Tag: economic growth

Responding to Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein

I seem to have touched a raw nerve with my post earlier today on my International Liberty blog,  comparing Reagan and Obama on how well the economy performed coming out of recession. Both Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman have denounced my analysis (actually, they denounced me approving of Richard Rahn’s analysis, but that’s a trivial detail). Krugman responded by asserting that Reaganomics was irrelevant (I’m not kidding) to what happened in the 1980s. Klein’s response was more substantive, so let’s focus on his argument. He begins by stating that the recent recession and the downturn of the early 1980s were different creatures. My argument was about how strongly the economy rebounded, however, not the length, severity, causes, and characteristics of each recession. But Klein then cites Rogoff and Reinhardt to argue that recoveries from financial crises tend to be less impressive than recoveries from normal recessions.

That’s certainly a fair argument. I haven’t read the Rogoff-Reinhardt book, but their hypothesis seems reasonable, so let’s accept it for purposes of this discussion. Should we therefore grade Obama on a curve? Perhaps, but it’s also true that deep recessions usually are followed by more robust recoveries. And since the recent downturn was more severe than the the one in the early 1980s, shouldn’t we be experiencing some additional growth to offset the tepidness associated with a financial crisis?

I doubt we’ll ever know how to appropriately measure all of these factors, but I don’t think that matters. I suspect Krugman and Klein are not particularly upset about Richard Rahn’s comparisons of recessions and recoveries. The real argument is whether Reagan did the right thing by reducing the burden of government and whether Obama is doing the wrong thing by heading in the opposite direction and making America more like France or Greece. In other words, the fundamental issue is whether we should have big government or small government. I think the Obama Administration, by making government bigger, is repeating many of the mistakes of the Bush Administration. Krugman and Klein almost certainly disagree.

Uncertainty More Than Anecdotal

During a recent CNBC debate on federal spending, I argued that government policies are creating uncertainty in the business community. Businesses are reluctant to invest or hire because they’re concerned that the president’s big government agenda will mean higher taxes and more onerous regulations.

I mentioned that every business owner I’ve spoken with has expressed this concern. In fact, the owner of the TV studio I was in told me that he wants to hire more employees but is afraid he may have to turn around and fire them later on thanks to Washington. My debate opponent dismissed my argument on the basis that “you cannot conduct macroeconomic policy by anecdote.”

Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to support my concern beyond what I’ve heard from folks in the business community. Yesterday, the chairman of the Business Roundtable, which the Washington Post calls “President Obama’s closest ally in the business community,” said that the president and his Democratic allies are creating an “increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation.”

From the article:

Ivan G. Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon Communications, said that Democrats in Washington are pursuing tax increases, policy changes and regulatory actions that together threaten to dampen economic growth and “harm our ability … to grow private-sector jobs in the U.S.”

“In our judgment, we have reached a point where the negative effects of these policies are simply too significant to ignore,” Seidenberg said in a lunchtime speech to the Economic Club of Washington. “By reaching into virtually every sector of economic life, government is injecting uncertainty into the marketplace and making it harder to raise capital and create new businesses.”

Big businesses aren’t the only ones complaining. Surveys of small businesses conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business continue to point to government taxes and regulations as their single biggest obstacle.

Even the Washington Post’s editorial page is now acknowledging that government-induced uncertainty is an issue:

But as analysts ponder the mystery of weak private-sector hiring despite signs of economic growth, it’s worth asking what role is played by government-induced uncertainty. With the federal government promoting major changes in health care, financial regulation and energy law, it wouldn’t be surprising if some companies are more inclined to wait and see than they might otherwise be. And that’s especially true when they look at looming American indebtedness and the effect that could have on long-term interest rates.

The uncertainty caused by expanding government that we are facing today isn’t a new phenomenon. Economist Robert Higgs coined the phrase “regime uncertainty” in a study that showed that FDR’s anti-business policies prolonged the Great Depression. Had the Roosevelt administration heeded the “anecdotes” from the business community in the 1930s, perhaps the country could have been spared some pain. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself.

