Tag: exports

The Benefit of Free Trade Is Not Exports, It’s Lower Prices on Things We Want

In the news this morning, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–UT), author of the Trade Promotion Authority bill, makes the usual case for trade agreements and TPA:

We need to get this bill passed. We need to pass it for the American workers who want good, high-paying jobs. We need to pass it for our farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs who need access to foreign markets in order to compete. We need to pass it to maintain our standing in the world.

It’s certainly good that the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee supports freer trade. But I fear he’s as confused as most Washingtonians about the actual case for free trade.

This whole “exports and jobs” framework is misguided. Thirty years ago in the Cato Journal, the economist Ronald Krieger explained the difference between the economist’s and the non-economist’s views of trade. The economist believes that “The purpose of economic activity is to enhance the wellbeing of individual consumers and households.” And, therefore, “Imports are the benefit for which exports are the cost.” Imports are the things we want—clothing, televisions, cars, software, ideas—and exports are what we have to trade in order to get them.

And thus, Krieger continues, point by point:

Cheap foreign goods are thus an unambiguous benefit to the importing country.

The objective of foreign trade is therefore to get goods on advantageous terms.

That is why we want free—or at least freer—trade: to remove the impediments that prevent people from finding the best ways to satisfy their wants. Free trade allows us to benefit from the division of labor, specialization, comparative advantage, and economies of scale.

I write about this in The Libertarian Mind (buy it now!):

The Dollar, Oil Prices and Exports: Lessons of Recent History

Business news pages are suddenly full of hand-wringing about how the rising dollar threatens to slash U.S. exports and economic growth.  “The strong dollar is the biggest threat to economic recovery,” warns one reporter.  Others quote White House chief economist Jason Furman saying “the strong dollar is undoubtedly a headwind” for the U.S. economy.

It’s not that simple.

dollar and exports

The graph above compares real U.S. exports with the trade-weighted exchange rate.  The dollar was rising much faster in 1995-2000, when both exports and the economy were growing at an impressive pace.  Exports eventually fell with recession, as always.  But it is much harder to blame the recession on exchange rates than on interest rates – the Fed pushed the fed funds rate 4.7 percentage points above core inflation.   

From 2001 to 2007, the dollar fell and exports rose.  That pattern might appear to justify recent lobbying for a lower dollar were it not for the familiar connection between oil prices and the dollar.  As the dollar fell, the price of West Texas crude soared from $19 a barrel in December 2001 to over $133 in June-July 2008.  Every postwar recession except 1960 was preceded by a spike in oil prices, and the Great Recession turned out to be no exception.

The dollar weakened at the start of this recovery, but related inflation cut average real wages by 1.5% in 2011 and 0.6% in 2012.   As the dollar firmed up, by contrast, real wages rose by 0.7 % in 2013 and 0.8% in 2014.

The recent rise in the dollar has merely brought it back to about where it was in 1998 or 2006, which were not bad years.  The latest exchange rate gyrations are dominated by self-inflicted wounds to the euro and yen, but U.S. exports to the EU are only 1.3% of GDP, and exports to Japan are 0.4% of GDP.

U.S. multinationals have complained about “translation losses” – the fact that profits of subsidiaries in Europe or Japan will be less valuable when translated into dollars.  But that is equally true for earnings of European and Japanese firms too (and for their stock prices when translated into dollars). And multinationals often leave foreign earnings abroad, due to the uniquely foolish U.S. tax if offshore earnings are brought home.  

The weakened euro and yen will raise the cost of living and cost of production for citizens of the afflicted countries (including the price of oil and other commodities).  It is true that such expertly planned impoverishment of such large economies can scarcely benefit the global economy. If other countries want to make their money less trustworthy and less desirable, however, there is not much we can do about that.  

Washington Post Half-Heartedly Seeks Clarity About Export-Import Bank Jobs Claims

It was good of the Washington Post Editorial Board to raise questions yesterday about the veracity of the “jobs-created-by-Export-Import-Bank-policies” claims proffered by the Bank’s supporters. I just wonder whether the editorial pulled its punches where a reporter on assignment or a more inquisitive journalist would have delivered an unabashed blow to the credibility of the Bank’s primary reauthorization argument: that its termination will lead to a reduction in U.S. exports and jobs.

