Tag: gm

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”.

Mitt Romney’s Contrived Trade War

The Obama administration filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization on Monday alleging that the Chinese government is bestowing various prohibited subsidies upon Chinese automobile and auto parts producers to the tune of $1 billion and that Beijing is, accordingly, in violation of its commitments under the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures.

There are reasons to shake one’s head at this move, including the apparent hypocrisy it reveals of an administration that spins the $85 billion of subsidies it heaped upon two U.S. car companies and the United Autoworkers union as its chief economic accomplishment. Of course that figure doesn’t even include the $12-$14 billion in unorthodox tax breaks granted to GM under the bankruptcy terms; $17 billion in funds committed from the TARP to GM’s former financial arm GMAC (which received taxpayer support to facilitate GM auto sales); GM’s portion of the $25 billion Energy Department slush fund to underwrite research and development in green auto technology; and the $7,500 tax credit granted for every new purchase of a Chevy Volt, and more. (Full story here.)

To complain about $1 billion of Chinese subsidies is – shall we say – a bit rich.

Moreover, the filing of the WTO case reveals some of the unseemly perquisites of incumbency. A large concentration of the beneficiaries of the GM bailout resides in Ohio, a state that has had the administration’s strategic attention since its reelection campaign began in November 2008. But in case that largesse wasn’t enough to secure their support in November 2012, a large concentration of the beneficiaries of a successful U.S. WTO complaint also resides in Ohio, which is where – by Jove – the president was speaking when word of the WTO complaint became public.

It is all exasperating, no doubt.

But the bigger and more disconcerting story in all of this is the apparent ascendancy of economic nationalism within the GOP. Romney’s persistence in trying to brand himself the “most protectionist” or “biggest China basher” in the presidential race sort of forced Obama to bring the WTO case – or at least expedited the timetable. Have you seen the Romney ads? Have you read the shrill RNC taunts that cite the widely-discredited, union-funded Economic Policy Institute’s figures on job losses caused by trade with China? Strange bedfellows, indeed!

It was once the case – not too long ago – that Republican candidates argued in support of trade and the freedom of Americans to partake of the opportunities afforded by the global economy. But things, apparently, have changed. The nationalistic strains within the Republican Party have strengthened since 2009. I explained why this was happening in this 2010 Cato paper, which is excerpted below:

Frictions in the U.S.-China relationship are nothing new, but they have intensified in recent months. Tensions that were managed adeptly in the past are multiplying, and the tenor of official dialogue and public discourse has become more strident. Lately, the media have spilled lots of ink over the proposition that China has thrived at U.S. expense for too long, and that China’s growing assertiveness signals an urgent need for aggressive U.S. policy changes. Once-respected demarcations between geopolitical and economic aspects of the relationship have been blurred. In fact, economic frictions are now more likely to be cast in the context of our geopolitical differences, which often serves to overstate the challenges and obscure the solutions.

A sign of the times is a recent commentary by Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, in which he declares: “China’s worldview threatens America’s geopolitical and economic interests.” That statement would seem to support a course of action very different from the course implied by the same columnist 18 months earlier, when he wrote, “Globalization means interdependence; major nations ignore that at their peril.” That change of heart appears to be contagious.

Understandably, there is angst among the U.S. public, who hear frequently that China will soon surpass the United States in one economic superlative after another. Some worry that China’s rise will impair America’s capacity to fulfill or pursue its traditional geopolitical objectives. And those concerns are magnified by a media that cannot resist tempting the impulses of U.S. nationalism. Woven into stories about China’s frantic pace of development are reminders that the Chinese have not forgotten their two-century slumber—a period of humiliation and exploitation by foreign powers.

A recent National Journal cover story describing areas of bilateral policy contention—which the article laments as “frustrating” the fact that U.S. experts see “few alternatives to continued engagement” —features three menacing photographs of Chinese military formations, one picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il flanked by members of the Chinese military, and one photo of the Chinese foreign minister shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Subtly, and sometimes not, the media and politicians are brandishing the image of an adversarial China. In Chinese reluctance to oblige U.S. policy wishes, we are told that China selfishly follows a “China-First” policy. In the increasing willingness of Chinese officials to criticize U.S. policies, we are told of a new “triumphalism” in China. In the reportedly shabby treatment of President Obama by his Chinese hosts on his recent trip to Beijing, we are told that the “Chinese have an innate sense of superiority.” But indignation among media and politicians over China’s aversion to saying “How high?” when the U.S. government says “Jump!” is not a persuasive argument for a more provocative posture.

China is a sovereign nation. Its government, like the U.S. government, pursues policies that it believes to be in its own interests (although those policies—with respect to both governments—are not always in the best interests of their people). Realists understand that objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous. Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft. These tactics must continue to underpin a U.S. policy of engagement with China.

