Tag: manufacturing

Have Trade Agreements Killed the Manufacturing Sector?

An interesting 80-second video by Johan Norberg, executive director of Free To Choose Media and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, makes the case that trade agreements have not led to the deindustrialization of America.  He notes that the share of U.S. workers employed in manufacturing has been falling at an average of 0.4 percent per year from 2000 to 2010, but it also fell at that same rate between 1960 and 2000.  Thus, NAFTA and other trade agreements don’t seem to have had a great deal of influence on the gradual evolution of the economy away from employment in manufacturing and toward employment in services.

If he had more time, Norberg also might have pointed out that the U.S. manufacturing sector has never been larger.  Value added by the U.S. factories reached an all-time high of $2.4 trillion in 2015.  Manufacturing accounts for about 13 percent of GDP.

Yes, it’s true – fewer people work in manufacturing today than in the past.  Peak U.S. manufacturing employment was 19.4 million workers in 1979, but has generally trended downward since then.  Today only around 12 million people work for manufacturers, a decline of roughly one third over the past 35 years.  Productivity has risen so much that many fewer workers now produce many more manufactured products.

A recent study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University found that trade has had some effect on manufacturing employment.  Researchers estimate that approximately 13 percent of manufacturing job losses have been due to trade.  But the dominant factor has been productivity growth, which accounted for 85 percent of the employment decline.  (Robots and computers ate the jobs.)  So imports bear a relatively small degree of responsibility for the reduction in manufacturing employment, but take a large share of the blame from politicians.

There are a lot of good things that can be said about U.S. manufacturing.  Workers are better educated, better paid, use more sophisticated equipment, and produce more high-value goods.  Our country may produce fewer shirts and tennis shoes than before, but we produce more valuable items such as airplanes, motor vehicles, and industrial equipment.  So even though there is an abundance of good news for manufacturers, don’t expect to hear much about it in this particularly anti-trade political season.

(A more detailed review of the economic effects of trade agreements can be found in this study by the U.S. International Trade Commission.)


Miscellaneous Tariff Bill Shows Why Washington Needs a Refresher in Business Accounting

Nearly two and a half centuries after Adam Smith vanquished the mercantilists, mercantilism is the beacon of U.S. trade policy.  In descending order of priority, U.S. trade policy is oriented toward three objectives: (1) Accelerating export growth; (2) Limiting import growth; (3) Effectuating a trade enforcement regime that maximally supports the first two objectives. The coexistence of the “exports good, imports bad” philosophy with 41 straight years of trade deficits explains why trade is so often maligned and demagogued (i.e., “We’re getting crushed in trade!”), and why trade liberalization is such a tough slog politically. 

Anyone who reads the press releases from the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, or the big business trade associations is familiar with the statistic that 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States.  That mantra is deployed to promote the importance of exports – to suggest that removing foreign trade barriers is essential to U.S. export growth, which is essential to U.S. economic growth.  But rarely does anyone in official Washington make the valid point that if 95 percent of the world’s potential customers live abroad, so do 95 percent of the world’s suppliers, 95 percent of the world’s supply chain partners, 95 percent of the world’s workers, and 95 percent of the world’s investors.

The fact that the United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population means there are numerous channels through which engagement with the world increases U.S. wealth and living standards, and that U.S. barriers to imports, investment, and immigration are at least as important to surmount as are foreign barriers to U.S. exports. But official Washington considers dismantling foreign market barriers, while fortifying U.S. import barriers, to be its remit.

A brief refresher on business accounting is in order.

Lesson 1:

Profits equal revenues minus costs.

In simple arithmetic terms: P = R – C.

Lesson 2:

With reference to the simple equation above, a business can realize higher profits by increasing R or decreasing C.  To be more precise, higher profits require revenues to increase faster than costs increase or for costs to decrease faster than revenues decrease.

Lesson 3:

For any given firm, revenues equal the value of its domestic sales plus the value of its export sales, and costs equal the materials, labor, and overhead used in production, as well as transportation expenses, selling expenses, taxes, and other expenses incurred in the process of delivering the good or service to the customer.