Two Cheers for the U.S. Economy

Two articles in today’s Wall Street Journal deal with the housing sector.  They complement each other. Journal reporters note that “Industry Speeds Recovery, And Housing Slows It Down.”  The story notes that that “ground-breaking for new homes and applications for building permits both plunged last month.”  Meanwhile, U.S. industrial output showed strong growth in May.

Bravo for both numbers, which are inter-related.  The headline (over which reporters have no control) reflects conceptual confusion.  U.S. industrial production is strong at least in part because construction of new homes is weak.   The bloated home sector is no longer absorbing a disproportionate share of economic resources.  The new homeowners tax credit has mercifully expired, ending that bit of misguided stimulus.

David Wessel’s article, “Rethinking Home Ownership,” further clarifies the reallocation of resources taking place in the U.S. economy.  Beginning in the 1990s, the federal government adopted a number of policies to stimulate home ownership.  As Wessel makes clear, it was a bipartisan effort.  Home ownership rates rose from around 65% to a peak of 69.4% in 2004.  It was an unsustainable policy, a true asset bubble.

Home ownership rates have now fallen back to where they began, or even below.  The experience of the 1990s and early 2000s in housing demonstrates why government stimulus is not a permanent source of demand, nor the path to sustainable economic growth. Lest we forget, the folly of these programs is measured not just in housing numbers, but in shattered dreams and hopes and ruined lives. And the terrible financial crisis to which these programs contributed

Prof. Krugman Is Wrong, Again

Prof. Paul Krugman asserts in his New York Times column of May 31st that “Both textbook economics and experience say that slashing spending when you’re still suffering from high unemployment is a really bad idea – not only does it deepen the slump, but it does little to improve the budget outlook, because much of what governments save by spending less they lose as a weaker economy depresses tax receipts.”

While Prof. Krugman and most other fiscalists believe this to be self-evident, it is not.  Indeed, this fiscalist dogma fails to withstand the indignity of empirical verification.  Prof. Paul Krugman’s formulation fails to mention the state of confidence.  This is an important oversight.  As Keynes himself put it: “The state of confidence, as they term it, is a matter to which practical men pay the closest and most anxious attention.”

By ignoring the confidence factor, economic theory can lead to wildly incorrect conclusions and misguided policies.  Just consider naive Keynesian fiscal theory – the type presented (as Prof. Krugman notes) in textbooks and embraced by most policymakers and the general public.  According to Keynesian theory, an expansionary fiscal policy (an increase in government spending and/or a decrease in taxes) stimulates the economy, at least for a year or two after the fiscal stimulus.  To put the brakes on the economy, Keynesians counsel a fiscal contraction.

A positive fiscal multiplier is the keystone for Keynesian fiscal theory because it is through the multiplier that changes in the budget balance are transmitted to the economy.  With a positive multiplier, there is a positive relationship between changes in the fiscal deficit and economic growth: larger deficits stimulate growth and smaller ones slow things down.

So much for theory.  What about the real world?  Suppose a country has a very large budget deficit.  As a result, market participants might be worried that a further loosening of fiscal conditions would result in more inflation, higher risk premiums and much higher interest rates.  In such a situation, the fiscal multipliers may be negative.  Fiscal expansion would then dampen economic activity and a fiscal contraction would increase economic activity.  These results would be just the opposite of those predicted by naive Keynesian fiscal theory.

The possibility of a negative fiscal multiplier rests on the central role played by confidence and expectations about the course of future policy.  If, for example, a country with a very large budget deficit and high level of debt (estimated U.S. deficit and debt levels as a percentage of GDP for 2010 are 10.3% and 63.2%, respectively) makes a credible commitment to significantly reduce the deficit, a confidence shock will ensue and the economy will boom, as inflation expectations, risk premiums and long-term interest rates decline.

There have been many cases in which negative fiscal multipliers have been observed.  The Danish fiscal squeeze of 1983-86 and the Irish stabilization of 1987-89 are notable.  The fiscal deficits that preceded the Danish and Irish fiscal squeezes were clearly unsustainable, and risk premiums and interest rates were extremely high.  Confidence shocks accompanied the fiscal squeezes, and with negative multipliers in play, the Danish and Irish economies took off.  (Evidence from the U.S. is presented in an article by Professors Jason E. Taylor and Richard K. Vedder which appears in the current May/June 2010 issue of the Cato Policy Report.)