In this campaign, the RNC seems to be fighting to position itself to the protectionist side of Obama, daring the president to take action – a dare the president has accepted, inflating his political credit in places like Ohio. In response to Governor Romney’s assertion that the president had been soft on China and that he, Romney, would label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, Obama created the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center, which resonated politically with the target audience. While the challenger blathers about the president’s alleged fecklessness in dealing with China, the president responds by bringing new WTO cases against Beijing. The most recent complaint, relative to the strident tack Mitt Romney is advocating, is the more responsible, more pro-market course of action. If Romney is to be believed, his trade actions would have far worse consequences for the economy.

Instead of focusing on the real sources of economic stagnation in the United States – including the uncertain business climate inspired by the bailouts, the proliferation of costly and superfluous new environmental, health, and financial regulations, a tax code that is in constant flux, frivolous torts, an education monopoly that fails to produce enough talent backstopped by an immigration system that chases it away – Mitt Romney has chosen to blame America’s woes on China. THAT is the message the Republican presidential candidate, with the full backing of the RNC, brings to the voters in Ohio, whose fortunes are increasingly tied to America’s engagement in the global economy. As of July, Ohio’s unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, more than one full percentage point lower than the U.S. rate of 8.3%. Ohio’s economy is growing on account of trade – particularly with China, the state’s third largest market and destination of $2.7 billion worth of Ohio’s output in 2011. Just look at this bar chart that depicts the importance of China to Ohio, and conversely, the costs of a real bilateral trade war.

Governor Romney should ditch his trade warrior schtick pronto, and start explaining to the electorate how pro-trade policies – including the freedom of corporations to invest abroad (to offshore a la Bain Capital)– help enlarge the economic pie. Puffing out the chest to appear the biggest protectionist in the race is bad economics and bad politics.

Details of the Auto Bailout You Won’t Hear in Charlotte

The central economic selling point of the Obama reelection team is that the president saved the U.S. auto industry. That such a contestable proposition serves as the administration’s economic headline does more to underscore its abysmal record than to inspire confidence in its continued economic stewardship.

The administration didn’t save the auto industry. The stronger case is that it damaged the auto industry along with several important institutions vital to capitalism’s proper functioning. However, it should be granted that President Obama’s commandeering of GM’s and Chrysler’s bankruptcy process saved jobs at those companies and elsewhere in their supply chains (and provided an opportunity to dole out spoils for politically favored interests). How many jobs were saved is impossible to determine because it’s not clear what would have happened to GM’s and Chrysler’s assets had a normal, non-political bankruptcy process been allowed to unfold.

Yes, jobs were saved for the time being in Michigan, Ohio, and a few other industrial states in the Midwest. That is what can be seen. And politicians are hardwired to tout the benefits—and only the benefits—of their policies.

But an informed citizenry should insist on a proper accounting of the costs of those policies, as well—not just the losses put on the taxpayers’ tab (right now taxpayers’ “investment” in GM is $27 billion, but the public’s 500 million shares of GM stock is worth only $10 billion), but the unseen costs.

Sure some jobs were preserved in some locations, but what about the less visible consequences and ripple effects? What isn’t so easily seen, but is every bit as important to assessing the auto interventions is the effects on the other auto companies and their workers (i.e., the majority of the U.S. auto industry). Will the public remember or know enough to attribute layoffs of American workers at Ford or Toyota or Kia during the next downturn in auto demand to the fact that a necessary reckoning on the supply side was precluded by the interventions of 2009?

The auto industry is plagued with overcapacity, which is a problem that demands a thinning of the herd. GM and Chrysler, through their own relatively poor decisions with respect to labor relations, product offerings, and quality management were failing by the market’s judgment and were the rightful candidates to be thinned. But that process was forestalled. In 2013, auto workers in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Indiana, and even Michigan and Ohio may lose their jobs because GM and Chrysler workers’ jobs were spared in 2009.

That is only one of the many unseen or under-rug-swept costs of the auto bailouts. The following passage from congressional testimony I gave last year identifies several others:

It is galling to hear administration officials characterize the auto bailouts as “successful.” The word should be off-limits when describing this unfortunate chapter in U.S. economic history. At most, bailout proponents and apologists might respectfully argue — and still be wrong, however — that the bailouts were necessary evils undertaken to avert greater calamity.

But calling the bailouts “successful” is to whitewash the diversion of funds from the Troubled Assets Relief Program by two administrations for purposes unauthorized by Congress; the looting and redistribution of claims against GM’s and Chrysler’s assets from shareholders and debt-holders to pensioners; the use of questionable tactics to bully stakeholders into accepting terms to facilitate politically desirable outcomes; the unprecedented encroachment by the executive branch into the finest details of the bankruptcy process to orchestrate what bankruptcy law experts describe as “Sham” sales of Old Chrysler to New Chrysler and Old GM to New GM; the costs of denying Ford and the other more deserving automakers the spoils of competition; the costs of insulating irresponsible actors, such as the United Autoworkers, from the outcomes of an apolitical bankruptcy proceeding; the diminution of U.S. moral authority to counsel foreign governments against similar market interventions; and the lingering uncertainty about the direction of policy under the current administration that pervades the business environment to this very day.

