consumerism in societies vastly poorer than our own are sandwiched between lush full-page advertisements for Chanel watches, Samsung home entertainment centers, single malt Scotch, Grey Goose vodka, Cristal champagne, David Yurman jewelry, German automobiles, and Norwegian Cruise Lines. The articles themselves appear on pages lined with small, elegant ads for Jay-Z’s book-ebook-app, tours of Wales, monogram rings, Aeron chairs, European berets, cashmere caps, and a remarkable number of expensive psychiatric facilities, perhaps specializing in the treatment of cognitive dissonance.

If Only the USTR Were This Enthusiastic about Liberalizing Trade

There was really never any doubt that the United States would prevail in the dispute brought by China to the World Trade Organization over President Obama’s decision last year to levy duties on tire imports from China. The WTO verdict, revealed yesterday, simply affirms that the administration acted in accordance with U.S. WTO commitments—and leaves to others, such as myself, to conclude that the duties were a highly political act perpetrated with utter contempt for the significant economic and diplomatic costs of those actions.

Thus, “prevailing” in the WTO case should not be considered a source of universal joy for all Americans or even most Americans, as one might infer from the reaction of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who jubilantly proclaimed, “This is a major victory for the United States and particularly for American workers and businesses.” Really, Ambassador Kirk? Tell that to the American workers and businesses involved in importing, trucking, wholesaling, retailing, and installing those Chinese-made tires. Tell it to the American workers and businesses who also happen to be U.S. tire consumers and are now lighter in their wallets or dangerously riding on worn treads as a result of the duties. Feel free to ask the workers and businesses in the U.S. poultry and auto parts industries—against whom the Chinese imposed antidumping duties immediately after the tire tariffs took effect—how they feel about having “prevailed.”

In fairness to Ambassador Kirk, in addition to working to open markets abroad, the USTR’s office is tasked with prosecuting challenges of our trade partners’ allegedly non-compliant policies and actions, as well as defending challenges to allegedly non-compliant U.S. policies and actions at the WTO. In that regard, warding off a challenge from China of the U.S. Section 421 law constitutes, arguably, a victory for the USTR’s office. But to be clear, Section 421 is a blatantly protectionist law that serves, at best, a sliver of the U.S. population slightly broader than the U.S. Congress.

As part of its WTO accession agreement in 2001, China agreed to allow the United States and other WTO members to treat it differently—indeed, discriminatorily—on several matters for a number of years after it joined the WTO. The China-Specific Safeguard mechanism (known legally as Section 421 of the Trade Act of 1974 and under which the tire tariffs were implemented in September 2009) authorizes the United States to impose duties if there is a surge in imports from China that is causing or threatening market disruption in the United States. Market disruption exists “whenever imports of an article like of directly competitive with an article produced by a domestic industry are increasing rapidly, either absolutely or relatively, so as to be a significant cause of material injury, or threat of material injury, to the domestic industry.” In other words, if U.S. industry is suffering the effects of normal competition—that is, if it must compete against more capable or more efficient foreign competitors—then the firms or workers in the U.S. industry can petition the U.S. government to raise those competitors’ prices through the imposition of trade restraints.

It is also important to appreciate what Section 421 is not. Contrary to the rhetoric of too many politicians, trade lawyers, and union bosses, 421 is not an “unfair trade” statute. Unlike the antidumping and countervailing duty laws, a Section 421 case does not include allegations of prices at less than fair value or prices that benefit from countervailable government subsidies. The evidentiary threshold is much lower. All that is alleged-and all that has to be established-in a 421 petition is that imports from China are increasing in such a manner as to be a cause of market disruption (or threat thereof) to the domestic industry.

Section 421 is not intended to remedy any wrongdoing on the part of Chinese exporters, but is intended rather to give U.S. producers the opportunity to holler “time out!” as they catch their breath, assess prospects, and attempt to adjust to a new level of competition. Of course there are huge costs to this kind of intervention in the marketplace, thus the president is granted discretion, under the law, to deny relief if he determines that the costs to the broader economy clearly exceed any benefits to the petitioning industry. While such discretion provides some comfort that the law’s relaxed evidentiary standards won’t be routinely abused by domestic interests seeking to stifle competition, there are no guarantees that the president’s discretion will be based exclusively on considerations of the national economic interest. If there were, it would be nearly impossible to conjure a scenario in which the concentrated, temporary benefits to a specific industry receiving protection were not overwhelmed by the costs of that protection on the broader economy. Political considerations always influence decisions that lead to protection.

Yesterday’s WTO decision was arguably a victory for the rule of law in international trade—but also a reminder that politicians write the rules of trade, including some that are so antithetical to its purpose. I would be willing to cut Ambassador Kirk more slack for his jubilation if he were to find religion on the WTO and abide the rulings–such as on zeroing, gambling, and cotton subsidies–that his (and his predecessors’) office has lost.

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.