Tag: imports

More Nonsense about the Trade Deficit

It has become conventional wisdom that a rising trade deficit is bad news for the economy. This week’s announcement of an expanding deficit in June prompted such headlines today as this one in the news pages of the Wall Street Journal: “Wider Trade Gap Signals Weak Growth.” As my colleague David Boaz blogged earlier today, the trade deficit is even blamed for daily swings in the stock market.

I’ve been studying and writing about the trade deficit for years, and devoted a whole chapter of my 2009 Cato book Mad about Trade to the subject, and I keep coming back to a basic question: If the trade deficit signals weak growth, why does the U.S. economy seem to perform so much better during periods when the trade deficit is growing, and so much worse when the trade deficit is shrinking?

Think back to the 1990s, the “goldilocks economy” when growth was strong, jobs plentiful, and inflation low. That was also a time of rising trade deficits. In fact, the trade gap grew for eight years in a row, rising from $77 billion in 1991 to $455 billion in 2000. In that same period, the unemployment rate dropped from 7.3 to 3.9 percent.

Again, in the middle of the George W. Bush presidency, the trade gap grew for five straight years, during a period when the economy expanded and the unemployment rate fell from 5.7 to 4.4 percent.

In contrast, the trade deficit invariably shrinks during periods of recession. The trade deficit fell by more than half from 2007 to 2009 as domestic demand and imports plunged and unemployment soared. Sagging domestic demand means fewer imports.

Of course, I’m not arguing that a bigger trade deficit stimulates the economy. I am arguing, contrary to the conventional wisdom reflected in this morning’s headlines, that an expanding trade deficit does not appear to be a drag on growth. In fact, the plain evidence is that an expanding trade deficit is more often than not a signal of stronger growth.

Imports Viewed Skeptically at the Washington Post

What explains the chronically misleading depictions and interpretations of international trade in the Washington Post?  Is it economic illiteracy? Intellectual indifference? Institutional bias? What?

The opening paragraph in Neil Irwin’s story (online, July 30, 2010, 9:13 am) reads:

The pace of economic growth slowed this spring, according to new government data, as Americans remained reluctant to consume and imports soared.

And a few paragraphs later:

The biggest drain on growth was imports, which rose 28.8 percent, compared with only a 10.3 percent gain in exports.

On July 14, one day after the Commerce Department’s monthly trade figures were released, revealing a slight increase in the trade deficit, the opening paragraph in the Washington Post story under the heading “Rising Imports Offset Export Gains” read:

America’s resurgent appetite for imports may undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to rekindle job growth, with a rise in overseas purchases by American businesses and households undercutting the benefits of increased U.S. sales abroad.

I have posted about this problem again and again and again and again and again (just this year), but apparently to no avail. The simplistic scoreboard interpretation of trade (where exports are considered “our” team’s points and imports “their” team’s) combined with a zeal for inciting fears about economic collapse seems to remain the formula of choice at the WaPo.

As I wrote yesterday:

U.S. producers account for over half of the value of U.S. imports, which means there is great potential to increase their competitiveness by improving their access to imports.  It also explains the strong correlation between imports and exports, between imports and GDP, and between imports and job growth — facts that too many politicians wish to expunge from the record. 

Along with politicians at the end of the last sentence, I should have included a certain newspaper.

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.

Oil Import Make Believe

A conversation with documentarian Robert Stone regarding Earth Day is featured today in The New York Times’s “Dot Earth” online column.  In the course of his conversation with the Times’s Andrew Revkin, Mr. Stone – who is quite alarmed about our reliance on foreign oil – asks:  “How many Americans know that we send about $800 billion to the Middle East every year for oil?”

Hopefully, not many. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. spent $95.4 billion on crude oil imports from OPEC sources in 2009.  But not all OPEC members are from the Middle East.  That $95.4 billion includes dollars spent on oil originating from Algeria ($6.3 billion), Angola ($9 billion), Ecuador ($3.4 billion), Nigeria ($17.7 billion), and Venezuela ($23.4 billion) – none of which are in the Middle East.  Subtract out that oil and we arrive at $35.6 billion spent on Middle Eastern crude oil (a figure rounded from the original nominal counts.  I have used the customs value – that is, the estimated value – of the oil being imported rather than the figures that include additional costs for insurance and transportation because money being spent on insurance and shipping goes to third parties that are not for the most part located in the Middle East.  But if one wants to use those slightly higher figures, it won’t change the numbers very much at all).