In addition to the above, there is the fact that taxpayers are still short tens of billions of dollars on account of the GM bailout without serious prospects for ever being made whole. Thus, acceptance of the administration’s pronouncement of auto bailout success demands profound gullibility or willful ignorance. Sure, GM has experienced recent profits and Chrysler has repaid much of its debt to the Treasury. But if proper judgment is to be passed, then all of the bailout’s costs and benefits must be considered. Otherwise, calling the bailout a success is like applauding the recovery of a drunken driver after an accident, while ignoring the condition of the family he severely maimed.

Here is the entirety of that testimony, and few other articles, op-eds, and blog posts on the topic.

Let’s Divest of GM Yesterday

Writing in today’s Washington Post, Charles Lane posits that the time is now for the U.S. Treasury to divest of its remaining 500 million shares of General Motors stock.  I agree with that conclusion, but not with Lane’s rationale or his recommendation for a heavy-handed, government-imposed exit strategy.

Just to recap: the Treasury recouped $23 billion of taxpayers’ $50 billion outlay when it sold GM shares to the public in an IPO in November 2010; the outstanding 500 million shares in government coffers must be sold at an average price of $54 to recover the remaining $27 billion; the IPO price was $33; today’s price is $21.69.  If all 500 million shares could be sold at today’s price, the Treasury would raise $10.8 billion, leaving taxpayers at a loss of just over $16 billion. (Of course, the sale of such a large number of shares would drive the average selling price way below today’s price, resulting in a much larger taxpayer loss.)

Lane is correct to conclude that GM’s immediate future isn’t looking quite so rosy. Demand is tanking in Europe. Concerns remain about whether GM will continue to be able to fund its $128 billion pension plan. And sales of the “game-changing” Chevy Volt have been lagging since the vehicle’s commercial introduction some 13 months ago—well before its engines demonstrated an annoying propensity to spontaneously combust. (Not to worry, says GM’s public relations team: the engines don’t seem to catch fire while being driven, only an hour or two after they’ve been parked in the garage.) Recognizing that that qualifier hasn’t been reassuring enough, GM is now offering to buy back any Chevy Volt it has ever sold, which doesn’t bode well for the bottom line, but also affirms how few of these Government Motors show pieces have even sold.

That grim analysis is the basis for Lane’s preference for government divestment now. There is more downside risk than upside potential. It is an argument based on market-timing, rather than on the principle that bad things happen when the government has a stake in the outcome of a race that it can influence. Sure, the administration would love to divest of GM at a profit to taxpayers. But the longer it is allowed to wait for that train to arrive, the greater the temptation to grease the skids.

The government should divest now. It should have divested in June, when it was first legally permissible to do so.  But the administration (following, by logic, what would have been Lane’s advice at the time) rolled the dice, expecting the stock value to rise. Instead it fell. And then there was this.

But my bigger problem is with Lane’s proposal for a managed divestment.  He writes:

It’s time to cut our losses.  Treasury should start selling its stake in GM.

And I know just the buyer: GM. The company is sitting on more than $33 billion in cash, about triple the market value of Treasury’s 500 million shares, which is roughly $10.8 billion.

Though GM wants to dedicate much of its cash to shoring up its pension plan, it could still absorb most or all of Treasury’s shares, even if Treasury charges a modest premium over the current market price, as it should.

Lane proposes this under the guise of some perverse fealty to a “free-enterprise economy,” as it would spare shareholders from the stock price-depressing impact of an unnatural 500 million share dump. But those shareholders knew the risks they were taking when they purchased GM stock in the first place. They certainly knew that the largest single shareholder didn’t intend to hold its position for very long. Lane’s argument for protecting those shareholders in the name of free-enterprise in unconvincing, if not misplaced.

Furthermore, Lane’s zeal for sticking it to GM seems to eclipse any real commitment to free markets. Forcing GM to divert resources from where management wants to commit them in order to achieve some favorable political outcome (a smaller taxpayer loss) is just as coercive as some of the administration’s actions on the road to GM’s nationalization in the first place.

GM should not be entitled to any favors or exceptional treatment by virtue of its ownership structure. To be certain of that, it should be 100 privatized yesterday. But likewise, GM should not be subject to compensatory or otherwise countervailing policies designed to punish or remove any perceived advantage. For starters, it is impossible to measure the benefits received or the penalties suffered with any precision. Demanding that GM not be exposed to special treatment goes in both directions.

