Tag: trade deficit

Thursday Links

  • Now that the health care bill is law, you should know exactly how it’s going to affect you, your premiums, and your coverage over the next few years. Here’s a helpful breakdown.
  • As the health care overhaul crosses home plate, global warming legislation steps up to bat.

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.

Trade Gap Plunges in 2009, but Where Are the Jobs?

Lost in the buzz last week over health care was the news that the broadest measure of the U.S. trade deficit fell sharply in 2009 from the year before. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. current account deficit plunged from $706 billion in 2008 to $420 billion last year – the smallest deficit since 2001.

I’ve been waiting for a few days now for the usual trade deficit hawks to hail this development as great news for millions of Americans looking for work.

In years when the trade deficit was rising, it was common practice for the labor-union-friendly Economic Policy Institute to publish detailed studies showing that larger trade deficits caused the U.S. economy to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs each year. For example, according to an October 2008 EPI paper, rising non-petroleum trade deficits from 2000 to 2006 caused a lost of 484,400 jobs per year, while the shrinking deficit in 2007 lead to the creation of 272,500 jobs.

By the EPI’s own internal logic, the past two years should have been a boom time for job creation. Between 2007 and 2009, the non-petroleum trade deficit dropped by $174 billion as the sagging domestic economy cut demand for impost. If that was good news for jobs, somebody forgot to tell the U.S. labor market. Since the end of 2007, the U.S. economy has shed a net 8 million jobs.

Oops, maybe it’s time for EPI to rework its model.


Wednesday Links

  • There has been talk that House Democrats are planning to “deem” the health care bill into law without calling for a vote. If you’re not sure how that process works, read this.

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.


Another Reason Imports Get a Bad Rap

Why blame only media and politicians for the public’s confusion about imports and trade deficits? Surely economists deserve some scorn. Some of the misunderstanding can be traced to the famous National Income Identity, which expresses gross domestic product, as: Y = C + G + I + (X-M). That is, national output (Y) equals personal consumption (C) plus government spending (G) plus investment (I) plus exports (X) minus imports (M).

The expression clearly lends itself to the wrong interpretation. The minus sign preceding imports suggests a negative relationship with output. It is the reason for the oft-repeated fallacy that imports are a drag on growth. Here’s why that conclusion is wrong.

The expression is an accounting identity, which “accounts” for all of the possible channels for disposing of our national output. That output is either consumed in the private sector, consumed by government, invested by business, or exported. The identity requires subtraction of aggregate imports because consumption, government spending, business investment, and exports all contain, in various amounts, import value. Americans consume domestic and imported products and services, the aggregate of which shows up in Consumption. Likewise, Government purchases include domestic and imported products and services; businesses Invest in domestic and imported machines and inventory; and, eXports often contain some imported intermediate components. Thus, the identity would overstate national output if it didn’t make that adjustment for iMports. After all, imports are not made on U.S. soil with U.S. factors of production, so they shouldn’t be included in an expression of our national output.

To reiterate, it is a simple matter of accounting: as an expression of national output, the National Income Identity subtracts imports only because imports are that portion of consumption, government spending, investment, and exports that are not produced on U.S. soil with U.S. factors of production. If we did not subtract an aggregate import value, then national output would be overstated.

But what unnecessary confusion that identity has created. Economists are often indecipherable, but here was an opportunity to actually connect with the public and describe a relatively easy concept in relatively easy terms. Why has it not been commonplace to use notation that conveys in no uncertain terms that C and G and I and X include some amount of imports? Maybe something like this:


where (d) connotes domestic; (m) connotes imported; and M=C(m)+G(m)+I(m)+X(m).

Again, imports are subtracted, not because they are a drag on output, but because imports are included in the other constituent elements of the identity. I’ve always found it misleading that the parentheses go around X-M – which isolates the expression “net exports,” but in the process can obscure the fact that imports are subtracted from the whole expression.

Finally, if the description above makes sense, then you’ll agree that imports have NO impact on national output. Regardless of how large or small, the import value embedded in the four constituent elements of national output is fully deducted by subtracting M. Thus, imports are neither a drag on GDP, nor can they cause GDP to rise. That conclusion may sound like it contradicts one of my assertions in yesterday’s post—that imports are pro-cyclical—(at least that was the claim of a NBER economist responding my post yesterday), but I think the conclusions are harmonious. To say imports are pro-cyclical means that they rise when the economy is growing and fall when the economy is contracting. It says nothing about causation.  That pattern has been amply and consistently demonstrated through expansion, recession, and recovery.


A Trade Proposal Unworthy of an Economist

Just when you have a pretty good sense of who is dishing protectionist nonsense and from where, along comes Robert Aliber, who – according to the byline of his commentary in yesterday’s Financial Times – is professor emeritus of international economics and finance at the University of Chicago.  Et tu, Chicago?

Aliber considers the US-China trade imbalance unsustainable and, because the Chinese government continues to prevent the value of its currency from rising sufficiently, proposes that the United States impose an across-the-board duty of 10 percent on all Chinese imports, which (after 6 months) would ratchet up 1 percentage point per month every month until the Chinese trade surplus with the United States declines to $5 billion per month. 

We’ve heard this tune before – but from politicians who are presumably far less adept at economics than a University of Chicago economics professor ought to be.  Yet, even Chuck Schumer ultimately acknowledged the banality of his (and Lindsey Graham’s) thrice-introduced legislation to impose a 27.5 percent tariff on Chinese imports as a proxy and incentive for renminbi appreciation.

