Tag: currency

Chavez: The Death of A Populist … and His Currency?

Although Hugo Chávez, the socialist presidente of Venezuela, has finally met his maker, the grim reaper is still lingering in Caracas. As it turns out, Chávez was not the only important Venezuelan whose health began to fail in recent weeks: the country’s currency, the Venezuelan bolivar fuerte (VEF) may soon need to be put on life support.

In the past month the bolivar has lost 21.72% percent of its value against the greenback on the black market (read: free market). As the accompanying chart shows, the bolivar has entered what could be a death spiral, which has only accelerated with news of Chávez’s death.

 

Shortly before his death, Chávez’s administration acknowledged that the bolivar was in trouble and devalued the currency by 32%, bringing the official VEF/USD rate to 6.29 (up from 4.29). But, at the official exchange rate, the bolivar is still “overvalued” by 74% versus the free-market exchange rate.

Romney’s Misplaced Obsession with Chinese Currency Manipulation

More than anything else, Mitt Romney’s zealous determination to pin a scarlett “CM” on the Chinese government’s lapel has defined his trade platform.  And that draws an unfavorable contrast for Romney, since President Obama’s repeated decisions not to label China a currency manipulator make him look the more cautious, circumspect, risk-averse business executive that Romney portrays himself to be.

In any event, the currency issue is very much last decade’s battle.  By continuously harping about it, Governor Romney evokes tales of old Japanese soldiers, left behind on South Pacific islands, still fighting WWII well into the 1960s.

As I noted in this piece on Forbes yesterday, if Romney is elected he will  have to renege on this silly commitment (substantively, at least), and change focus:

If Mitt Romney believes in “free trade,” his focus with respect to China should be on correcting that government’s failures to honor all of its commitments to liberalize and on the misguided efforts by U.S. policymakers to thwart legitimate commerce between Chinese exporters and American consumers.

How to Destabilize the Hong Kong Dollar

Mr. Joseph Yam, former chief executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, has proposed a package of policy changes that, if implemented, would undermine and destabilize the Hong Kong dollar—a unit that has been rock solid ever since Hong Kong established its currency board in 1983.  And if you doubt that dire conclusion, reflect on the fact that Argentina blew up its famed convertibility system (OK—it wasn’t a currency board, but only an unusual pegged setup) in 2001 by adopting a series of Yam-like measures.

Understanding the U.S.-China ‘Trade War’

An emerging narrative in 2012 is that a proliferation of protectionist, treaty-violating, or otherwise illiberal Chinese policies is to blame for worsening U.S.-China relations. China trade experts from across the ideological and political spectra have lent credibility to that story.  Business groups that once counseled against U.S. government actions that might be perceived by the Chinese as provocative have relented and changed their tunes.  Use of the term “trade war” is no longer considered taboo.

The media have portrayed the United States as a victim of myriad Chinese provocations, including currency manipulation, dumping, subsidization, intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, discriminatory “indigenous innovation” policies, raw material export bans, industrial espionage, and other ad hoc restrictions on U.S. investment and exports.  Indeed, it is beyond doubt that certain Chinese policies have been provocative, discriminatory, protectionist and, in some cases, violative of the agreed rules of international trade.  But, as usual, the story is more nuanced than its early renditions allow.

U.S. policies, politics, and attitudes have contributed importantly to the atmosphere of rising frictions, as have rabble-rousing politicians and a confrontation-thirsty media.  If the public’s passions are going to be inflamed with talk of a trade war, prudence demands that the war’s nature be properly characterized and its causes identified and accurately described.

Politicians, policymakers, and members of the media should put down their battle bugles and consider that trade wars are never won.  Instead, trade wars claim victims indiscriminately and leave significant damage in their wake.  Even if one concludes that China’s list of offenses is collectively more egregious than the U.S. list of offenses, the most sensible course of action – for the American public, if not campaigning politicians – is for U.S. policymakers to avoid mutually destructive actions and to pursue constructive measures that will reduce frictions with China.

The full paper discussing this topic will be published sometime this week, but feel free to dikenson [at] cato [dot] org">contact me if you would like a preview of its contents.