For what it’s worth, the total amount of dollars Americans sent abroad for crude oil from all sources was $188.5 billion last year.

Even if the figure were $800 billion, so what?  No one is forcing refineries to buy crude oil from foreign suppliers.  They presumably believe that the oil at issue is more valuable than the money that must be offered to secure said oil and that oil from other sources is more expensive than oil from the Middle East. Hence, they buy. This is by definition a wealth creating transaction for American business enterprises. Foreign trade, Mr. Stone, is a good thing.

The implicit claim, of course, is that there are negative externalities associated with foreign oil consumption. This, however, is faith masquerading as fact (an argument also well made by Cato adjunct scholar Richard Gordon).

Regardless, Mr. Stone overstates the alleged problem by orders of magnitude.

Calling Out Trade’s Myth Makers

Organized labor’s trade “think tank” in Washington, the Economic Policy Institute, claims that currency manipulation is a major cause of the U.S. trade deficit with China, which (along with other unfair trade practices) accounted for 2.4 million American job losses between 2001 and 2008. EPI has been making similar claims for years, getting lots of media attention for its hyperbole, and providing smoke bombs for charlatan politicians to hurl into the discussion to obscure the public’s understanding of trade.   For starters, as conveyed in this new paper, I am skeptical about the relationship between currency undervaluation and the trade account.

EPI’s methodology (to use the term loosely) is not to be taken seriously, though, because it derives from a simple formula that approximates job gains from export value and job losses from import value, as though there were a straight line correlation between the jobs and trade data. It pretends that there are no jobs created when we import, and that import value is somehow an appropriate measure of job loss.

The flaws of those assumptions are many, but perhaps the easiest one to convey is that most of the value embedded in imports from China is not Chinese. (The ensuing discussion is from a forthcoming Cato paper.)

According to the results from a growing field of research, only about one-third to one-half of the value of U.S. imports from China comes from Chinese labor, material and overhead. Official U.S. import statistics—which pay no heed to the constituent value-added elements—therefore overstate the Chinese value in those imports by 100 to 200 percent, on average. The cited job loss figures are based on import values that are unequivocally overstated because one-half to two-thirds of that value are the costs of material, labor, and overhead added in other countries, including the United States.

What is seldom discussed—because they are often portrayed as victims—is that large numbers of American workers are employed precisely because of imports from China. This is the case because the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy are highly complementary. U.S. factories and workers are more likely to be collaborating with Chinese factories and workers in production of the same goods than they are to be competing directly. The proliferation of vertical integration (whereby the production process is carved up and each function performed where it is most efficient to perform that function) and transnational supply chains has joined higher-value-added U.S. manufacturing, design, and R&D activities with lower-value manufacturing and assembly operations in China. The old factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans oceans and borders.

Though the focus is typically on American workers who are displaced by competition from China, legions of American workers and their factories, offices, and laboratories would be idled without access to complementary Chinese workers in Chinese factories. Without access to lower-cost labor in places like Shenzhen, countless ideas hatched in U.S. laboratories, that became viable commercial products and support hundreds of thousands of jobs in engineering, design, marketing, logistics, retailing, finance, accounting, and manufacturing might never have made it beyond conception because the costs of production would have been deemed prohibitive for mass consumption. Just imagine if all of the components in the Apple iPod had to be manufactured and assembled in the United States. Instead of $150 per unit, the cost of production might be double or triple or quadruple that amount.