Kudos to the Post for raising an eyebrow at the Bank’s claims of “jobs created” or “jobs supported” by Ex-Im financing:  

[W]hen it comes to jobs, well, just how rigorous are [Ex-Im’s] estimates, really? Congress ordered a study of that very question when it last reauthorized Ex-Im in 2012. In May 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) produced its verdict: Meh.”

“GAO noted that Ex-Im must speak vaguely of “jobs supported,” rather than concretely of jobs created, since its methodology cannot really distinguish between new employment and retained employment. To get a number for “jobs supported,” which includes both a given firm and that firm’s suppliers, Ex-Im multiplies the dollar amount of exports it finances in each industry by a “jobs ratio” (calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Using that approach, Ex-Im estimates an average of 6,390 jobs are “supported” by every billion dollars of exports financed. The Post is right to note the GAO’s conclusion:

These figures do not differentiate between full-time and part-time work and, crucially, provide no information about what might have happened to employment at the firms in question, or others, if the resources marshaled by Ex-Im had flowed elsewhere in the economy.

Damning Trade with Faint Praise

A Washington Post editorial today pushes back against the argument that a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement would exacerbate income inequality. Amen, I suppose. But in making its case, the editorial burns the village to save it by conceding as fact certain destructive myths that undergird broad skepticism about trade and unify its opponents.

“All else being equal,” the editorial reads, “firms move where labor is cheapest.”  Presumably, by “all else being equal,” the editorial board means: if the quality of the factors of production were the same; if skill sets were identical; if workers were endowed with the same capital; if all production locations had equal access to ports and rail; if the proximity of large markets and other nodes in the supply chain were the same; if institutions supporting the rule of law were comparably rigorous or lax; if the risks of asset expropriation were the same; if regulations and taxes were identical; and so on, the final determinant in the production location decision would be the cost of labor. Fair enough. That untestable premise may be correct.

But back in reality, none of those conditions is equal. And what do we see? We see investment flowing (sometimes in the form of “firms mov[ing],” but more often in the form of firms supplementing domestic activities) to rich countries, not poor. In this recent study, I reported statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis revealing that:

Nearly three quarters of the $5.2 trillion stock of U.S.-owned direct investment abroad is concentrated in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Singapore. Contrary to persistent rumors, only 1.3 percent of the value of U.S.-outward FDI [foreign direct investment] was in China at the end of 2011.

Ed Glaeser Makes Lamentably Rare Case for the Freedom to Trade

Support for free trade, especially from politicians, often rests on tired mercantalist arguments about the benefits of exports and jobs. That can backfire, as we’ve seen recently with trade figures showing that the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has widened since the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement came into force. That’s why I’ve argued that relying on rhetoric about all the exports and jobs that free(r) trade will create is a dangerous game: where, might trade skeptics ask, are all those exports you promised us, and why should we support trade liberalization if the results we were promised don’t materialize? So I was thrilled today to see a small post on Bloomberg.com from Harvard economics professor Ed Glaeser calling for the president to make a strong push for a U.S.-EU trade agreement, because of the benefits it would bring U.S. companies and consumers:

He should use his address to make the U.S. a leading voice once again for economic freedom: the freedom of consumers to buy European goods and the freedom of producers to sell their goods on the other side of the Atlantic.

It is gratifying to see a principled case for free trade, resting on a foundation of freedom, in the media. Here’s hoping President Obama read Professor Glaeser’s article, and heeds his advice.

21st Century U.S. Trade Policy Should be Pro-Market, not Pro-Business, Pro-Labor, or Pro-Lobbyist

The difference between the trade policy we have today and the trade policy we should have is like the difference between crony capitalism and free-market capitalism. The sausage grinder that is U.S. trade policy serves politicians and rewards lobbyists and gate-keeper bureaucrats, who have the gall to presume entitlement to limiting Americans’ options and picking winners and losers.