 

Monday Links

  • It is false to assume that GM’s earnings report means the auto bailout was a success.
  • It is false that, among other things, failing to raise the debt limit means defaulting on our obligations.
  • It is false that Osama bin Laden’s death means torture is a good idea.
  • It is false that international institutions can deliver what they say they can deliver.
  • It is false that oil speculators are to blame for fluctuating oil prices:


Obama’s GM Quagmire

Media are reporting this morning that the Treasury has decided to hold off on selling any of its remaining 500 million shares of General Motors stock until at least July. The Obama administration had hoped to divest as soon as possible  after May 22, but GM’s stock price hasn’t been cooperating.

As much as the president doesn’t want the odor of nationalization following him on the campaign trail, the administration is equally concerned about having to explain why it took a $10 billion to $20 billion direct loss by divesting when it did. By deferring sales until July, the administration presumably is hoping for a stock price boost from second quarter earnings. But that is unlikely for several reasons, which I explained in the Daily Caller yesterday. Here’s the gist in a few passages from that op-ed:

The soonest the U.S. Treasury can sell the remaining 500 million shares (according to terms of the initial public offering) is May 22, but the administration would also like to “make the taxpayers whole.” The problem for the president on that score is that the stock price — even in the wake of this week’s earnings report — isn’t cooperating. As of this morning’s opening bell, GM stock was valued at $31.07 per share. If all of the 500 million remaining publicly-owned shares could be sold at that price, the Treasury would net less than $16 billion. Add that to the $23 billion raised from the initial public offering last November, and the “direct” public loss on GM is about $11 billion — calculated as a $50 billion outlay minus a $39 billion return.

To net $50 billion, those 500 million public shares must be sold at an average price of just over $53 — a virtual impossibility anytime soon. Why? The most significant factor suppressing the stock value is the market’s knowledge that the largest single holder of GM stock wants to unload about 500 million shares in the short term. That fact will continue to trump any positive news about GM and its profit potential, not that such news should be expected.

Projections about gasoline prices vary, but as long as prices at the pump remain in the $4 range, GM is going to suffer. Among major automakers, GM is most exposed to the downside of high gasoline prices. Despite all of the subsidies and all of the hoopla over the Chevy Volt (only 1,700 units have been sold through April 2011) and the Chevy Cruse (now subject to a steering column recall that won’t help repair negative quality perceptions), GM does not have much of a competitive presence in the small car market. Though GM held the largest overall U.S. market share in 2010, it had the smallest share (8.4%) of the small car market, which is where the demand will be if high gas prices persist. GM will certainly have to do better in that segment once the federally mandated average fleet fuel efficiency standards rise to 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016.

Deservedly reaping what it sowed, the administration finds itself in an unenviable position. It can entirely divest of GM in the short term at what would likely be a $10-to-$15 billion taxpayer loss (the stock price will drop if 500 million shares are put up for sale in a short period) and face the ire of an increasingly cost- and budget-conscious electorate. Or the administration can hold onto the stock, hoping against hope that GM experiences economic fortunes good enough to more than compensate for the stock price-suppressing effect of the market’s knowledge of an imminent massive sale, while contending with accusations of market meddling and industrial policy.

Or, the administration can do what it is going to do: First, lower expectations that the taxpayer will ever recover $50 billion. Here’s a recent statement by Tim Geithner: “We’re going to lose money in the auto industry… We didn’t do these things to maximize return. We did them to save jobs. The biggest impact of these programs was in the millions of jobs saved.” That’s a safe counterfactual, since it can never be tested or proved. (There are 225,000 fewer jobs in the auto industry as of March 2011 than there were in November 2008, when the bailout process began.)

Second, the administration will argue that the Obama administration is only on the hook for $40 billion (the first $10 billion having come from Bush). In a post-IPO, November 2010 statement revealing of a man less concerned with the nation’s finances than his own political prospects, President Obama asserted: “American taxpayers are now positioned to recover more than my administration invested in GM, and that’s a good thing.” (My emphasis).

The administration should divest as soon as possible, without regard to the stock price. Keeping the government’s tentacles around a large firm in an important industry will keep the door open wider to industrial policy and will deter market-driven decision-making throughout the industry, possibly keeping the brakes on the recovery. Yes, there will be a significant loss to taxpayers. But the right lesson to learn from this chapter in history is that government interventions carry real economic costs.

Friday Links

  • What are Republicans doing to stop ObamaCare? Not much.
  • Conflating the Taliban with al Qaeda isn’t helping our foreign policy dialogue.
  • “Sitting in a Volt that would not start at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, a GM engineer swore to me that the internal combustion engine in the machine only served as a generator, kicking in when the overnight-charged lithium-ion batteries began to run down.”
  • The new issue of Regulation looks at price gouging, soda taxes, the Durbin Amendment, and more.
  • Who should decide when we tap into strategic oil reserves: The president? Or market forces

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