Margaret Thatcher also made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze.  To restart the economy in 1981, Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy.  Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists.  In a letter to the Times of London, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian (Prof. Krugman-type) response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”  Thatcher was quickly vindicated.  No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures than the economy boomed.  People had confidence in Britain again, and Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep free-market reforms.

While Prof. Krugman’s authority is weighty, his arguments and evidence are slender.

U.S. Antidumping Regime Restrains U.S. Export Growth

In honor of World Trade Week—and for its decreed purpose of educating Americans about trade—this post is about U.S. trade policy working at cross-purposes with other policies or goals of the administration. So numerous are these examples of trade policy dissonance, that a committed wonk could devote an entire website to the task of documenting them.

If the administration were serious about making trade policy work—rather than just paying it lip service—it would compile its own exhaustive list of laws, regulations, policies, and practices that actually undermine its stated objectives of facilitating economic growth, investment, and job creation through expanded trade opportunities. Then, it would make the changes necessary to ensure that our policies are paddling in the same direction. But that is not happening—at least as far as I can see.

At the beginning of the year, President Obama announced his goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years. He even formalized the goal by granting it an official name—the National Export Initiative. Well, I see no imminent harm in setting the ambitious goal of reaching $3 billion in exports by 2015 (although I am wary of the tactics under consideration and the evocation of Soviet Five-Year Plans). But it betrays a lack of true commitment to that goal when nothing is being done to reduce the competitive burdens imposed on U.S. exporters by our own myopic, anachronistic trade remedies regime. The president exhorts U.S. exporters to win a global race, yet he overlooks the fact that Congress has tied many of their shoes together.

The costs of the U.S. Antidumping and Countervailing Duty laws on U.S. exporters are manifest in various forms, but this post concerns the burdens imposed on U.S. producer/exporters who rely on the raw materials and other industrial inputs that are subject to AD and CVD measures. Indeed, most of the products subject to the 300 U.S. AD and CVD orders currently in effect (like steel and chemicals) are, in fact, inputs to downstream U.S. producers, many of whom compete (or try to compete) in foreign markets. (Just take a look at this list and decide for yourself whether these are products that you’d buy at the store or if they are inputs a U.S. producer would use to produce something else that you might buy at a store.)

AD and CVD duties squeeze these U.S. producer/exporters’ profits, first by raising their input costs and then by depriving them of revenues lost to foreign competitors, who, by producing outside of the United States, have access to that crucial input at lower world-market prices, and can themselves price more competitively. This is not hypothetical. It is a routine hindrance for U.S. exporters. And one that has eluded the president’s attention, despite his soaring rhetoric about the economic importance of U.S. exports.

Consider the case of Spartan Light Metal Products, a small Midwestern producer of aluminum and magnesium engine parts (and other mechanical parts), which presented its story to Obama administration officials, who were dispatched across the country earlier this year to get input from manufacturers about the problems they confronted in export markets.

Beginning in the early-1990s, Spartan shifted its emphasis from aluminum to magnesium die-cast production because magnesium is much lighter and more durable than aluminum, and Spartan’s biggest customers, including Ford, GM, Honda, Mazda, and Toyota were looking to reduce the weight of their vehicles to improve fuel efficiency. Among other products, Spartan produced magnesium intake manifolds for Honda V-6 engines; transmission end and pump covers for GM engines; and oil pans for all of Toyota’s V-8 truck and SUV engines.

Spartan was also exporting various magnesium-cast parts (engine valve covers, cam covers, wheel armatures, console brackets, etc.) to Canada, Mexico, Germany, Spain, France, and Japan. Global demand for magnesium components was on the rise.

But then all of a sudden, in February 2004, an antidumping petition against imports of magnesium from China and Russia was filed by the U.S. industry, which comprised just one producer, U.S. Magnesium Corp. of Utah with about 370 employees. Prices of magnesium alloy rose from slightly more than $1 per pound in February 2004 to about $1.50 per pound one year later, when the U.S. International Trade Commission issued its final determination in the antidumping investigation. By mid-2008, with a dramatic reduction of Chinese and Russian magnesium in the U.S. market, the U.S. price rose to $3.25 per pound (before dropping in 2009 on account of the economic recession).

