Tag: exports

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.

Agriculture Is Doing So Well (ergo We Must Subsidize It)

Farmer-friendly members of Congress are such a target-rich environment for ridicule when it comes to poor agriculture policy that it would be a full-time job just blogging about their utterances. So I try to spare you, most of the time. (You’re welcome.) But occasionally a quote passes my desk that is so ridiculous that I just have to share.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a Democrat (not that that matters) from Michican, yesterday made a statement that contains a pretty obvious logical fallacy:

“American agriculture represents a bright spot in our economy,” Chairwoman Stabenow said. “Agricultural exports are reaching record highs and American farmers and ranchers are continuing to outpace the rest of the world in productivity and efficiency. Sixteen million American jobs are supported by American agriculture, so it’s critical we pass the Farm Bill this year. We must provide farmers and small businesses the certainty they need to continue growing and helping the country’s economy recover.” [emphasis mine]

Which of course raises the question: If U.S. agriculture is doing so well, why do we need to subsidize it? To maintain those sixteen million jobs the Senator claims are supported by U.S. agriculture? Please. Research has shown a negative link between farm subsidies and rural development, including jobs creation (more here, including on rural subsidies more broadly). And the money for farm programs is extracted from the productive sector of the economy, at ensuing cost.

In the meantime, a non-subsidized sector of the U.S. farm sector is faring very well indeed. The popcorn industry is booming thanks to sales to Colombia following the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect last month. That hasn’t stopped Nebraska’s senators from asking for hand-outs on behalf of the industry, of course, but the lesson to me seems clear: freer trade, fewer subsidies. [HT: Andy Roth at the Club for Growth]

For more on Cato’s work on agriculture subsidies see here, here, here, here and here. And a whole lot more here.

Is the U.S. Trade Representative a Closet Free Trader?

Not to get him in trouble with his boss, but U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has been sounding like a free trader lately. I’m beginning to think Ambassador Kirk consumes the analyses we produce over here at the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies. Well, let me rephrase: that he consumes the meat of our analyses, but still hides the vegetables under the picked-over potatoes.

Still, that’s pretty commendable for a Washington policymaker.

Just the other day, Ambassador Kirk lamented how policymakers do a poor job selling trade agreements to a skeptical public. Inside U.S. Trade [$] paraphrased Kirk as saying:

[P]oliticians must ‘talk about trade differently’ and demonstrate how trade policy is directly responsible for sustaining economic growth and creating jobs. If the focus is only on how trade deals will improve supply chains for businesses, for instance, that is not enough to build the base for support for trade deals.

That is a sound criticism. The typical, mercantilist arguments that tout the benefits of exports and rationalize imports as necessary evils are foolish and self-defeating—particularly in a country that will run trade deficits into the distant future as its economy continues to grow and attract greater amounts of foreign investment. The freedom to engage in commerce with whom and how one chooses, and the impact of import competition are the real benefits of freer trade.

Like some others in town, we at Cato advocate free trade. But unlike most, we advocate free trade here in the United States—not just over there in foreign countries. Free trade requires more than getting other governments to eliminate their barriers to U.S. exports; it requires getting the U.S. government to eliminate its barriers to U.S. imports from abroad. The latter is the real objective of free trade advocacy and the well-spring of most of its benefits.

But the economic benefits of imports rarely make the Washington “free trade advocate’s” Top-10 list of talking points, nor do they officially register in the minds of trade negotiators, whose chief aims are to secure for their exporters the greatest possible access to foreign markets, while simultaneously conceding to foreigners as little access as possible to the domestic market. “Import” is a four-letter word in the Washington trade policy community.

That’s why Ambassador Kirk’s recent comments have me thinking: epiphany?

In a statement responding to the WTO Appellate Body ruling last week that China’s export restrictions on nine raw materials were not in conformity with that country’s WTO commitments, Ambassador Kirk made the point that U.S. firms that use those raw materials will be better able to compete once those restrictions are lifted.

Today’s decision ensures that core manufacturing industries in this country can get the materials they need to produce and compete on a level playing field.

The USTR had previously made the following point:

These raw material inputs are used to make many processed products in a number of primary manufacturing industries, including steel, aluminum and various chemical industries. These products, in turn become essential components in even more numerous downstream products.

Technically, Ambassador Kirk is not engaging in profanity—he doesn’t use the word import. But his argument against Chinese export restrictions is just as applicable to U.S. import restrictions. Removing restrictions—whether the export variety imposed by foreign governments or the import variety imposed by our own—reduces input prices, lowers domestic production costs, enables more competitive final-goods pricing and, thus, greater profits for U.S.-based producers.

So let’s take Ambassador Kirk’s sound logic and see if it might apply elsewhere in the realm of U.S. trade policy. If the U.S. government thought it worthwhile to take China to the WTO over the restrictions it imposes on raw material exports because those restrictions hurt U.S. producers, then why does the same U.S. government impose its own restrictions on imports of some of the very same raw materials? That’s right. The United States maintains antidumping duties on magnesium, silicon metal, and coke (all raw materials subject to Chinese export restrictions).