Consider how many fewer iPods Apple would have sold, how many fewer jobs iPod production, distribution, and sales would have supported, how much lower Apple’s profits (and those of the entities in its supply chains) would have been, how much lower Apple’s research and development expenditures would have been, how much smaller the markets for music and video downloads, car accessories, jogging accessories, and docking stations would be, how many fewer jobs those industries would support and the lower profits those industries would generate. Now multiply that process by the hundreds of other similarly ubiquitous devices and gadgets, computers and Blu-Rays, and every other product that is designed in the United States and assembled in China from components made in the United States and elsewhere.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows characterizes the complementarity of U.S. and Chinese production sharing as following the shape of a “Smiley Curve” plotted on a chart where the production process from start to finish is measured along the horizontal axis and the value of each stage of production is measured on the vertical axis. U.S. value added comes at the early stages—in branding, product conception, engineering, and design. Chinese value added operations occupy the middle stages—some engineering, some manufacturing and assembly, primarily. And more U.S. value added occurs at the end stages in logistics, retailing, and after market servicing. Under this typical production arrangement, collaboration, not competition, is what links U.S. and Chinese workers.

EPI’s work on this subject provides fodder for sensational stump speeches. But it is also a major disservice to a public that is hungering for truth, and not self-serving advocacy masquerading as truth.

Time to Lose the Trade Enforcement Fig Leaf

During his SOTU address last week, the president declared it a national goal to double our exports over the next five years.  As my colleague Dan Griswold argues (a point that is echoed by others in this NYT article), such growth is probably unrealistic. But with incomes rising in China, India and throughout the developing world, and with huge amounts of savings accumulated in Asia, strong U.S. export growth in the years ahead should be a given—unless we screw it up with a provocative enforcement regime.

The president said:

If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores. But realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules.

Ah, the enforcement canard!

One of the more persistent myths about trade is that we don’t adequately enforce our trade agreements, which has given our trade partners license to cheat.  And that chronic cheating—dumping, subsidization, currency manipulation, opaque market barriers, and other underhanded practices—the argument goes, explains our trade deficit and anemic job growth.

But lack of enforcement is a myth that was concocted by congressional Democrats (Sander Levin chief among them) as a fig leaf behind which they could abide Big Labor’s wish to terminate the trade agenda.  As the Democrats prepared to assume control of Congress in January 2007, better enforcement—along with demands for actionable labor and environmental standards—was used to cast their opposition to trade as conditional, even vaguely appealing to moderate sensibilities.  But as is evident in Congress’s enduring refusal to consider the three completed bilateral agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea (which all exceed Democratic demands with respect to labor and the environment), Democratic opposition to trade is not conditional, but systemic.

The president’s mention of enforcement at the SOTU (and his related comments to Republicans the following day that Americans need to see that trade is a two way street – starts at the 4:30 mark) indicates that Democrats believe the fig leaf still hangs.  It’s time to lose it.

According to what metric are we failing to enforce trade agreements?  The number of WTO complaints lodged? Well, the United States has been complainant in 93 out of the 403 official disputes registered with the WTO over its 15-year history, making it the biggest user of the dispute settlement system. (The European Communities comes in second with 81 cases as complainant.)  On top of that, the United States was a third party to a complaint on 73 occasions, which means that 42 percent of all WTO dispute settlement activity has been directed toward enforcement concerns of the United States, which is just one out of 153 members.

Maybe the enforcement metric should be the number of trade remedies measures imposed?  Well, over the years the United States has been the single largest user of the antidumping and countervailing duty laws.  More than any other country, the United States has restricted imports that were determined (according to a processes that can hardly be described as objective) to be “dumped” by foreign companies or subsidized by foreign governments. As of 2009, there are 325 active antidumping and countervailing duty measures in place in the United States, which trails only India’s 386 active measures.

Throughout 2009, a new antidumping or countervailing duty petition was filed in the United States on average once every 10 days.  That means that throughout 2010, as the authorities issue final determinations in those cases every few weeks, the world will be reminded of America’s fetish for imposing trade barriers, as the president (pursuing his “National Export Initiative”) goes on imploring other countries to open their markets to our goods.

Rather than go into the argument more deeply here, Scott Lincicome and I devoted a few pages to the enforcement myth in this overly-audaciously optimistic paper last year, some of which is cited along with some fresh analysis in this Lincicome post.