Lesson 4:

By increasing overall supply and reducing the average price of manufacturing inputs and final end-user products, imports help reduce the cost of production for businesses and the cost of living for American households. For businesses, those lower costs generate greater profits to reinvest or distribute to shareholders or they enable lower prices to help them compete.  For households, those lower costs mean lower prices and more resources to save or spend elsewhere in the economy.

Lesson 5:

The goal of trade policy should not be to maximize business revenues.  The goal of trade policy should be to maximize profits (or put in economic terms: to maximize value-added, i.e. GDP). The equation in Lesson 1, above, shows that reducing costs contributes to profit growth just like increasing revenues contributes to profit growth.

Congress demonstrates occasional, attenuated appreciation of these lessons.  Every few years (8 times since 1982), Congress has passed a Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, which temporarily suspend duties on certain, “noncontroversial” products—usually intermediate goods, such as chemicals, electronic components, and mechanical parts—that are not manufactured domestically but are needed by U.S. producers to generate their own output. Although limited in impact by its temporary nature, by the “no domestic production” requirement, and by the caveat that the suspended duty must not reduce tariff revenues by more than $500,000, the MTB does provide some cost savings to U.S. producers. The last MTB provided an estimated $748 million of import tax relief.

As described in this new paper – released ahead of a House vote tomorrow on legislation to resuscitate the MTB process – Congress should recognize that tariffs are always costs that reduce GDP and act with greater resolve to eliminate all import tariffs permanently.


Fact Checking the Washington Post’s Fact Checker on Trade and Manufacturing

Pinocchio Quattro!” is Washington Post “Fact Checker” Glenn Kessler’s response to Donald Trump, for his claims about trade, currency manipulation and manufacturing. No doubt the 4-pinocchio distinction is well-earned. Actually, without issuing a score, my analysis in Forbes today reaches similar conclusions.

Reading Kessler’s explanation and justification for the award, I was pleasantly surprised by how well he characterized and conveyed the salient, underlying trade issues. Non-trade experts and non-trade-beat reporters often miss the nuance and get things wrong. Nonetheless, for the purpose of even greater precision, I’m going to reiterate, clarify, amplify, and slightly modify some of the points Kessler makes. (Thanks for being a prop, Glenn).


Why You Shouldn’t Fear Trade with China

Trade has enriched humanity, continuously providing cheaper and better goods while dramatically decreasing global poverty. Extreme poverty’s end is now in sight. A Gallup poll released recently shows that 58 percent of Americans view trade as an opportunity rather than a threat, and this belief has been rising. Yet we seldom hear of the incredible benefits of exchange. The 2016 presidential election has brought with it an increased interest in U.S. trade with China, with political figures like Donald Trump prominently focusing on the alleged “harm” done by China to the United States. Here are the three main arguments that trade-skeptics use regarding China and reasons why those arguments are wrong. 

1) Trade-skeptics often claim that trade with China is “taking American jobs.” However, in most cases American and Chinese workers are not competing for the same jobs because they do different kinds of work.   

Comparative advantage and specialization play an important role in every trade relationship. China has the comparative advantage in light manufacturing and heavy industry, while the United States has an advantage in areas involving a high degree of human capital like technology, education, and precision industrial manufacturing

Fewer and fewer Americans work in grueling areas like traditional manufacturing and agriculture, both of which are still common in China. The fall in traditional manufacturing and agriculture employment has been more than offset by a rise in the caring professions and in creative and knowledge-intensive careers, which are safer, more intellectually stimulating, and help improve the standard of living in the United States. 

Trump Is Wrong: America Makes Tons of Stuff

Americans “don’t make anything anymore,” said Donald Trump on Fox on Sunday with Chris Wallace, lamenting what he sees as the death of U.S. manufacturing. “I just ordered 4,000 television sets. You know where they come from? South Korea … I don’t think anybody makes television sets in the United States anymore.” Actually, America still makes televisions. More importantly, Trump’s insinuation that trade has destroyed U.S. manufacturing is fundamentally mistaken.

The truth is that U.S. manufacturing is thriving, although the industry employs fewer people, mainly because of automation—not trade. Would Trump undo technological progress and massive savings to bring back manufacturing jobs?