If Ambassador Kirk ate the vegetables as well as the meat of Cato’s trade policy analyses, he would recognize that his logic provides a compelling case for antidumping reforms, such as one requiring the administering authorities to consider the economic impact of antidumping measures on producers in downstream industries, such as magnesium-cast automobile parts producers, manufacturers of silicones used in solar panels, and even steel producers, who require coke for their blast furnaces.

We will know that the ambassador has eaten his free-trade vegetables when he starts sounding like former USTR Robert Zoellick who once hoped for the Doha Round of trade negotiations that it would “[T]urn every corner store in America into a duty-free shop.”

More on the Ex-Im Bank

Last week I blogged about Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) proposal to devote $20 billion of the Export-Import Bank’s funds to promoting manufacturing exports, and why that was a bad idea.

But I realize that my recent call to “X Out the Ex-Im Bank” will be facing some very entrenched interests in Washington, and some well-funded lobby groups. The Bank has historically attracted bipartisan support, and a renewal of its charter sailed through the House Committee on Financial Services earlier this year. The Washington establishment loves this program.

My friend and long-time Ex-Im Bank supporter Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics published a critique a few weeks ago of my analysis, and calls for a doubling of Ex-Im’s authorization cap (from $100 billion to $200 billion). His piece is a fair characterization of my arguments, and at least Gary tries to counter them with actual facts and analysis (not always a given in an increasingly poisonous trade policy environment).  But it seems to me that Gary focuses his critique on my assessment of the effectiveness of the Bank. That’s fair enough, of course, but I tried in my paper to make the point that the efficiency or efficacy of the Ex-Im Bank’s activities is kind of irrelevant. The important point, which Gary did not address, is that it is simply not the proper role of the federal government to be in this business at all, even if they can operate “efficiently” (which I do not concede in any case). Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to be involved in the export credit business (a business, by the way, that benefits mainly large, profitable companies)?

My opposition to the Bank, in other words, is at a more fundamental level.  On an empirical level—and this is where Gary’s critique is focused—can markets work well enough in trade finance, and if not, can government intervention work better? Gary points to the Bank’s low default rate as evidence that private markets are missing good opportunities:

These figures suggest that the Ex-Im Bank plays a large role in facilitating exports to countries that encounter reluctance from private banks but nonetheless are not ‘bad risks.” Judging by its low default rate, the Ex-Im Bank’s risk assessment seems more correct than the private market.

But I would argue that its low default rate suggests the Ex-Im Bank’s backing is unnecessary. We don’t know that private credit wasn’t available to finance those exports. And even if it wasn’t, private credit not always being available on terms that the trading partners would like does not necessarily signify market failure. So a finance company missed an opportunity that may have paid out. So what? Maybe they had even better opportunities available to them that we (and bureaucratic Washington) don’t know about, or they simply wanted to hold on to their capital for future investment or to meet new reserve standards. The would-be exporter might miss out, but government intervention to direct that private capital (either through mandates, or siphoning it through the Ex-Im Bank) would come at another producer’s or bank shareholders’ expense.

Gary argues that:

Ex-Im’s capability should be strengthened so that the United States can respond when official finance offered by other countries violates the principles of fair competition…Successful multilateral negotiations…are certainly a superior option to tit-for-tat retaliation…[but]…without sufficient leverage…it is difficult to see what will bring China and India to the negotiating table.

But will China and India (and others) see higher Ex-Im funding as “leverage” to bring them to the table, or will it be seen as just the next step in the escalating arms race of subsidized export credit? I suspect, and fear, the latter.

Gary rejects my call to dismantle the Ex-Im Bank, and in fact suggests the government increase the scope of Ex-Im financing to cover 5 percent (rather than the current 2 percent) of total U.S.exports. That seems pretty arbitrary to me. Why stop at 5 percent? Heck, with the Ex-Im Bank being “self-financing” and all, why not go for 100 percent?

Lastly, Gary repudiates my “orthodox free-market reasoning” and the suggestion, attributed to me, that “… the dollar exchange rate alone determines the volume of U.S. exports or the size of the U.S. trade deficit.”  Exchange rates do not equilibrate to keep trade balances at zero, but to keep them in line with the savings and investment balance. The United States has been running persistent deficits because savings has fallen short of investment for many years.

Similarly, Gary takes issue with my analysis on the net effect of Ex-Im financing on jobs:

 …nor do we agree that free markets are sufficiently self- regulating to ensure a constant and low rate of unemployment…If [that proposition] described the American economy, the United States [unemployment would not be stuck at 9 percent-plus.

Here Gary seems to ignore the many interventions in labor markets that can keep unemployment high, no matter what the exchange rate. I’m certainly not under any illusions that the U.S. economy would be totally free market were it not for the existence of the Ex-Im Bank, and I don’t think my paper implied that, either.

Gary and I, not to mention others who study the Ex-Im Bank, will no doubt continue to debate these issues as the Ex-Im Bank’s charter expiry date comes closer.

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