If Aliber limited his argument to the assertions that the bilateral imbalance is unsustainable and that the Chinese government should allow the value of the renminbi to be determined by supply and demand, I’d have much less to quibble with.  I’d still be plenty skeptical that bilateral trade accounting tells us anything meaningful in this age of cross-border investment and transnational production and supply chains.  I’d still break from the implication that balanced trade should be an objective of policy or that it is more important than economic growth. And I’d still remain unconvinced that an increase in the value of the renminbi alone would have much of an impact on bilateral trade flows.  But I’d agree that a market-determined exchange rate would increase the likelihood that investment, consumption, and production decisions would better reflect underlying conditions in labor, financial, and goods markets, and in that regard would be a more useful guidepost for informed decisionmaking.

But Aliber’s proposal – and the numerous fallacies upon which it is predicated – goes well beyond that point, and appears to be the product of something like acute tunnel vision.  He is so fixated on the bilateral trade account that nothing else – including the impact of his proposal on the economy broadly – commands his attention. 

Aliber utters all of the classic fallacies about the insidious impact of China’s currency on U.S. manufacturing; the leverage and sway China allegedly holds over U.S. policymakers, as our banker of last resort; and, how China caused our trade deficit by purchasing U.S. securities.  I disagree with all of those assertions, vehemently, and have explained why in various places, but I want to focus presently on his proposal, which is one of the worst ideas in circulation.

Consider this passage, which Aliber apparently considers evidence of the cleverness of his plan (but really exposes its inanity):

Because many Chinese exports contain large amouts of embedded imports, the 10 per cent import tariff in effect is a tax of more than 30 per cent on Chinese value added. With electronics and other high-tech exports, where the import content may be 70 or 80 percent of their value, the  10 per cent tariff might be equivalent to a tax of 60 or 80 per cent on Chinese content.

Neat.  But isn’t the fact that Chinese exports contain so much import content enough to soundly reject Aliber’s plan in the first place?  Has he forgotten that we don’t import dangling Chinese value added?  What we import are products, some of which comprise 20 percent Chinese value added, some 80 percent, and according to the most recent research, an average of about 50 percent Chinese value added.  And what does that mean?

It means that on average 50 percent of the value of components, raw materials, and labor embedded in the typical cargo container from China unloaded in Long Beach, California is other countries’ value added.  It means that slapping a duty on imports from China is the same as restricting imports from countries indiscriminately (I know, non-discrimination is what the GATT/WTO rules are all about, but you get my point). It means restricting our own exports to China, which are embedded in the “high-tech” products that we import from China. (High tech is in quotes because the category consists mostly of computers and electronics, like cell phones and iPods, but protectionists like to exaggerate the security angle of our alleged trade follies by pointing to a bilateral deficit in “high tech,” even though Chinese value-added in those goods is well below average, and our imports of them support high-paying U.S. jobs). 

Having obviously not read my new paper, Aliber still sees global commerce as a competition between “Us” and “Them.”  He writes: “It should not take long for the Chinese to learn that they are much more dependent on access to the US market than Americans are dependent on Chinese goods,” and goes on to say that Americans can make those product here or buy them elsewhere.  Of course we could get them elsewhere, but the fact that we prefer to get them from China means that there would be costs associated with switching sources. 

Aliber is a fixed-pie-kinda-guy who fails to recognize the enormous wealth that has been generated by the elimination of political, trade, communications, and transportation barriers, and the highly stratified division of labor this barrier erosion unleashed.  He fails to recognize that Chinese labor and American labor are more often complementary than competing, and that the factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans oceans and borders. 

Imposing 10 percent duties on products invented and designed in the United States, consisting of components produced in Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and the United States,  consuming Australian minerals in the production process and Chinese labor in the assembly process is akin to taking a sledge hammer to a random station along a traditional production-assembly line.  It impedes the production process and raises the cost of bringing products to consumers, inflicting damage that is felt at all nodes in the design/production/assembly/supply chain, including those in the United States.

It means making it more difficult to support higher value-added U.S. manufacturing and service activities because with uncertain or compromised access to lower cost component production and assembly operations in China, it will be more difficult for ideas hatched in American labs to come to fruition in the form of the next gadget or convenience or life-saving device.

China’s position as the final point of assembly in so many different supply chains, as evidenced by the fact that 50 percent of the value of its exports to the United States consists of Chinese material, labor, and overhead, means that the impact of currency appreciation on the bilateral trade account is uncertain.  A stronger renminbi vis-a-vis the dollar means that Americans should pay more for imports from China, but a stronger renminbi also means that Chinese-based producers/assemblers will pay less for imported raw materials and components, lowering their cost of production/assembly.  That cost savings should enable Chinese exporters to lower their prices to American consumers, possibly compensating entirely for the higher renminbi-dollar exchange rate.

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to eschew Aliber’s proposal, not the least of which is the fact that it certainly would be found WTO-illegal and would invite discrimination against U.S. exporters.  Considering that increased U.S. exports – and not just reduced imports – can help reduce the bilateral deficit, it is curious that Aliber would propose a remedy that would likely curtail U.S. exports.  It would also raise costs throughout the supply chain directly, and by introducing enormous uncertainty into the trading system.

Now that he’s seen the light, maybe Chuck Schumer should give Aliber a call.