Tag: stock market

Have Americans Turned against Free Trade?

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll would seem to say yes. In a story over the weekend under the headline, “Americans Sour on Trade,” the Journal reports:

more than half of those surveyed, 53%, said free-trade agreements have hurt the U.S. That is up from 46% three years ago and 32% in 1999.

One plausible explanation for the sour mood toward trade is the business cycle. 1999 was near the peak of the long boom of the 1990s, when Americans were feeling good about just about everything. Even three years ago, the stock market was at a record high and unemployment was below 5 percent. In this light, trade is another casualty of the lingering recession, not a cause as many trade critics want to argue.

“Outsourcing” was a major source of anxiety in the poll. Americans overwhelming believe outsourcing of production and manufacturing work to other countries is a reason why the economy is struggling and new jobs are not being created. This collective attitude is more reflective of the complaints people hear in the media than of any hard reality on the ground.

As I document in my 2009 Cato book, Mad about Trade, only about 3 percent of job displacement in the United States can be blamed on trade. (See pp. 31-33.) For every one person in the unemployment line because of imports or outsourcing, there are 30 people who have been  displaced from their jobs by technology, domestic competition, changing consumer tastes, or the general business cycle.

Despite the popular worries, outsourcing is more likely to attract business to the United States than send it overseas. Year after year, more direct manufacturing investment flows into the United States than out to other countries. Year after year, Americans sell more “business and professional services” to customers abroad than they buy.

The facts are on the side of expanding the freedom of Americans to trade and invest with people in other countries. What is lacking are political leaders in Washington who will stand up for the broader national interest of our country against the special interests who are exploiting anxiety about the economy to trash trade.

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.

Monday Links

  • Michael Tanner says the difficult part of passing the health care bill has only just begun: “The bill must now go to a conference committee to resolve significant differences between the House and Senate versions. And history shows that agreement is far from guaranteed.”
  • Gene Healy on the new decade: “Yes, it was a rotten 10 years for America. But cheer up: Things aren’t as bad as they seem, and there’s a good chance they’ll get better.”
  • Will the market rise or fall? Richard Rahn: “The long-term outlook for the stock market is not good, and here is why. For the past 100 years, there has been an inverse relationship between changes in the size of government and the growth or decline in the stock market.”

Learning from Trade Wars Past

David Rockefeller, the former chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank, makes a compelling historical case in today’s New York Times for pursing free trade policies. Rockefeller has been around long enough to remember the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill of 1930 and the Great Depression that followed. In an op-ed piece titled, “Present at the Trade Wars,” he writes:

I lived through the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it, and I saw that there was no direct cause and effect relationship. Rather, there were specific governmental actions and equally important failures to act, often driven by political expediency, that brought on the Depression and determined its severity and longevity.

One critical mistake was America’s retreat from international trade. This not only helped to turn the 1929 stock market decline into a depression, it also chipped away at trust between nations, paving the way for World War II.

On the eve of the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh this week, Rockefeller offers a timely warning to President Obama not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

AFL-CIO Wants to Tax Stock Trades…to Stop Speculation

Earlier this week, the AFL-CIO, building upon a suggestion made last week in the UK, proposed that the federal government impose a 1/10 of 1 percent tax of all stock trades.  The union group argues that such a tax would reduce non-productive speculative activity in the stock market.

First of all, we have all sorts of transfer taxes on housing, and yet we still had a housing bubble.  So much for small taxes stopping speculative activity.  If an investor expected to double his money, it seems quite a stretch to believe that such a small tax would discourage him.

More importantly, our recent financial crisis was not triggered by too much equity (like stocks) but by too much debt.  In taxing stock transactions, we only add to the already favorable treatment of debt compared to equity, encouraging even greater leverage in our financial system.

The real purpose of this tax on speculation becomes apparent when the AFL-CIO suggests what the money should be used for…building new infrastructure that would require the hiring of unionized workers.  The AFL-CIO should stop hiding behind the spin of stopping speculation and directly engage in the real debate:  the massive size of our federal government and the unsustainable fiscal path we are on.

Social Security Is Running a Surplus…Oops

For years, opponents of Social Security reform have told us that there is no need to rush into changing the program because, after all, Social Security is running a surplus today. Well, according to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office, not so much.

CBO reports that the Social Security surplus, originally expected to be $80-90 billion this year and next will shrink to $16 billion this year and just $3 billion next year (essentially a rounding error) as a result of the recession and rising unemployment. And those estimates may be far too optimistic. In February of this year, for example, Social Security actually ran a deficit—spending more than it took in through taxes and interest combined.

And, while CBO expects a return to modest surpluses after 2010, as the recession ends and unemployment falls, that is betting on the success of the unproven Obama economic program. If unemployment stays at current levels, Social Security will begin running permanent cash flow deficits in 2011 (eight years earlier than previously predicted).

Opponents of personal accounts have pointed out recent declines in the stock market as a reason why private investment should no longer be considered an option for Social Security reform. The evidence suggests that, even with recent market declines, private investment would still produce higher returns than Social Security. The new surplus numbers provide yet another lesson: if the economy is in such a mess that it hurts private investment, traditional Social Security isn’t going to be in any better shape.

The case for personal accounts remains as strong as ever.

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Why Bank Stocks Rose on Bernanke’s Remarks

In a CNBC spot with Steve Liesman & Erin Burnett, I tried to explain why investors in bank stocks had good reason to be pleased with part of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s speech.  Judging by the response of Steve and Erin, and others on CNBC over the following day,  I must not have been persuasive.

For clarification, I am quoting the exact language from Bernanke’s talk, with my emphasis added.

My main point is that Bernanke admitted that when it comes to the “financial crisis” of some big banks, this is largely an artifact of unduly harsh regulation being applied at the worst possible time:

There is some evidence that capital standards, accounting rules, and other regulations have made the financial sector excessively procyclical–that is, they lead financial institutions to ease credit in booms and tighten credit in downturns more than is justified by changes in the creditworthiness of borrowers, thereby intensifying cyclical changes.

For example, capital regulations require that banks’ capital ratios meet or exceed fixed minimum standards for the bank to be considered safe and sound by regulators. Because banks typically find raising capital to be difficult in economic downturns or periods of financial stress, their best means of boosting their regulatory capital ratios during difficult periods may be to reduce new lending, perhaps more so than is justified by the credit environment. We should review capital regulations to ensure that they are appropriately forward-looking…

Bernanke emphasized the regulators’ dangerous habit of raising capital requirements and loan loss reserves simply because of a strict mark-to-market misinterpretation of the “fair value” of mortgage-backed securities.

He noted that:

Determining appropriate valuation methods for illiquid or idiosyncratic assets can be very difficult, to put it mildly. Similarly, there is considerable uncertainty regarding the appropriate levels of loan loss reserves over the cycle. As a result, further review of accounting standards governing valuation and loss provisioning would be useful, and might result in modifications to the accounting rules that reduce their procyclical effects without compromising the goals of disclosure and transparency.

The key here is Bernanke’s criticism of the rigid use of Basel capital standards, not mark-to-market information per se (which would be harmless if it did not trigger foolish regulations). When combined with Barney Frank’s similar comments on the same day, it begins to look as though sensible economics might finally take priority over dubious bookkeeping.