The rumors of American manufacturing’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Sales revenues and output are rising. In 2014, value-added by the industry set a new record. While it’s true that manufacturing is a smaller share of the U.S. economy than it once was, that’s not because it isn’t growing—other sectors of the economy are simply growing faster.

The reason that so many goods found in a U.S. convenience store say, “Made in China,” is because U.S. manufacturing has shifted towards high value-added products like aerospace equipment, not because the U.S. has stopped “making things.”

Despite growing revenues and output, manufacturing employs fewer Americans than it once did. Technological advancement has led to gains in efficiency, and it is primarily automation, not trade, that has reduced demand for workers in manufacturing.

In fact, the U.S. manufacturing industry added jobs in the years immediately after the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed. Trade restrictions sometimes even inflict harm on domestic manufacturing. Tariffs on manufacturing inputs (e.g., hot-rolled steel) may protect U.S. workers making that specific product, but harm all the U.S. manufacturers who need those inputs to create other products (e.g., airplane parts) further down the production line. On the whole, trade enriches us.

While manufacturing employs fewer Americans than it did in Donald Trump’s youth, total U.S. employment has risen, as more Americans find work in other sectors of the economy. If Trump would give up gains in efficiency solely to boost employment in manufacturing, then he may want to consider this famous piece of advice attributed to Milton Friedman: 

Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”

Does the Donald want America to build things, or does he want us digging with spoons?


Industrial Policy Courtesy of the Cromnibus…Because No More Inferior Potassium

Though a monument to the ravages of Soviet central planning, the barren Magnitogorsk steel works complex still inspires America’s industrial policy proponents.  “Failure to plan is a plan for failure,” said comrade Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), as he described the “pro-manufacturing” legislation he helped slip into the mammoth Cromnibus bill, which became law this month.

The Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act directs the Secretary of Commerce to establish a “Network for Manufacturing Innovation” to:

  • improve the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing and increase production of goods manufactured predominately within the United States;
  • stimulate U.S. leadership in advanced manufacturing research, innovation, and technology;
  • accelerate the development of an advanced manufacturing workforce; and
  • create and preserve jobs

Of course, the verbs “revitalize,” “improve,” “stimulate,” “accelerate,” “create,” and “preserve” are euphemisms for protect, subsidize, regulate, and intervene.


Leveling the Playing Field?

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced a bill on Wednesday called the “Leveling the Playing Field Act.” According to the accompanying press release, the proposal would “restore strength to antidumping and countervailing duty laws” via a “crack down on unfair foreign competition.” The bill includes several provisions relating to practices used by the Department of Commerce to determine dumping and subsidy margins (i.e., the extent to which imported products are unfairly underpriced). It also contains modest changes to procedures used by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) in deciding whether domestic industries have been “materially injured” by imports.

Since I have had only indirect exposure to the role of Commerce in antidumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) investigations, I will leave analysis of those proposed changes to others. However, my 10 years of experience as chairman and commissioner at the ITC provide a reasonable basis for commenting on the bill’s suggested modifications to the injury determination.

The existing AD/CVD statutes instruct the ITC to “evaluate all relevant economic factors” that relate to the effects of imports on the industry under consideration. A number of those factors are specifically mentioned, including the industry’s profits. Not being satisfied with just having the commission examine profits in general, the Brown bill adds, “gross profits, operating profits, net profits, [and] ability to service debt.” As a practical matter, the commission already looks in detail at an industry’s profitability and its ability to repay debts, so this additional wording would contribute nothing of substance.

The Brown bill would add a provision to the effect that an improvement in the industry’s performance over the period of investigation (normally about three years) should not preclude a finding that the industry has been materially injured by imports. Yes, there can be circumstances in which an industry’s results are strengthening, yet it is still being held back by import competition. However, the commission’s existing practice already considers this possibility, so the new language would not really change anything.

The bill also adds a section addressing the possible effects of a recession on the ITC’s injury analysis. It states that the commission may extend its period of investigation to begin at least a year before the recession started, which would allow before and after comparisons of how the domestic industry has performed. The ITC already has authority to adjust the period of investigation under special circumstances, but it relatively seldom does so.