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.

Calling Out Trade’s Myth Makers

Organized labor’s trade “think tank” in Washington, the Economic Policy Institute, claims that currency manipulation is a major cause of the U.S. trade deficit with China, which (along with other unfair trade practices) accounted for 2.4 million American job losses between 2001 and 2008. EPI has been making similar claims for years, getting lots of media attention for its hyperbole, and providing smoke bombs for charlatan politicians to hurl into the discussion to obscure the public’s understanding of trade.   For starters, as conveyed in this new paper, I am skeptical about the relationship between currency undervaluation and the trade account.

EPI’s methodology (to use the term loosely) is not to be taken seriously, though, because it derives from a simple formula that approximates job gains from export value and job losses from import value, as though there were a straight line correlation between the jobs and trade data. It pretends that there are no jobs created when we import, and that import value is somehow an appropriate measure of job loss.

The flaws of those assumptions are many, but perhaps the easiest one to convey is that most of the value embedded in imports from China is not Chinese. (The ensuing discussion is from a forthcoming Cato paper.)

According to the results from a growing field of research, only about one-third to one-half of the value of U.S. imports from China comes from Chinese labor, material and overhead. Official U.S. import statistics—which pay no heed to the constituent value-added elements—therefore overstate the Chinese value in those imports by 100 to 200 percent, on average. The cited job loss figures are based on import values that are unequivocally overstated because one-half to two-thirds of that value are the costs of material, labor, and overhead added in other countries, including the United States.

What is seldom discussed—because they are often portrayed as victims—is that large numbers of American workers are employed precisely because of imports from China. This is the case because the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy are highly complementary. U.S. factories and workers are more likely to be collaborating with Chinese factories and workers in production of the same goods than they are to be competing directly. The proliferation of vertical integration (whereby the production process is carved up and each function performed where it is most efficient to perform that function) and transnational supply chains has joined higher-value-added U.S. manufacturing, design, and R&D activities with lower-value manufacturing and assembly operations in China. The old factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans oceans and borders.

Though the focus is typically on American workers who are displaced by competition from China, legions of American workers and their factories, offices, and laboratories would be idled without access to complementary Chinese workers in Chinese factories. Without access to lower-cost labor in places like Shenzhen, countless ideas hatched in U.S. laboratories, that became viable commercial products and support hundreds of thousands of jobs in engineering, design, marketing, logistics, retailing, finance, accounting, and manufacturing might never have made it beyond conception because the costs of production would have been deemed prohibitive for mass consumption. Just imagine if all of the components in the Apple iPod had to be manufactured and assembled in the United States. Instead of $150 per unit, the cost of production might be double or triple or quadruple that amount.

Consider how many fewer iPods Apple would have sold, how many fewer jobs iPod production, distribution, and sales would have supported, how much lower Apple’s profits (and those of the entities in its supply chains) would have been, how much lower Apple’s research and development expenditures would have been, how much smaller the markets for music and video downloads, car accessories, jogging accessories, and docking stations would be, how many fewer jobs those industries would support and the lower profits those industries would generate. Now multiply that process by the hundreds of other similarly ubiquitous devices and gadgets, computers and Blu-Rays, and every other product that is designed in the United States and assembled in China from components made in the United States and elsewhere.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows characterizes the complementarity of U.S. and Chinese production sharing as following the shape of a “Smiley Curve” plotted on a chart where the production process from start to finish is measured along the horizontal axis and the value of each stage of production is measured on the vertical axis. U.S. value added comes at the early stages—in branding, product conception, engineering, and design. Chinese value added operations occupy the middle stages—some engineering, some manufacturing and assembly, primarily. And more U.S. value added occurs at the end stages in logistics, retailing, and after market servicing. Under this typical production arrangement, collaboration, not competition, is what links U.S. and Chinese workers.

EPI’s work on this subject provides fodder for sensational stump speeches. But it is also a major disservice to a public that is hungering for truth, and not self-serving advocacy masquerading as truth.

Wednesday Links

  • There has been talk that House Democrats are planning to “deem” the health care bill into law without calling for a vote. If you’re not sure how that process works, read this.
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