Tag: exports

Is Trade Policy Obsolete?

That is one of the conclusions in my new paper, “Made on Earth: How Global Economic Integration Renders Trade Policy Obsolete.”

For hundreds of years, trade policy has been premised on the assumptions that exports are good, imports are bad, and the interests of domestic producers are tantamount to the “national interest.” Though that mercantilist worldview has never been accurate, its persistence as a pillar of trade policy into the 21st century is especially confounding given the emergence and proliferation of disaggregated production processes, transnational supply chains, and cross-border investment. Those trends have blurred any meaningful distinctions between “our” producers and “their” producers and speak to a long chain of interdependent economic interests between product conception and consumption.

Still, trade policy places the interests of domestic producers above all else even though the definition of a domestic producer is elusive and even though actions on behalf of producers often harm interests along the product continuum, which include engineers, designers, financiers, processors, assemblers, marketers, shippers, retailers, consumers, and others.

In 2008, foreign nameplate automobile producers, employing American workers, paying American taxes, and supporting American businesses, communities, and charities, accounted for almost half of all U.S. light vehicle production. The largest “U.S.” steel producer, Arcelor-Mittal, is a majority-Indian-owned company with headquarters in Luxembourg and Hong Kong. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is completing a $3.7 billion green-field investment in steel production facilities in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 jobs in that state.

So, who are “we”? And who are “they”?

Are these foreign-named or –headquartered companies not “our” producers because some of the profits they earn are repatriated or invested in operations outside the United States? If so, then shouldn’t we consider U.S. Steel Corporation, which earned 25 percent of its revenue last year on steel produced in Slovakia and Serbia, and General Motors, which has had success producing and selling cars in China, to be “their” producers? Why should U.S. Steel, General Motors, and the unions that organize workers at those companies dictate the parameters of U.S. trade policy, while Toyota, Thyssen and their non-union workers have no input? Why should trade policy reflect a bias in favor of producers—or worse, particular producers—at all? That bias hurts other interests—both foreign-based and domestic—in the supply chain.

Global commerce isn’t a competition between “us” and “them.” It is instead a competition between entities that defy national identification because of cross-border investment or because the final good or service comprises value added from many different countries. This reality demands openness in both directions, which flies in the face of conventional trade policy wisdom, which seeks to maximize access for domestic producers abroad while minimizing access for foreign producers at home.

It is only for simplicity’s sake that a container full of iPods shipped from China and unloaded in Seattle registers as imports from China. But the fact is that only a few dollars of the $150 cost to produce an iPod is Chinese value-added. The rest is mostly value attributable to Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese, and American components and labor. Then iPods retail for about $300 and most of the mark-up accrues to Apple, which uses the profits to support innovation and higher paying jobs in the United States.

From a trade policy perspective, each iPod imported from China adds $150 to our bilateral deficit in “high tech” goods. It is regarded as a problem to solve. The temptation is to restrict.

But from a commercial perspective, each imported iPod supports U.S. economic activity up the value chain. Without access to lower-cost labor abroad—if rudimentary component manufacturing and assembly operations were required to take place in the United States—ideas hatched in American labs would be far less likely to make it beyond the white board. Much higher costs would make it far more difficult to create these ubiquitous devices that have, in turn, spawned new ideas and industries.

Essentially, the factory floor has broken through its walls and today spans borders and oceans, making Chinese and American labor complementary in this and many other industries. Yet, despite all of this integration, despite the reliance of producers in the United States and abroad on imported raw materials, components, and capital equipment, trade policy still pretends that access to the domestic market is a favor to grant or a privilege to revoke. Trade policy is officially ignorant of commercial reality.

Openness to trade in both directions is an imperative in the 21st century. Policies that do not try to channel incentives for the benefit of specific groups but rather provide the greatest opportunities for citizens to participate most effectively in our increasingly integrated global economy are the ones that will maximize economic growth and national welfare. People in other countries should be thought of more as customers, suppliers, and potential collaborators instead of competitive threats.

In the 21st century, instead of serving the exclusive interests of domestic producers, trade policy should be about welcoming investment and attracting and cultivating the human capital necessary to make the United States the location of choice for the world’s highest value economic activities.

Ask Consumers if They Like a Weak Dollar

According to a Washington Post story today, “the weak dollar is one problem the United States loves to have.” The story reports how the fall of the dollar against the euro and other currencies in the past year has boosted U.S. exports and discouraged imports, cutting the trade deficit and allegedly boosting the U.S. economy. A weaker dollar has spurred complaints in Europe and elsewhere, but here at home the Post story leaves the impression the approval is practically unanimous.

Nowhere in the 1,058-word story is the impact on consumers ever mentioned. But it is American consumers who pay the biggest price when the dollars we earn buy less on global markets. We are paying more for oil, which not coincidentally has zoomed toward $80 as the dollar flounders. A weaker dollar means higher prices than we would pay otherwise for a range of goods, from imported shoes and clothing to food, that loom large in the budgets of American families struggling to make ends meet in this difficult economy.

Ignoring consumer interests is widespread in reporting about trade. It reflects the strong bias of elected officials to see trade issues strictly through the lens of producers and never consumers. After all, it is producers who form trade groups and hire lobbyists to promote their exports or protect themselves from imports. Nobody in Washington represents the diffused, disorganized but much more numerous 100 million American households.

The dollar’s value should be set by markets, and I have no reason to believe the dollar is over- or undervalued. But pardon me if I dissent from the consensus that a falling dollar is unambiguously good news.

Good News! Recession Cuts Trade Deficit in Half!

The latest U.S. trade numbers were released this morning, and the news reports so far have predictably focused on the fact that the U.S. trade deficit in March expanded modestly compared to February.

The real story behind the numbers, however, is that U.S. imports and exports continue to decline. Compared to the month before, U.S. exports of goods fell another $3.0 billion, while imports fell by $1.6 billion.

If we go back a full year, the drop in trade is staggering. Between March of 2008 and March of 2009, U.S. exports of goods and services fell by 17 percent, and imports fell an even steeper 27 percent. As a result, the goods and services deficit is less than half of what it was a year ago.

Critics of trade such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs are always harping that if we could only reduce our dependence on imports, and along with it the trade deficit, Americans would enjoy higher wages and more plentiful jobs.

Well, we’ve managed in the past year to reduce imports by more than a quarter and cut the trade deficit by more than half. Are we feeling any better?