By January 2010, the U.S. price was $2.30 per pound, while the average price for Spartan’s NAFTA competitors was $1.54. Meanwhile, European magnesium die-casters were paying $1.49 per pound and Chinese competitors were paying $1.36 per pound. According to Spartan’s presentation to Obama administration officials, magnesium accounts for about 40-60% of the total product cost in its industry. Thus, the price differential caused by the antidumping order bestowed a cost advantage of 19 percent on Chinese competitors, 17 percent on European competitors, and 16 percent on NAFTA competitors.

As sure as water runs downhill, several of Spartan’s U.S. competitors went out of business due to their inability to secure magnesium at competitive prices. According to the North American Die Casting Association, the downstream industry lost more than 1,675 manufacturing jobs–more than five-times the number of jobs that even exist in the entire magnesium producing industry!

Spartan’s  outlook is bleak, unless it can access magnesium at world market prices. Its customers have turned to imported magnesium die cast parts or have outsourced their own production to locations where they have access to competitively-priced magnesium parts, or they’ve switched to heavier cast materials, sacrificing ergonomics and fuel efficiency in the face of rapidly-approaching, federally-mandated 35.5 mile per gallon fuel efficiency standards.

And to add insult to injury, the Obama administration recently launched a WTO case against China for its restraints on exports of raw materials, including magnesium. Allegedly, since January 2008, the Chinese government has been imposing a 10 percent tax on magnesium exports. How dissonant, how incongruous, how absolutely imbecilic it is that, in the face of China’s own restraints on its exports (which the U.S. government officially opposes), the U.S. antidumping order against imported magnesium from China persists!  How stupid.  How short-sighted.

Spartan’s is not an isolated incident. Routinely, the U.S. antidumping law is more punitive toward U.S. manufacturers than it is to the presumed foreign targets. Routinely, U.S. producers of upstream products respond to their customers’ needs for better pricing, not by becoming more efficient or cooperative, but by working to cripple their access to foreign supplies. More and more frequently, that is how and why the antidumping law is used in the United States. Increasingly, it is a weapon used by American producers against their customers—other American producers, many of whom are exporters.

If President Obama really wants to see exports double, he must implore Congress to change the antidumping law to explicitly give standing to downstream industries so that their interests can be considered in trade remedies cases. He must implore Congress to include a public interest provision requiring the U.S. International Trade Commission to assess the costs of any duties on downstream industries and on the broader economy before imposing any such duties.

The imperative of U.S. export growth demands some degree of sanity be restored to our business-crippling trade remedies regime.

Beware of Americans Proselytizing the Chinese Economic Model

In a Cato paper released earlier this month, I argued that the glacial pace of America’s economic recovery and its growing public debt juxtaposed against China’s almost uninterrupted double-digit annual economic growth and its role as Congress’s sugar daddy have bred insecurity among U.S. opinion leaders, many of whom now advocate a more strident approach to China, or emulation of its top-down approach.

I cite, among others, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who is enamored of autocracy’s capacity to facilitate China’s singularity of purpose to dominate the industries of the future:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Friedman’s theme—but less googoo eyed and more all-hands-on-deck!—is echoed in an op-ed by China-expert James McGregor, which ran in yesterday’s Washington Post.  McGregor conveys what he describes as an emerging sentiment within the U.S. business community in China.  That is: the Chinese government is hell bent on creating national economic champions; is using its increasing leverage (as global financier and fastest-growing market) to impose its own interpretations of the global rules of economic engagement in support of its comprehensive industrial policy, and, ultimately; the United States must wake up and rise to the challenge by crafting some top-down industrial policy of its own.

I don’t dispute some of McGregor’s premises.  China’s long process of market liberalization has slowed down, halted, and even reversed in some areas.  Policies are proliferating that favor local companies (particularly state-owned enterprises), hamper the operations of foreign-owned firms, and impede market access for imports.  Indeed, many of these policies are likely the product of industrial planning. 