In a country that exalts freedom, the default trade policy should be free trade. But it’s not. Why?

The public has been trained to accept that special interests—companies seeking exemptions from competition; unions demanding that citizens ”Buy American”; investors and intellectual property holders demanding the U.S. public assume part of its business risks; enviros insisting on measures that punish developing countries for being poor—are rightly entitled to negotiate, abridge, impair, or sacrifice those freedoms in the name of Team USA.

So how are we free if decisions about how, with whom, and how much we transact with foreigners are decided by parties in Washington, who profit from denying us that freedom?

Trade policy should be about maximizing the freedom of Americans to choose, and distinctly not about bestowing certain advantages on particular companies, industries, or special interests. Trade policy should be about maximizing opportunities for Americans as consumers, workers, and investors, and not about impeding those opportunities.

In a globalized world where businesses are mobile and, ultimately, untethered to a homeland, what is the point of policymakers going to bat for U.S. producers? Usually, policies adopted to assist particular companies or industries handicap or subvert companies and industries upstream or downstream in the supply chain, or in other sectors. What even defines a U.S. producer anymore? GM builds more vehicles in China than it does in the United States.  Should Washington and Beijing both claim GM as national treasures and craft policy to serve its needs?

No. Policy should be neutral with respect to the goals of particular companies and industries, and designed to attract investment and human capital, and to maximize opportunities for Americans to partake of the global economy. Trade policy should be about ensuring certainty and eliminating policy-induced frictions in supply chains. As I wrote in this article (21st Century Economy Deserves Better Than 16th Century Trade Policies), which expounds upon the thoughts in this post:

This 21st century economic reality demands better than trade policies rooted in 16th century mercantilist dogma. It demands policies that are welcoming of imports and foreign investment, and that minimise regulations or administrative frictions that are based on misconceptions about some vague or ill-defined “national interest”.

Trade Problems May Not Always Call for Trade Answers

The federal system of government in the United States has the invaluable consequence of enabling policy experimentation.  If a state legislature is considering adopting a particular policy, it can often look at the experiences of other states that have tried that policy before.  A recent study from the Milken Institute in California tries to take advantage of such potential comparisons to offer ways that California could increase its dwindling share of U.S. exports.  It is a valiant effort, but California’s decline is not the consequence of inadequate trade policy and no amount of export promotion is going to fix it.

The study begins by comparing California’s decline in export share to the dramatic rise in cross-border trade originating from Texas, the nation’s leader in goods exports. After using Texas’s success as an example of how California is lagging behind, the study decides not to use Texas as a model for reform and instead focuses on other states that have used export promotion (subsidy) agencies as case studies for how California can improve its bureaucracy to reverse the current trend.

If the success of Texas is what California should seek, then why not look at Texas as a model for reform? The study says that Texas is “unique” because it 1) has no export promotion agency, 2) has a low cost of doing business, and 3) has benefited from increased trade with the growing economy of Mexico by virtue of NAFTA-enabled integration. These differences seem to point to clear policy choices: don’t worry about export promotion (easy), improve your state’s business environment, and be close to Mexico (done!).

If it becomes more business-friendly, your state will have more business, export-oriented business included.  Since we’re looking at Texas as a model, may I suggest improving the business environment by lowering taxes and reducing regulation.

Now, I realize that the Overton Window for politically feasible reform proposals in California may not include lowering the cost of doing business. It makes a lot of sense for the authors of the study to point out the root causes of different outcomes in Texas and California but still seek a different solution more palatable to Californian sensibilities. I think their specific proposals for enhancing the capacity and quality of the export promotion process are insightful and well-supported.

There is a larger lesson in all of this for national economic policy. Increasing exports through the National Export Initiative has been a major goal of the Obama Administration’s economic recovery plan, and subsidizing loans through the Export-Import Bank has been a primary tool in that endeavor. But the people of the United States don’t need more bureaucracy to engage in more trade. They need policies that remove artificial barriers and decrease the cost of doing business—international and otherwise.

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