Sure, the USTR can bring even more cases to try to force greater compliance through the WTO or through our bilateral agreements.  But rest assured that the slam dunk cases have already been filed or simply resolved informally through diplomatic channels.  Any other potential cases need study from the lawyers at USTR because the presumed violations that our politicians frequently and carelessly imply are not necessarily violations when considered in the context of the actual rules.  Of course, there’s also the embarrassing hypocrisy of continuing to bring cases before the WTO dispute settlement system when the United States refuses to comply with the findings of that body on several different matters now.  And let’s not forget the history of U.S. intransigence toward the NAFTA dispute settlement system with Canada over lumber and Mexico over trucks.  Enforcement, like trade, is a two-way street.

And sure, more antidumping and countervailing duty petitions can be filed and cases initiated, but that is really the prerogative of industry, not the administration or Congress.  Industry brings cases when the evidence can support findings of “unfair trade” and domestic injury.  The process is on statutory auto-pilot and requires nothing further from the Congress or president. Thus, assertions by industry and members of Congress about a lack of enforcement in the trade remedies area are simply attempts to drum up support for making the laws even more restrictive.  It has nothing to do with a lack of enforcement of the current rules.  They simply want to change the rules.

In closing, I’m happy the president thinks export growth is a good idea.  But I would implore him to recognize that import growth is much more closely correlated with export growth than is heightened enforcement.  The nearby chart confirms the extremely tight, positive relationship between export and imports, both of which track similarly closely to economic growth.

U.S. producers (who happen also to be our exporters) account for more than half of all U.S. import value.  Without imports of raw materials, components, and other intermediate goods, the cost of production in the United States would be much higher, and export prices less competitive.  If the president wants to promote exports, he must welcome, and not hinder, imports.

Mainstream Media’s Trade Gap

In a post at the Enterprise Blog two days ago, economist Mark Perry deftly parodies a typical mainstream media account of trade protectionism by editing the story in redline to contrast its original presentation with its true significance. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s the first paragraph:

WASHINGTON POST (Reuters) - A U.S. trade panel gave final approval on Wednesday to duties taxes ranging from 10 to 16 percent on cost-conscious firms in the U.S. who purchase low-priced Chinese-made steel pipe rather than high-price domestic pipe, in the biggest U.S. trade case to date against China American companies (and their shareholders, employees, and customers) who shop globally for their inputs and find the best value in China.

Perry’s point—and I share his frustration—is that the mainstream media typically fail to convey even a sense of the costs of U.S. protectionism to U.S. interests even though Americans (and non-Americans living in the U.S.) bear the greatest burden of that protectionism. When the U.S. government imposes duties on Chinese steel, it is imposing taxes on U.S. consuming industries, their employees, their shareholders, and their customers.

Considering that more than half of the value of all U.S. imports in a typical year is raw materials and intermediate goods (i.e., inputs for producers operating in the United States, who employ people, transact with other businesses, and pay taxes in the United States), the number of U.S. victims of U.S. import taxes is much larger than one can ever glean from a typical media account. Taxes on Chinese-made ”Oil Country Tubular Goods” or OCTG (the subject in the article Perry edits), which are used for oil exploration and transport, will raise costs in the energy industry, which are likely to be passed onto consumers in the form of higher energy prices.

As described in this paper, trade is no longer a competition between “Us and Them.” There is competition between entities that—because of the proliferation of cross-border investment and transnational production and supply chains—often defy any meaningful national identification. But that competition is preceded by collaboration and cooperation between entities in different countries. The factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans borders and oceans—a fact that renders U.S. workers and workers in other countries complementary in more and more cases, and a fact that amplifies the cost of trade barriers.

But media—chained to the false “Us versus Them” paradigm—describe protectionist policies as actions taken by one national monolith against another, and convey the impression that American readers should be cheering for Team America. It is a worldview that conflates the well-being of “our producers” with some homogenized conception of “the national interest.” It is the same misguided scoreboard mentality that colors reporting of the trade account, where exports are deemed “good” and imports “bad.”  And, it is this simplistic, misleading characterization that, in my opinion, is most responsible for withering public opinion about trade and globalization over the past decade.

I look forward to more of Dr. Perry’s editing projects.