But McGregor’s conclusion is extreme:

The time has come for a White House-led, public-private, comprehensive examination of American competitiveness against a clear-eyed view of China’s very smart and comprehensive industrial development policies and plans…What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation? How do we retool the U.S. government’s inadequate and outdated trade bureaucracy to provide thoughtful strategic focus and interagency coordination? How do we overcome the fundamental disconnect between our system of scattered bureaucratic responsibilities and almost no national economic planning vs. China’s top-down, disciplined and aggressive national economic development planning machine?

Central planning may be more en vogue in Washington than usual nowadays, but to even come close to reaching his conclusion requires disregarding many facts, which is how McGregor gets there sans tongue in cheek.

First, in an effort to preempt any suggestion that China’s protectionism is nothing exceptional and can be remedied through the World Trade Organization and other channels, McGregor offers this blanket statement: “Chinese policymakers are masters of creative initiatives that slide through the loopholes of WTO and other international trade rules.”  I realize that op-ed writing forces one to economize on words, but that statement, which serves as McGregor’s springboard to socialism, cannot suffice for an analysis of the facts.  One of those facts is that the United States has been successful in compelling changes in China’s protectionist practices in all of the formal WTO disputes it has lodged that have been resolved thus far (6 of 8 formal cases have been resolved).  If China violates the agreed rules of trade, and its actions impair benefits or impose costs on U.S. interests that are too large to ignore, pursuing a WTO case is a legitimate and proven channel of resolution. Chinese protectionism can be addressed without the radical changes McGregor counsels. 

But I think McGregor—sharing the tactics of other in the media and politics—exploits public angst over a rising China to promote his idea as the obvious and only solution to what he sells as a rapidly-metastasizing problem.  McGregor argues that China is aiming to create national champions through subsidies and other preferential policies, while charging foreign companies admission to its market in the form of technology transfer, joint-venturing requirements, and local content rules.  McGregor claims, that this appropriation of foreign technology will be used to “create Chinese ‘indigenous innovations’ that will come back at us globally.”  Ultimately, McGregor fears that “American technology companies could be coerced to plant the seeds of their destruction in the fertile China market.”

It is telling that McGregor doesn’t consider U.S. government expropriation of those companies’ technology assets as planting the seeds of their own destruction.  Indeed, it is nothing short of expropriation when technology that is owned by individual companies in the private sector, making unique decisions to improve their own bottom-lines on behalf of their own shareholders is suddenly subject to the questions McGregor wants answered: What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?  Those questions, let alone the answers, imply that the U.S. government should have at least de facto ownership and control over these privately-held technology assets.

What is wrong with allowing each of these companies to decide for themselves whether they want to license or transfer some of their technology to Chinese companies, as the price of doing business in China?  Some will, some won’t, but the presupposition that those who do are selling the golden goose is not based on fact.  Let companies decide for themselves how to use their resources, and don’t treat industry as a monolith, as in “What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?” 

Had we tried to answer and implement the answer to that question in the face the Japanese “threat” two decade ago, we’d be bereft of some of the most ingenious technological breakthroughs and the hundreds of industries and thousands of products that “our system of almost no national economic planning” has yielded.

When we peel away the chicken-little rhetoric, when we dispense with neo-Rahm Emanualism (“Never manufacture a good crisis and then let it go to waste”), when cooler heads and analytical minds prevail, the economic question boils down to this: What has been more successful at creating growth, central planning or decentralized dynamism?  For both China and the United States, it has been the latter. 

My bet is that China’s re-embrace of greater central planning will be brief, as it wastes resources, yields few -if any- national champions, and limits innovation.  For similar reasons, U.S. opinion leaders will eschew central planning, as well.

Thursday Links

  • A few things you might not know about rail travel: “Automobiles in intercity travel are as energy efficient as Amtrak. Cars are getting more energy efficient, while boosting Amtrak trains to higher speeds will make them less energy efficient.” The list goes on…
  • Quiz Time! Which was the only country in the 27-nation European Union to register economic growth without going through a recession last year? The answer might surprise you.